|Extended essay title:
Are Music videos a tool of liberation or a technique for domination?
By Daniel Roy - ee_roy@Hotmail.com
Glasgow School of Art
Visual Communications: Graphic Design BA (Hons) 4th year
Contact Tutor: Malcom Thwaite - M.Thwaite@gsa.ac.uk
Since the 1980's music videos have added a new dimension to our experience of popular music. They have become mass entertainment all over the world and have long been regarded by many as a medium for art. Although more frequently constructed as merely a commercial mode to sell records, the music video is a rich and seductive art form .
However does the music video really represent a "new way" of seeing, and if so what benefits can society expect from them? Our ability to perceive a different mode of perception and re-interpret the external world could result in the decoding the patterns of an increasingly chaotic world. Its value to society however can only be determined by the extent to which
commerce takes over for its own ends or serves to offer an open space for active spectating and a re-appropriation of the music video as an artifact of an audio-visual language.
Today's music videos conventionally target the most basic elements in our culture playing up to the inherent weaknesses in human nature. Using narcissism, hedonism, sex and violence as the content of de facto commercials, these 'promotional vehicles' designed to sell CDs work all too well.
More and more, you get the sense that the youth culture and the youth market for the most part are indistinguishable. Today the young tend to be presented always and everywhere with what is, in a way, the most seductive thing there is namely a mirror. There is a mirror held up to them all the time. It is a mirror constructed by advertising and TV, but it is the mirror
that tells you that YOU are all there is to be, or you could be, if YOU buy what we have to sell. This is going deliberately and systematically for the lowest common denominator, and the logic there is purely commercial.
The fact is that the development of music videos has brought us into a world in which the ad is not something you have to suffer through. The ad is not the price you have to pay in order to get to watch the show. The ad IS the show. The ad IS the point. It has nothing to do with quality or with introducing the joys of seeing things in different ways as others may do. It
is the camouflaging of economic power, which gives the buyer the illusion that economic power is in their hands.
Subcultures like the electronic music scene are a way for young adults to show their distaste of the rising consumer orientated culture which has become purely concerned with labels of authenticity, which to them have no authenticity. Their anti-celebrity posture means that many young people are unable to view a music video if they dislike the artist or the music. Which brings up the potential irrelevance of a celebrity driven convention such as the music video. They would rather see directors as post modern advocates who make it possible to subvert the mass media by referencing culture and sampling its ideas and images through the technique of post modern pastiche. The democratic distribution of ideas in our culture allows passive viewers to comprehend and learn audio-visual language by building up a collective memory of its vocabulary of sounds and imagery.
The reasons that once existed to combine music and visual media to form the medium that is music video are now being diluted and disregarded by commercialism. There is no desire or ingenuity from within music television or the music industry to encourage and offer any incentive for directors and artists to challenge the conventions of performance clips. By restricting
the musical spectrum to showcasing only top 40 chart music, MTV has assured that the music industry is the driving force of music video production. It does not make commercial sense any more to spend thousands of dollars on a music video, promoting lesser known musical artists to television audiences. The reason being is simply no guarantee that even a superb video will get any airtime until it's single breaks into the chart, the video is always an afterthought never considered until deemed necessary. Without the constant influx of new directors and new blood to the scene which allowed it
to evolve constantly for the last 20 years, the music video has gleefully been accused of hypocrisy by its critics; becoming safe, stale and formulaic trash.
The perceived wisdom is that we enjoy more choices within media than any generation before us. In reality this is not the case. There is a seeming multiplicity, and great ostensible diversity out there; but under the surface of that apparent vast range of choices, there is not that much in the way of true difference or true diversity at all. Choice comes from media, including newspapers, magazines, movies, TV shows and radio which incredibly are owned by only 5 gigantic transatlantic corporations who have the same calculated commercial imperative at work, to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. The overwhelming presence of commercial TV has tended to condition the viewer to expect from the medium the lowest common denominator.
The communications medium as it claims to be, is rather a one way channel, broadcasting programs that admit no innovations. The choices we think we are making are just within the defined space of a long line of clever new formulas designed to divide the mass into more efficient units of predictable consumer behavior. They govern our own senses and what information we receive. There is very little imperative to create new perspectives and diversity of entertainment and of art because they only exist within a specific framework and need only fulfill one objective. The television and recording industries' commercial and political agendas rely on their ability to control the public perception of contemporary youth
culture totally, while seriously restricting any real influence on social reform stemming from youth culture.
