Music videos become stars again

Hotline Bling, by Drake (above), is a nominee at this year’s Video of the Year category at the MTV’s Video Music Awards.
Hotline Bling, by Drake (above), is a nominee at this year’s Video of the Year category at the MTV’s Video Music Awards.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST BY APRIL GREER

NEW YORK • For the first time in several years, there is something exciting about the nominees for MTV's Video Music Awards, particularly in the Video of the Year category.

Of the five nominated for the show's Moonman awards on Sunday night, when the event will be broadcast live from Madison Square Garden for the first time, four are state-of-the-art in content, concept or delivery: Beyonce's Formation, Drake's Hotline Bling, Justin Bieber's Sorry and Kanye West's Famous. (The fifth, Adele's Hello, is elegant and stars Adele, but that's about it.)

For the first time in recent memory, the awards have the opportunity to be more than an outlandish pop star playground and to serve as a reminder of how essential music video can be as a stand-alone art form.

This is the ideal year for such a reframing: Video has been an essential part of several important artists' releases, not just as a secondary element, but also as part of the primary project.

Beyonce's Lemonade album, which added political and psychological depth to her songs of mistrust and hurt, came into the world first as a short film that had its premiere on HBO.

The Formation video preceded Lemonade, setting the table for its messages of black empowerment with rich Southern gothic imagery and provocative messages about police violence against black bodies, which made Beyonce a culture-war flashpoint in a way she had never been.

For West, the Famous video was a bold extension of his public narrative. The controversial work, in which he and his wife, Kim Kardashian, lie naked in a large bed, surrounded by nude look-alikes of their friends and foes was a reinterpretation of a painting by artist Vincent Desiderio. It is also a mood piece about innocence, a provocative and unlikely rejoinder to the song's tabloid DNA.

Beyonce and West's uses of music video are aesthetic and conceptual, and their projects served as vehicles for extending their public images.

What Drake and Bieber have done is perhaps the opposite: letting go of the wheel and using the music video as a focal point for mass reinterpretation.

Drake's Hotline Bling, with its soft pastels and spacious backdrops, is a virtual meme generator. It understands the video art form as a starting point, not a conclusion, and has served as raw material for endless gifs, memes and cover versions.

Bieber's Sorry acknowledges crowdsourcing in a different way: It is a dance video, featuring a host of young female performers, and recalls how, on Vine, Instagram or Snapchat, young people everywhere make themselves the stars of their own dance videos. Bieber isn't even present.

Each of these videos, in its own way, shows an artist deploying the form as a novel means of garnering attention in an increasingly scattered marketplace, using either provocation or participation. This suggests a new era of maturity for music video, one in which the biggest stars are also among the biggest innovators.

That is reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s, the golden era of MTV, when having an awards show to celebrate the artistry of music videos made the most sense.

But as MTV began to retreat from playing videos in the early 2000s, major-label budgets set aside for music videos shrank. Gone were the multi-million-dollar Michael Jackson and Madonna event videos. This coincided with the end of the peak CD era - the Internet was beginning to chip away at all that.

By the mid- to late-2000s, the Internet - and YouTube specifically - became the natural home for music videos.

But then an interesting thing happened.

Music video rescaled as an art form and innovations began happening at the smaller end, with independent artists, in an attempt to stand out, pushing the form more aggressively than their bigger- pocketed peers. Thanks to the relative affordability of high-quality cameras and software for post- production, developments began to come ever more quickly.

Eventually, the major record labels took an interest in the Internet as a distribution channel. Some new artists rose to the occasion, such as Lady Gaga, whose high- concept Bad Romance and Telephone videos were premier events.

The music video is less and less an afterthought. Artists such as Beyonce and Frank Ocean use video as an integral part of the rollout of their music in the form of a "visual album".

This full-circle re-embracing of video is now the new normal and might make for VMA ceremonies - this year's and beyond - in which the videos are once again the stars, not the sideshow.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2016, with the headline 'Music videos become stars again'. Subscribe