by Teddy Sokoloff
When Kendrick Lamar released To Pimp A Butterfly in March of 2015, I was infatuated by it. It’s infusion of jazz, neo-soul, and funk motifs complements a canonical hip-hop sound that Lamar started in with his album Section.80. What impressed me most about the album was how wildly different it was from the record that put Lamar on the map, 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. However, it wasn’t the release of the music video to Lamar’s “Alright” back in June that I thought the album was a true work of art. Though the music was advanced melodically and complex lyrically, the video, and the others he churned out in the following months, elevated the piece and stood out on its own.
“Alright” is a seven-minute video shot in black and white that begins with a montage of Oakland. The camera rushes through dark tunnels sprinkled with artificial lights. Screams in the background turn the mood hellish and disquiet the viewer. Director Collin Tilley cuts back and forth between scenes of destruction and police brutality and archetypes of the urban environment: high-rise apartments, shoes slung over telephone lines, graffiti murals on fences. The interplay of these two types of images emphasizes that the city and racial violence are heavily intertwined.
It is not until about two and a half minutes into the mini-feature that the song actually starts. The focus switches quickly away from Oakland to Lamar, praising him as a messianic figure fighting against racial injustice in America. Lamar, either flying through the air or situated on the top of a street pole, preaches to the city about his resilience in standing up for black Americans. Relatively hopeful, the video simultaneously highlights the blatant injustices within the urban environment but also underscores the fact that Lamar will not be deterred by this discrimination.
The video, to me, calls upon society to combat the racial injustices spread out across the country, and I was sold on Lamar. Though an upbeat song, the music video highlighted the struggle that many black Americans undergo daily; the video had a profound impact on me. My obsession with this pseudo-film led me to think in general about the significance of the music video and its development as a genre of its own over the past three or four decades. I had always associated music videos with the hit pop and hip hop songs that I watched on MTV as a nine-year-old kid, but when examined thoroughly, the medium includes a breadth of sophisticated works. From the early eighties to now, artists are doing innovative work to further develop the music video as a genre, and as an art form.
Music television programming began not in the US but in Australia and England. In the 1960s and 70s, the British show Top of the Pops and the Australian program Sounds both incorporated live music “promos” to showcase artists’ new songs via a video. In 1964, Top of the Pops ran their first show, which featured both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and broadcasted rock music to the greater public. It wasn’t until the 1981 arrival of Music Television (MTV) that the music video culture became prevalent in America. MTV debuted with The Buggles’ hit song “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Shot on video, the piece showcased the aesthetic and economic value of cheap filming equipment, making the medium more accessible to all artists. Further, the song is rather fitting for the station, making a bold statement that the next decade would belong to MTV and the genre of the music video.
By the mid 1980s, more experimental videos were released. The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” video was taken in one shot and takes place in one room, slowly zooming out one a single speaker. The scene ends with the appearance of a hand with a cigarette, while the speaker remains vibrating in the background. The avant-garde piece raised the artistic bar for the music video. Cinematographers began to shoot their videos on 35-millimeter film, rather than grainy video, which made the genre feel more cinematic. Some directors began adding plot lines to their work, turning the music video not into just a showcase of the artist but also a narrative outlining the true meaning of the song.
The rise of the director coincided with this spike in avant-garde videos. Feature film directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze actually started their careers in the music-video business. Fincher made his entrance in 1984 by directing the Rick Springfield’s “Dance This World Away,” depicting a duality of a post-apocalyptic world compared to a sterile and almost dream-like dancing hall. The stark contrast was very well done on Fincher’s part, and gives the viewer a sense of discomfort, similar to that in Lamar’s “Alright.” Jonze experimented as well, particularly in his work with Fatboy Slim on “Praise You,” where Slim performs in an impromptu interpretive dance in Westwood, CA. Both directors pushed the boundaries of the form of music video production that significantly changed the industry.
With the rise of the internet, MTV turned away from music videos and began to incorporate reality TV shows into their repertoire. However, that did not stop directors from churning out great work. In 2002, Coldplay released their music video for “The Scientist” which was shot in reverse. The video tracks the band’s lead singer as he travels backwards through London, evoking the song’s chorus, “Oh take me back to the start.” Even more recently, director Hiro Murai, pieced together Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me,” which depicts a funeral of two African American children. Despite the subject matter, the tone of the video is rather positive, with the kids springing up to dance. Energy reverberates through the two children’s bodies as they combine jazz-tap with hip-hop movements down the center aisle of the church, and Flying Lotus through this scene comments on the ambiguous nature of the after-life. Though morbid and even inconsiderate, the video demonstrates that artists are still trying to tackle deep and existential questions.
It would be a shame if I failed to mention Drake’s omnipresent “Hotline Bling” video. It can be perceived is a misogynist piece that objectifies women and only praises thick curves in tight clothing. Even on top of that video itself has no real plot; it is simply Drake rapping his song. However, the set design of the film is extremely appealing. Drake’s white background with color interspersed is clean yet mysterious, almost replicating a work of the famous artist James Turrell. Thus, “Hotline Bling” is one example of the music video evolving in terms of the visual, not conceptual.
The artistry of music videos will continue to develop for the years to come. With the advent of new technology and the emergence of even more musicians and filmmakers, it’s inevitable that this culture of creativity will cultivate amazing art. Videos will keep getting more provocative and will spur conversation within the musical community. An appreciation for the genre will rise with its prevalence in popular culture, and hopefully, that appreciation will grow rapidly and exponentially.