With so many invisible forces at work trying to manipulate us, one might be forgiven for thinking that in this image culture, resistance is futile, making absorption and commodification unavoidable. In the book "A Brave New World," Aldous Huxley sees the art of the future as a multi sensory one. His utopian world experienced art which could be conveyed by touch taste and smell combined with audible and visual stimulus. This is a society in which every need is seen to by art, science and technology. These sensory units however were used, not to expand the citizens perception of reality, but rather, to take away from them the necessity to think or question who they are or what they could be. TV stems the feedback and personal response of the viewer limiting their capacity to respond to and therefore further develop and expand audio visual language. All of which creates numerous potential problems for the survival of the music video, because when another formula is devised that is more effective than the music video, and human ingenuity suggests this will be the case, they will be left redundant as an obsolete medium.
Marshall McLuhan. however showed us that "obsolescence" is a far more complex process than we ever imagined. McLuhan was responsible for showing us that media such as the music video exist in a kind of larger media ecology, similar to that of plants or animals. When new media emerges, digital technologies and the internet at the forefront of commercial and technological development, previous media do become 'obsolete'. What it also means is that new technology turns its predecessor into an art form, because the previous medium becomes the 'content' of the new medium. Drama becomes
the 'content' of film, film becomes the 'content' of television, musical performance, or 'musicking', becomes the 'content' of electronic sampling and sampling as the content of the internet etc... We may not be fully aware of the profound changes occurring with these technological shifts, but the pace of change means that "technologies are beginning to perform the
function of art in making us aware of the psychic and social consequences of technology. McLuhan himself was never one to underestimate the difficultiesof understanding these shifts. To make sense of new media developments, he developed a tetrad of the "laws" of media. They argue that there are four verifiable statements that can be "scientifically" applied to every medium.
They pose these as questions:
* What does it enhance or intensify?
* What does it render obsolete or displace?
* What does it retrieve that was previously obsolesced?
* What does it produce or become when pressed to an extreme?
WHAT IS ENHANCED?
The technological mediation of music and light, the accessibility of "digital tools," the spatial reach of sound and video technologies, the multi sensuous experience. A reliable and effective language to deconstruct the world around us, which
many of us lost long a go .
WHAT IS OBSOLESCED?
Musicians, directors, animators, mass audiences, ears, musical skill, and instruments: everything that was once called "music." Also, the physical boundaries of the home and the studio, television and even the CD.
WHAT IS RETRIEVED?
Creative collaboration for musicians and artists. The live performance. Complex subcultures and in some cases, music and visual dialogue in real time.
AND WHAT DOES IT PRODUCE IN EXTREME FORMS?
We do not know the answer to that yet; anything we might say is pure speculation. Perhaps a soundtrack for every lived moment? Everybody possessing a visual record collection? Media theft from afar? Copyright wars between friends or across centuries? The end of record companies? For now we will have to focus on the other questions.
The reality is that in the contemporary arts the octopus of 'technology', techno-lust and techno-fear are meeting and fighting and dancing in new ways. People are learning about this tidal wave of electronic media by diving headlong into it and working with the devices each in their own way. They are trying to find what really works, to get people away from the
one-way media of TV and magazines and to build new independent, interdependent and mutually sustainable ecologies of diverse art and music and life. The digital revolution and the convergence of technology has put into question not only just the old divisions between media but the survival of art as a separate sphere.
In spite of the music industry's questionable commercial strategies, the music television revolution has left one important legacy to today's generation. Music has become unified with the moving imagery in a way that cannot help but influence how we experience music but also how we remember it, The synthesizing of music and vision has thus been imprinted into the
psyche of a whole generation (often referred to as the 'MTV generation') which has grown up in a lifestyle culture full of stark imagery, visual metaphors and graphic puns. These tightly edited visual dramas signify the sophistication of the designer to create them and of the consumer to interpret them. They are more visually literate than any generation before, leaving them more adept in processing the sheer volume of information presented to them.
