Amanda Steggell

11th November 2004
Norsk Kritikerlag Autumn Seminar
Westerdals School of Communication, Oslo

I was invited to take part in Norsk Kritikerlag's autumn seminar which dealt mainly with promotional music videos as a subject of study that combines aesthetic and commercial concerns. As panelists we were asked to answer two questions:

1. What are the influences of commercial culture (in the context of music videos and advertisements) on contemporary aesthetics?

2. Does commercial culture get the critical attention it deserves?

Here is a transcript of my contribution.


When Marit sent me an email inviting me to this panel, the first thing I did was to call her and ask, "why me". I am not an expert on music videos, neither have I ever produced anything of any significant commercial value. She asked me to talk through artist glasses. The second thing I did was to do a quick search for the roots of the music video in Wikipedia, the “copyleft” Encyclopedia of the WWW. Here is a quick historical rundown of things that grabbed my attention

1) 1911: At a time of rapid development in the arts and science, Alexander Scriabin, a self-acclaimed synaesthestes, writes Prometheus - Poem of Fire, for orchestra and light organ, an instrument that simultaneously produces music and light at the touch of a key. The synchronicity of sound and vision could justify the light organ as an early forerunner of the music video.

2) 1920's: The abstract animated films of Oskar Fischinger are described as "visual music" and synchronised to musical scores, but he is critisised by the high-arters for using light classical music. For Fischinger music is a "means" for creating dynamic, kinetic audiovisual works, and not the “end”. He also makes commercials to earn money.

3) 1938: The film Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein is released. The dramatic methods of mixing audio and visual and the extended battle scenes choreographed through numerous shots to a score by Sergei Prokoviev provide a prime connection to the music video of more modern times. However, the film was definitely not made to sell music or promote a band, but to warn the Soviet people of German aggression. By a trick of the tail Alexander Nevsky was released just before Stalin agreed to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact creating a Soviet-Nazi alliance, and was consequently suppressed until 1941. After the German attack on Russia, the "message" is desirable once again, and Stalin orders the film to be shown in every Soviet cinema. Whatever the content or intention may be, contextual framing affects perception and interpretation.

But what most endures about his work is his editing techniques, which he identifies as metric, rhythmic, tonal and overtonal, described as "Methods of Montage". Through his experiments in montage and its relationship to biomechanics, he finds that film cut metrically to the beat of a typical heart has a profound impact on us precisely because it mirrors our biorhythms.

4) 1940: The Panorama Soundie Jukebox hits the clubs and bars in USA - a new social context for the audio-visual spectacle. Put your money in the slot and you get music accompanied by one-song film clips. The visual imagery is mainly of the performing artists themselves, with the occasional flame-thrower or two thrown in to spice things up a bit.

5) 1962-5: The short but sweet golden age of the Scopitone. A cross between a jukebox and a 26-inch color TV, the Scopitone was the result of French technology developed for use during WWII, turned (by CAMECA) to civilian use, projecting 3-minute song films with a high hunk-chick ratio that is apparently spectacular enough to compensate for extremely bad lip syncing. Bikini babes lounge around pools, bunny girls hop around fake lawns and lingerie-clad beauties are voyeuristically glimpsed through keyholes.

6) 1975: The music video Bohemian Rhapsody, mediates the presence of Queen who are unable to perform on the British TV chart show, Top of the Pops. Though not Queen's first promotional video, it is the first to be shot entirely on videotape and contains much of the visual language of latter day promotional music videos.

7) 1977: Warner Amex Cable launches the first two-way interactive cable TV system, QUBE, in Columbus, Ohio, offering many specialized channels, including Sight On Sound, a music channel that features concert footage and music oriented TV programs. With the interactive QUBE service, viewers could vote for their favorite songs and artists. Audience participation is a good way of conducting market research.

8) 1981: Sight on Sound switches name to MTV. First launched in New York, the channel is modeled on the Top 40 radio show and referred to as "visual radio", replacing sound with the music video format, and unseen radio show hosts with visually appealing boy/girl-next-door hosts. The term VJ (which today generally refers to the live processing and manipulation of audio-visual signals) is coined.

