As visual mediums become the most pervasive forms of expression, the music video has risen in recent years to the level of an artform. Stepping into its post-MTV age, the genre of the music video embraces new channels of digital distribution and anticipates the current cultural need for visual renditions of the audible. The music video has come to being treated with cinematic rigour and as a powerful tool for storytelling, all influenced by the migration of the genre from television to the internet. Despite a general underappreciation of the genre by critics of visual culture, many videos have an auteurist aesthetic and use narrative and cinematography to expand the cultural impact of the song itself.
Still from The Carters Apesh*t music video, 2018.
With viewers showing to be more and more discerning, the classic “MTV aesthetic” has been replaced by more nuanced content, of long-lasting impact due to a focus on artistic and emotional elements. Many professionals of the genre have compared a director´s work on a music video with that of a documentary filmmaker, applying a complex lens on the story and the artist. This creative tendency changes the way stardom is represented and enacted through multi-layered visual narratives. Similarly, the capacity of the genre to encompass political issues and messages of social activism is becoming apparent.
Is the music video an adequate conduit for activist work? Is it a gain for activist causes that artists employ them in their videos, or rather a gain for the artist´s persona to be known to support certain causes? The style of music videos – attention grabbing imagery, boundary-pushing narrative techniques, fast editing and dramatic cuts – convey the message with intensity, doubled by the shareable channels of distribution. A clip can become an overnight sensation and earn millions of viewers, which is what makes videos with an activist message a powerful tool.
In the traditionally non-spoken narrative of videos (with the rare exceptions where directors opt for subtitles), one challenge is to convey dramatic elements of the story in a manner that does not take away from the song. Some directors, however, turn this into an advantage, by allowing the imagery to occupy as much of the conceptual space of the production as possible. M.I.A.´s 2016 video for “Borders” referred directly to the experience of refugees and engaged fully with symbols of separation and exclusion – fences and barbed wire – in the midst of an acute humanitarian crisis, emphasising that the urgency of it traverses genres of pop culture. Beyonce´s most acclaimed album to date, “Lemonade” pushed the limits of the genre and moved from the catchy, short, and spreadable form of a video to a more complex narrative construction, referencing essential visual moments in popular culture. Visual lyrical tropes are seamed with political themes, such as gender, race, and feminism. Although not directly a work that claims activist roots, this “visual album” offers an example of how the medium can be explored and expanded, to take a more definitive position in the cultural context of a society.
More recently, Donald Glover´s project Childish Gambino launched “This is America,” a video whose visual story unfolds far more complicated themes than the accompanying song. The video does not shy away from pointing out deep problems of America today, ending up as a panoply of tragic and sadly recognisable events, navigated by the artist whose presence universalises these experiences. Themes such as racism, slavery, violence, mass incarceration, consumerism and social apathy turn the video into a relevant product packed with covert calls for acknowledgement and reaction.
In a world where being “woke” is necessary to one´s protection from fake truths, abusive politics, and aggressive discourse, the entertainment industry steps, to some degree, to the call. Having already heavily influenced contemporary visual culture, the music video joins in with more established mediums for advocacy and activism, in a process of self-reflection and redefining.
Words: Elena Stanciu