Which leaves us asking the question, is MTV the newest and highest form of 'commercial art' as proclaimed by some, the doppelganger of Huxley's 'Brave New World'? Is this portrayal of mass multi sensory perception the inevitable outcome of manipulation by media machines like MTV and its parent company Viacom, who can not only sell products to consumers but also ideas, lifestyles and philosophies? Are they just beginning to feed into the subconscious / conscious of people or are we starting to free and fuel the cognitive conscious in ourselves? Much of this depends on how 'technological media's' continue to unify music with light in the future and how far the media of music video can be freed from its commercial sponsors while still surviving and evolving. Grasping this will perhaps will allow us to determine in what direction music videos are appropriated and what function and purpose they can serve.
The music video form itself is older than many of the MTV generation realize. It is not something that MTV consciously invented, it is simply a form of media which commerce has gradually appropriated and refined for its own purposes. It is such a prevalent force that we may neglect to see that pre-MTV artists have long sought expression through music and similarly the expression of music through visual form. The rich background of early 20th century work in this field has set the groundwork for future artists to re-appropriate and build upon an already substantial vocabulary of audio-visual language. It is necessary for today's artists to examine the work of these early exponents of visual music in order to understand the potential that was thought to exist when multiple art forms are fused in a kind of synergy and which perhaps can be realized only now. The association between light and sound represented many unique opportunities and offered undiscovered results for artists, particularly for the early 20th century abstract art movement. Artists such as Klee and Kandinsky both made
momentous developments on the painted canvas by looking at music and trying to decode it. Using abstract techniques they constructed frames of reference that enable us all to recognize sound and interpret the results visually.
For the purely abstract (or absolute) filmmakers, the musical analogy has a special resonance. This wing of the avant-garde was strongly idealistic and saw within film the utopian goal of a universal language of pure form, supported by the synaesthetic ideas expressed in Kandinsky's 'On the spiritual in art' which sought correlation's between the arts and the senses. Absolute film making was not the only form of visual comparison to music, the Cine poets of that period shared the same views of challenging the conventions of narrative film. Critical of the conventional cinema they asked 'why should the cinema not create within the domain of sound combined with that of light, pure rhythm and pure form.' They used film and reduced it in order to focus on vision and rhythm as poetic not dramatic facts abstract from the visible world in order to transform it. The ideal of a visual symphony created in cine poetry was a potent one, but it no more abandoned referentially than did the poets Pound and Eliot or the paintings of Picasso and Braque. By sampling subject matter with cameras, it cast
them in a new and arguably more material light, even as its theory tended to an opposite idealizing direction.
In earlier technologically driven mediums, the most energetic of this type of work occurs when the technology catches up with the vision of the artists, or conversely, when artists catch up with the technology. This was signified with the release of Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940), a breakthrough in animation with music. Reaching a wide film audience, Fantasia expressed the capacity of visualized music to become a media artifact. Always pushing the boundaries of accepted techniques and effects. Disney challenged his team to conceive a perfect synthesis of image and music. These attempts to create visual music would be processed by the eyes and not the ears because they were not originally conceived as a whole. It is a generally accepted view of directors that it is useful to have 'good' visual's in order to enhance the music and root the sounds in a kind of temporal reality. That is not collaboration, it is slavery, and the product it yields is bound to be less complex and interesting than it would be if sound could somehow be set free to be an active player in the process. Only when inter-media artists use each craft to influence every other craft, can the music video begin to take on a life of it's own.
Despite the strong desire felt by many artists to explore and understand the field of visual music there remains a major void in the knowledge about avant-garde inter media composers. In fact a substantial monograph has yet to appear on any artist who has tried to integrate fully these two arts during their career. This has perhaps been caused by lack of artifacts and biographical detail as in the case of Russian composer Aleksander Scriabin, perhaps the best known composer of colour music. Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), is "the greatest symphony Scriabin ever wrote." Even in its unrealized form, Prometheus has exerted significant influence on the writings of Kandinsky and similarly on our own understanding of audio-visual events. The pulses, beats and vibrations of structured Rhythm, melody music and colour represented to Scriabin a language that is naturally and universally felt by individuals irrespective of their origin. He realized that the symbiosis between image and sound created more than the sum of their parts, an 'independent' third entity. It is only from a 3rd dimension of thought that it becomes possible to establish a new language formed from collective experience and translated by individual consciousness.
