Mediocrity Killed The Video Star

There is an oft-wielded statistic that cites YouTube as the world’s leading website for music consumption – not Spotify or SoundCloud or LastFM or any of those sonically-tailored contenders, but a video platform seemingly designed to make tiny celebrities of slow lorises holding cocktail umbrellas.

And no, I don’t think it is absurd, or even ironic. It makes perfect sense. Some people may disagree but I believe music is always an accompaniment to the non-aural. The idea of music as a standalone commodity – a solitary song spinning a story to itself – is only as old as the recording industry (younger than my grandfather). One may strive to interact with sound as directly as possible, through noise-reducing headphones in darkened rooms, but one is never truly alone with music, there is an unavoidable and ever-circling entourage of dependent thoughts, borrowed interpretations, social pressures, production histories and general context. Indeed, context is essential to music, as I suppose it is, on some level, to all art.

And that is why I love music videos. All sorts of music videos. I like the ones with huge production values and needless pyrotechnics, I like the low budget ones, I like the high-concept ones, the one-take wonders, the subtle ones, the silly ones. I probably shouldn’t though. After all, they are the vulgar corporeal, the too too solid flesh. To say that videos improve music is to say science improves magic, really it can only cheapen the illusion. But somehow it works for me, maybe because my background is in theatre and an interest in unashamed artifice, I will give my attention to all shapes and flavours of music video. The only sort I deem worthless are the unimaginative.

For how many times have you seen a band standing in an expensively lit white room facing into the camera and miming for four minutes? Why does this happen? Who is this stuff for?

I understand how these yawn-fests became the norm. The early days of popular music coincided with the early days of television and the prototype modern teenager. Those three things combined to create static performances on awkward plinths recorded through gigantic and barely movable camera equipment in front of studio audiences doing their best to swoon from a seated position.

Ed Sullivan did the best with what was available to him and it resulted in some timeless performances. But why limit yourself to that format now when the camera on many mobile phones is capable of better quality footage than Citizen Kane?

One of my first music-related articles I wrote was about bad band photography and I suspect bad music videos are reaped from the same diseased crop. It strikes me that far too many bands are spending more time trying to look like a success than putting their energy into becoming one, as if they can trick us into following their “hotly tipped” careers rather than making music that will entice us on its own merits.

Three decades after MTV first aired (with the wonderfully apt though artistically abject “Video Killed The Radio Star”) the default rock band music video still seems to be “dubiously attractive twenty-somethings playing guitars miserably and/or angrily.”

I just don’t understand.

Whenever I write a song there is a bunch of accompanying images in my head. None of which involve dubiously attractive twenty-somethings. Granted not all songs have an obvious narrative but they must contain some sort of emotional content, a nod towards something relatively universal in the human condition – if they didn’t no one would be interested, simple as that. Writing a song when your head is full of visions of yourself snarling into a retro microphone is like writing a novel while thinking solely of the printing process – that’s the delivery, not the content.

It’s not the mediocrity that depresses me. Mediocrity haunts everything (it is how one steels oneself against it that is important). I don’t care about established pop and rock acts churning out these little films, it’s the emerging acts aping them that are the real worry. We should no longer be seeing bands inexplicably playing electric guitars on beaches or in quarries, their power cables and silent amplifiers nestling among the pebbles. For again I say: Who Is This For? Next time one of these videos from some new Oasis-wannabe pops up on your facebook feed have a look at the comments and you’ll generally see one that says “looks really professional mate.” And that’s it, looks professional. But when are we all going to stop pretending? That video is not for the band’s audience, it is for some mythical version of the recording industry.

A music video can be many things: a piece of art in its own right, an entertaining accompaniment to the song and an effective marketing tool. It is also, however, a window on the featured artist (and an often uncompromising one at that). If all a band has on display is its naked ambition, as meager as it is anachronistic, then I’ll opt for the slow loris every time.

FIRST PUBLISHED MARCH 2012

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