August 10, 2010

When music videos were narrative

I don't know where I stand on this whole "death of the word / rise of the image" debate, but after watching a bunch of old music videos, I was reminded by how important they found it to make the video tell some kind of story. Maybe it wouldn't treat the grand themes of the human condition, and maybe it wouldn't even make use of common folklore motifs (like "hero slays monster" or "stroke of luck enriches a thief"). Still, there was some narrative, however crude, that the song was meant to accompany.

Certainly not all videos used to be like that, but it was much more common than the approach of following the band around in some setting, with no action in particular required. Now people are not interested in music videos that tell a story -- neither the band, nor the director, nor the audience. "Uh, I think that'd be taking it a little too seriously," they'd protest in ironic detachment. Meanwhile, look at how overly visually ambitious a lot of the more recent videos are. It's fine to invest a lot of thought, time, and sweat into the video's images, just not the story that they might tell.

So perhaps there's something to this "death of the narrative" business after all. Just think -- even a medium that's primarily visual (supposedly) like music videos relied heavily on storytelling, much like a movie or TV show. When MTV launched, people were afraid that the videos would become total visual spectacles and crowd out the music. That didn't happen during MTV's hey-day, when they were more like brief stories set to music.

When did the shift occur? Like with so much else, it looks as though the wake of the larger early '90s social transition marked the end of narrative music videos. Here's a brief overview using representative videos from several periods. The spectacles "Here It Goes Again" from 2006 by OK Go and "Mo Money Mo Problems" from 1997 by the Notorious B.I.G. show where we've been for awhile. Rap videos used to avoid bling and blammo and focus on stories, even as late as 1993 with Dr. Dre's and Ice Cube's videos. Guns N' Roses was probably the last big rock band to make narrative videos, but Aerosmith kept them alive somewhat in the mid-'90s. Here's their earlier and better video for 1989's "Janie's Got a Gun." New Edition's 1986 video for their cover of "Earth Angel" features a classic folklore motif -- the kind girls who are rewarded and the mean girls who are punished when a lowly man reveals himself to have been high-status all along.

Actually, early MTV stuff sometimes just showed the band in some setting, before directors figured out what to do with the new medium. So Madonna had the spectacle-only video for "Lucky Star" but also a more narrative-based one for "Borderline," both from 1984. Duran Duran made a here's-the-band video for "Planet Earth" in 1981 (the year MTV was born), as well as a more story-filled one for "Hungry Like the Wolf" in 1982.

I'm not sure if this is a rising-crime vs. falling-crime difference, though I wouldn't be surprised. It's not "word vs. image" but "narrative vs. mere spectacle," of course. There were dazzling visuals in Aliens and The Terminator, but they were there to enhance the gripping narrative; people complain that more recent action and horror movies are only visual. Same with porn: earlier, the images were there to lay flesh on the bare bones of the narrative, whereas now it is story-free spectacle.

We'd have to go back farther in history to see if rises in the violence rate saw greater interest in compelling narratives. That's my impression anyways. The Elizbethan / Jacobean people and the Romantics had more fascinating stories than the Augustans or the Victorians, who seem more interested than the former groups in showing off their literary special effects. The Romantic era of course saw a surge in running around to collect folktales like the Brothers Grimm did. And the super-violent 14th C. gave us The Divine Comedy, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales, which wasn't matched even closely by look-how-clever-we-are Renaissance humanist writers of the 15th and most of the 16th centuries (that is, before the violence rate blew up again around 1580).

What's the connection? People working at the interface between evolutionary psychology and literary studies suggest that narratives help us navigate the world by letting us run a bunch of social experiments, of a sort, and gaining wisdom from their outcomes. This knowledge is worth more when the world looks a lot more dangerous, so the audience will demand more of it, and the culture-makers will boost their supply in response.


  1. ppl still make things called music videos?

  2. I miss the stories. Even when they were cheezy.

  3. I wonder how much of a role music videos had in getting girls to think that sleeping around wouldn't affect their status with guys?

    I remember Samantha Fox's "I Wanna Have Some Fun". Samantha Fox was a real-life porn star, what happened to also be in the music business. Everybody knew that she'd supposedly slept with dozens of men, yet MTV presented her to you as hot. Madonna fufilled a similar role. Ten years earlier, I'd imagine a young teen/early twenties girl could not pull off desireability if their male audience knew they had slept with
    >40 people. Since men gave lip service to these gal's desirability, I wonder how much of an effect it had on young women's estimation of the club-life and "be single till youre 30" ethos?

    Maybe there was little impact from it.

    I enjoyed watching the musicians actually play their instruments in videos and decisively "make music", with a architecture of a video taking place in between . It was sort of a sampling of both the live-performace and mini-movie approaches.


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