MTV is available nationally by the mid 80’s, spreading quickly to Europe and eventually a worldwide audience. Music videos are a vehicle to promote hot, new acts and revive old rock stars. The first videos have small budgets, and almost any band that has a video, or has live footage gets airtime for "free". New wave, punk and heavy metal, ignored by many radio stations, get airtime on MTV, satisfying the hunger of the 80's teens, who shun the "Woodstock" and disco music of the 70's. Young visual artists and filmmakers with a talent for short-attention-span storytelling language of quick editing and flashy imagery are recruited. The power of the visual language is so effective that one short promotional device affords instant access to a near-global market. By 1983 every major record label maintains its own video department, and top video directors - those skilled at manipulating viewer emotion with rapid-fire imagery - are courted by Hollywood studios, who want to lure the MTV generation to the theatres.

Criticised for being racist due to the predominant whiteness of the featured artists, MTV embraces the threat and responds by selling it back to the public by heavily featuring videos from black artists such as Michael Jackson (who has ironically grown whiter and whiter over the years). He also clinches million-dollar deals to promote Pepsi. So does Live Aid and so does Madonna, in her own special way.

Through the lens of the video maker, artists can re-invent themselves - again, and again and again. The heavy rotation of music videos on the "right channels" has the power to transform unknown bands into million-selling bands. Million selling artists can get millions for advertising million-selling soft drinks.

This concludes my quick-and-dirty journey of link-chasing in Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia section on music videos fails to mention the influences of experimental video artists of the 60’s who "misused" technology to create something else by literally and figuratively cross wiring connections. For example, by feeding back TV signals into the machine sound and image were simultaneously generated. By using magnets to disturb signals, the audiovisual output could be modulated creating dynamic waveforms. Such avant garde work has greatly influenced the way video is treated through digital filters today but has received relatively little recognition. Hopefully, this omission will be rectified in the future. The past is editable in a current total of 85 languages in the Wiki world.

The evolution of the music video is connected to the development of technology in terms of aesthetics, production and distribution, just as it is to the ideas and techniques of innovative people with extraordinary talents – both past and present. Everything is interconnected. While technology may be considered as neutral, the context in which it is developed and used is not. Anything that can be digitised is also infinitely digitally editable, recyclable and distributable by anyone with access to the right tools.

By sampling and remixing media of the past and present, it is possible to challenge and talk back to the image of the world fed through the mixed medias, merged mediums and accumulative aesthetics that make up our environment today, while running the risk of being reframed and fed back into the very system which is being commented upon - as something else.

The current misbalance of power between the Davids and Goliaths of this world can cause legal problems relating to intellectual property and copyright issues. In the words of Grethe Melby*, today artists need to be lawyers too. Paraphrasing artist Vikki Bennet of the Canadian duo People Like Us, and her approach to the Avant garde – eventually, you either join the rest of the army, or get shot.

Strategies for counteracting the misbalance of power in commodified culture can be found in non-profit movements such as the Creative Commons. Their goal is to update increasingly restrictive, default rules to cope with the implications of digital and tele-communications technologies of today. They offer a flexible copyright for creative works, allowing people to share and distribute their work with the works of others, while giving credit where it is due.

If, in the question of this debate, "commercial culture" refers to promotional music videos, I would say that they are worthy of serious critique, but only when put in another context, such as curated programs in film festivals, exhibitions and special collections, or as part of a trend study. There are some exceptions, but looking at the myriads of formula-based, stereotyped music videos today aimed mainly at teenyboppers with cash to spare, it is debatable as to whether music videos will continue to have the sales potential they had in the past. I think they will get the attention they deserve.

* Grethe Melby is a graduate student in the Department of Media Studies, University of Bergen, Norway, writing her thesis on metaphors used to describe new technology and their relation to political decisions.


Norsk Kritikerlag


People Like Us

Creative Commons