Viewfinder Magazine

Power to the People: British Music Videos 1966-2016
by Mark Goodhall

Music business mogul Jeff Ayeroff once commented: ‘there is no doubt in my mind that many music videos play to the most base elements of our culture. But there are also many videos that show the best elements, and those can only be described as high art’ . This statement makes clear the somewhat awkward status of the music video, something that the Power to the People project hopes to rectify.

For example, is the music video a promotional tool? Its primary purpose, after all, is to market a single song by a musical artist in the hope that the general public will buy more records. Is it a short-form film? The limited duration (pre-2000 at any rate) of the single music track places certain limitations on the structure of the music video; it has to be short and snappy (such limitations have also of course been creatively inspiring). Can the music video be described as art? Given that many of these works are hampered by the need to ‘sell’, must be aligned with an individual singer/group’s ego and are often subject to record company and managerial interference, can true creative expression ever be found?

The answer is of course that music video is all of the above, and more. At its best, the music video is a totally unique form of creative expression, a clever synthesis of film, advertisement and soundscape. Historically, the music video grew out of the music film (both the contrived Elvis Presley-type theatrical vehicles and films incorporating popular music into their cosmos - Blackboard Jungle for example); the promotional film (The Beatles’ slightly awkward Paperback Writer short, for example) and even, as Will Fowler has argued, certain aspects of the underground film scene.

 

The Power to the People project is admirable in scope, overwhelming even. Presenting British music videos from the past half-century, the works in this box set are certainly varied. The project covers early British beat groups (The Who, Manfred Mann but no aforementioned Beatles, presumably for the dreaded ‘contractual reasons’) through post-punk, rock and dance music, offering a representation of the genre that is distinct and what we might call the ‘music video epoch’. By focussing only on British music videos, attention can be paid to the specific cultural dimensions of the music video, separate from both mainstream US domination of the genre and the US film industry, where many music video creatives end up.

Bad music videos simply show the artist ‘doing their thing’ or fail when the commissioner/director resorts to a gimmick or special effect that becomes tiresome long before the final chorus (or loop) has played out. But there is evidence here of how high the music video can soar. The works by Jonathan Glazer, WIZ, Sophie Muller and Bison are proof that a great music video can transcend both pre-existing styles of filmmaking and the purely sonic realm. This is because images, when set to a soundtrack, create something entirely visionary and this project proves that a great video can elevate an average song to something singular (Ultravox’s fabulously OTT Vienna for example).

The surrealism of the music video is represented by Tim Pope’s work with The Cure and Chris Cunningham’s mind-warping work with Aphex Twin. The energy only sags during the extended dance music section where the acts seem to too often resort, in Danny Kaye’s words, to ‘doing choreography’. This is understandable given that dance music exists to make people move, but I’m not convinced that transposing the physical form of dance onto a film always works. Similarly, music videos based around the rock star lifestyle, be that the self-indulgence of Robbie Williams or the drug clichés of techno subculture, can be dull. Only when these are deconstructed (The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up), is a satisfying experience achieved.

 

It is the ‘concept’ video that best seems to achieve the potential of combining sound and visuals over a short duration, the spot where music video really earns its stripes. It is a place where the music video can render the dreams and desires of the music fan, manifesting what they might imagine when they listen to a favourite music track. It’s akin (but very different) to what the great works of cinema can achieve when they transcend their form. As surrealist writer Antonin Artaud noted: ‘Cinema seems to me to be made, above all else, to express things of the mind, the inner life of consciousness’ and at its best the music video is also able to ‘push and pull the viewer in unexpected directions’ . As one of the project directors Emily Caston has pointed out, music video in turn has gone on to influence theatrical cinema, proof positive that this particular art form has at last arrived.


About the Author:

Mark Goodhallis a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Bradford (UK). He has published books on the Beatles (‘The Beatles or ’The White Album’, 2018), music and the occult (Gathering of the Tribe: Music and Heavy Conscious Creation, 2013) and shock cinema of the 1960s (Sweet and Savage: the World, Through the Mondo Film Lens, 2006; 2nd edition 2018). He has recently co-edited the collection New Media Archaeology (University of Amsterdam Press, 2018) and edited a special edition of the journal Film International (July 2019). He has written for The Guardian, The Independent, The New European and Shindig! Magazine and plays and sings with the group Rudolf Rocker.