Music videos hold a dubious position in the world of art and film. An inextricable relationship with pop culture and their original intended purpose as commercials align them with low art. Awards and artistic recognition are doled out at specialized music video award shows rather than at the Oscars, and are marketed as a much less dignified affair. A quick glance at the medium’s admittedly silly history of mainstream content shows that, if anything, music videos are embraced for overtly sincere campiness – and with gems like this, it’s not a completely unwarranted embracement.
What must be taken into account is that the music video medium is still in its infancy. Music has always played an important role in cinema, but the way in which cinema plays an important role in music is just beginning to develop and emerge. Changes in the way fans and spectators access music videos in recent years has lead to a current period of experimentation and the blurring of lines between musician and visionary artist. Whereas once music videos served primarily as promotional material for the album and tour, now there are promotions for the video itself. Taylor Swift releases teasers for the endless amount of A-list characters within her “Bad Blood” video, Drake releases an avante-garde short film that allows him to expound on the themes of his upcoming album in a non-musical format. With all forms of visual art, growth and experimentation both in artistic expression and exhibition serve to expand definitions and audience perceptions, and the rise of platforms like Youtube and Vimeo introduced possibly the most important factor in this growth: online advertising.
Youtube partners like VEVO have capitalized on the emerging integral role of the visual in a musician’s career. Seeing the dollar-sign potential in the shift from television broadcasting to revenue based on the amount of hits a video gets, major labels combined forces to release artists’ videos under one banner, effectively becoming the first and only viewing source. If a fan wants to watch the hyped-up new Adele music video, they have no choice but to watch a 15 second ad and pay someone’s salary. Videos that are made for thousands of dollars are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising money. So while it sounds quite cynical, companies such as VEVO capitalize and monetize off of a new extension for creative and artistic exploration by turning it into an event. Video releases become almost as hyped as track releases. Views on Youtube are hitting the one billion mark faster than ever before. So while capitalism and industry exploitation rears its ugly head as it does in all things, all of this can be good for the artist, and even better for the growing prevalence of an ambitious video style that draws the medium closer to the cinematic. Crafting a buzzed-about event out of a music video means a longer length, higher quality, and thoughtful deliberation.
More artists are taking this opportunity to forego the classic singing-to-the-camera formula and are instead opting to make lengthier and prettier-looking short films out of their singles. Music videos have always told stories - with plots oftentimes coinciding with the lyrics to form an untraditional narrative. With an increased budget and expectation for either spectacle or substance worth talking about, however, videos are looking better, saying more, and reaching a broader audience faster and in a more accessible manner than any film or show is capable of. Still, the medium doesn’t receive the critical acclaim, analysis, and consideration from the film writing community it both deserves and is beginning to demand - the synchronous relationship with pop culture most likely lying at the root of the problem.
Presenting a case for the music video format to be taken more seriously as an avenue for short filmmaking falls short without supporting examples, and 2015 was an absolutely brilliant year for material proving this point. Without further ado and for your consideration: some of the best filmmaking of the year, and – were they considered in prestigious awards ceremonies – what stands out the most about them.
GRIMES – FLESH WITHOUT BLOOD/LIFE IN THE VIVID DREAM
As discussed, music videos can function as an extension of an album, a platform to expand upon an artistic vision. This works best when the artist has full creative control, and Grimes’ self-directed/edited/written video for “Flesh Without Blood” is an excellent example. Grimes combines two songs on her album to form a visual narrative split into two acts, and also served as the artistic director, allowing her to properly convey her vision for the song.
Winner – Best Costume Design/Best Production Design
RIHANNA – BITCH BETTER HAVE MY MONEY
While the song may be silly in spirit, the video transforms an aggressive but fun anthem into a highly stylized, violent revenge fantasy. In the same vein as Grimes, Rihanna co-directed the short film featuring the only instance of Hannibal getting what he deserves that you’ll get for the near future. The off-kilter, bathed in neon film is one of the best looking shorts of last year, music video or otherwise.
Winner – Best Cinematography/Best Actress
(Best Supporting Actor – Mads Mikkelsen)
JOANNA NEWSOM – DIVERS
Divers is guilty of the conventional singing-to-the-camera trope that I previously mentioned music videos were deviating away from, but it’s scale and artwork-inspired style is breathtaking, framing Newsom as an almost awe-inspiring fearsome mountain witch. The video was also directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice, There Will Be Blood), proving that even large-scale auteurs are drawn to the experimental positives of the medium.
Winner – Best Visual Effects
KENDRICK LAMAR – ALRIGHT
There isn’t much to say about “Alright” that hasn’t already been said by critics much more informed than myself. The video has received an immense amount of acclaim for its exquisite expressionist direction and style. Lamar utilizes the video medium by beginning and ending the song with a monologue to expand and further explore his themes.
Winner – Best Director
RUN THE JEWELS – CLOSE YOUR EYES (AND COUNT TO FUCK)
“Close Your Eyes” is a video with so much to say reaching an immense amount of people, which is the beauty and importance of music videos. Director AG Rojas’ uses the shakiness of his camera to rhyme perfectly with the fast-pace physical struggle of the two characters, and seems to at times almost mirror their exhaustion. The video was criminally ignored at the MTV awards, and deserves much more recognition and accolades than it received last year.
Winner – Best Picture