Monday, February 25, 2013

4 Kinds of Great Music Videos

When I was a boy, the concept of a music video was completely foreign to me. I was dimly aware they existed on MTV but such programming never made it into my house. Then one fateful day in a hotel room on vacation with my cousins, I was finally introduced to the wonders of Rob Thomas getting hit by a car during the video for Bent and Scott Stapp walking Meaningfully between falling meteorites with his arms wide open during the video for With Arms Wide Open.  Oh yeah.  The experience was magical.  It was not until much later when music videos became available for viewing on youtube that the magic began to fade and I began to discover one of the most colossal wastes of money imaginable in the entertainment industry.

What boggles me about music videos is that 90% of them are terrible. I don't mean to be too negative here, but this is a serious problem. You've seen plenty of music videos like this, right? The lead singer emotes at the camera. People around them dance. Don't forget to include a model who is almost acting and/or almost wearing clothes. Concoct some sort of story loosely connected with the song, edit it like a Jason Bourne movie and there you go. A gargantuan amount of money has been spent over the years on producing short form films that are not worth watching twice, if they're worth watching at all.

But every once in a while, a music video can be pure gold. When done well, a music video not only entertains but actually enhances the lyric and sound of a song. It can add new depth and insight. Or it can be innovative in its use of dance, physical performance, animation, or it could just blow your mind with cool-lookin' stuff. Here are four categories of music video that tend to leave the mind at least a little blown.

1. The One-Take Wonder

This approach to music-video-making is almost guaranteed to be a cut above the rest, mostly because an elaborately staged one-take film like this requires a great deal of fore-thought, planning, rehearsal and originality. OK Go has done quite a few of these but none so epic and Guinness-worthy as Needing/Getting. Check it out below along with Jack Johnson's reverse spin on this process. Also, if you're in the mood for more of these, check out a couple fun ones from Feist and Ingrid Michaelson.

2. The Dance Revolution

Music and dance are the fraternal twins of art. And the only thing better than getting your own groove on to your favorite jam is watching someone else do it way better than you (that's how I feel anyway). Michael Jackson's Thriller is the seminal example of a music video that entertains with innovative dance, but I also like the following examples from Janelle Monae and Fatboy Slim.

3. The Visual Masterpiece

Steering away from more mainstream pop and into the realm of indie and alternative, the appeal of music is often in unique sounds, timbres, textures, and instrumentation. One of my favorite approaches to music videos involves taking those unique sound ideas and combining them with creative, artful visuals, as in the Niki & the Dove example below. Another similar approach is to use innovative animation or film techniques to create something that presents you with a nonstop series of wows, like the wonderful video for Coldplay's Strawberry Swing.

4. The Plot Thickener

My personal favorite approach is when the video tells a story that expands upon the themes of the song. I've seen a lot of story videos that depict the lyric of the song literally and, to me, that's like painting a picture of an apple and writing the word Apple on it. It might not be bad, but it's not very moving. What's better is to strip the song down to its basic themes and expand on them. Take The Only Exception, by Paramore. Essentially the lyric of the song gives us the history of Hayley's love life, beginning with her parents' divorce, meandering through years of self-imposed loneliness and safety, then ending with the ability of one man (the only exception) to make the risk finally worth it. The video, rather than telling a linear story like that, uses a sitcom-style set to give us an abstract representation of Hayley's compartmentalized mind. I love the beautiful ending in which her man has benignly infiltrated every safe and lonely place in her head and we return to reality. Very well done.

I also love the Kimbra video below for its combination of unique dance style, symbolic storytelling, and interesting visuals (kids playing house rather convincingly with a mannequin man who's not really a mannequin. And who doesn't like to watch things light on fire, right?). Both the Kimbra and the Paramore examples also do a great job of accompanying the narrative structure and flow of the song. Great songs often have a big climactic hit as the bridge falls back into the final chorus and whether the set bursts into flames or a blinding light shines through the doorway or the Foo Fighters do this thing, it's a satisfying moment when the music video follows suit.

I want more of this stuff. I wish the music industry would invest a little more in making their music videos live up to the potential of the medium, rather than making shallow fluff. I guess that's also what I want from Hollywood, music itself, and the world in general so there you go. Hit me up in the comments below. Please share with me your favorite music videos and why you love them.

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