Every day our senses must derive meaning from chaos. We hear sounds every where, without ever having to focus. Sounds come from above, from below, from in front of us, from our right, from our left. It is impossible to shut out sounds automatically, we just are not equipped with ear lids, where a visual space is an organized continuum of uniform connected space, the ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships to other sensory perceptions. So music, both as a creative aural phenomena and an industry, is never perceived in the terms of sound alone. The more ubiquitous music has become, whether in public places as an accompaniment to every sort of activity, in the home with a radio, CD player, or cassette player in every room, or in blurring the distinction between public and private use of music such as a Walkman, boom box, or karaoke machine, the more we ourselves have realized that we cannot avoid making connections or relationships with our non auditory senses. Listening to music no longer refers to a special place or occasion but, rather, a special attention. A decision to focus on a given sound at a given moment is to perceive it involuntarily and simultaneously with our other senses in order to engage directly in deeper thought processes. The only organ which can receive these signals at the cerebral
level is the Colliculus Superior, it is the instrument that is responsible for the spatial positioning of aural and visual events inside the human brain. In other words mapping the position of visual and aural stimulus by activating these cells which are devoted to this processing. What is most interesting about this part of the brain is if two signals, one visual, one aural, are perceived from the same point in space, the group of cells will react more intensely. This demonstrates that spatial perception of an audio visual event can depart from its objective base by existing simultaneously in the mind, and means it can also be described as the only audio-visual part of the human body.
Human beings may have always possessed the ability to process more sensory information, but it was always more difficult to define without being able fix man's vision to stationary audio-visual media to be looked at. The medium of television has trained or forced the senses to focus in on static audio visual events. It has encouraging the viewer to analyze the factors of
form, function, technology and context in cognizance with audio stimulus. This perception that has been intensified by MTV, has given a whole generation an education in image sound relationships. This not only provides people with the ability to perceive the more common dynamic spatial events that occur in their own day to day lives, but the capacity to articulate
these observed syntheasthetics by expressing inter-media language through current technologies.
The technology of the camera and phonograph had a profound effect on visual music arts, but it was only later that with the invention of digital devices that it became possible for the individual artist to unite their work with other forms of expression. Artists of the past had to contend with creating their own relationships between the elements of colour hue, saturation and
value and those of sound pitch, amplitude, and tone. Such mappings are only musical analogies, more akin to alchemy than to creating a metaphysical unity of colour and music capable of exploring these ideas. The problem would be not to find a correspondence with the individual physical qualities involved in each art form but to combine them into a unified theory, a kind of literal translation has overcome this obstacle by reducing all recording and playback media used in the reproduction of musical notes and visual marks to the same molecular properties: the 'bit'. A single bit, short for 'binary digit', translates into a simple yes / no command, and is read in terms of 1's (positive, or on) and 0's (negative, or off). the bit is the smallest element of information that a computer processes. Combinations of two or more bits form a code that allows the computer to present information in a way that humans understand: text, image, sound. The whole process of establishing a 'sound light' relationship thus depends on using media that can handle the simultaneous creation and manipulation of sound and vision.
It allows the possibility of a similar degree of control over the medium as that enjoyed by painting and music.
Modern digital technology, with the musical and visual sampling techniques it allows, has now brought the medium into the reach of a whole new generation of digital artists, musicians and film-makers, whose collaborative works are now beginning to emerge. There has been an explosion of activity in this area because digital media creates nothing but a license for just about anybody to experiment and publish their work independently. Digital technology has made the media of sound and vision much more available, accessible and compatible. By combining midi sequencing, computer programs (which are progressively becoming more sophisticated and better able to represent complex musical forms) and video, it is possible to
participate in an activity which until now no universal formula has ever been able to provide a durable and popular basis similar to that which other creative art forms thrive on. Combined with the acute visual and musical awareness of the MTV generation, the technological symbiosis between image and sound has created a third entity a new, powerful and independent visual language. It is only today that" the interface of music and video can create an entirely new kind of artist" a new breed of truly independent young visionaries who will forsake the slave-like dependence on commercial financing and compromised production. These artists are not only putting their work onto the internet but also into the clubs in the very heart of youth musical culture.
When improvising a concert with musicians from a diverse set of backgrounds, all using highly unique and unusual set-ups, the visual artists may be following the music, or may be creating a separate line of parallel play, to be viewed by the multi-tasking mind of our 21st century viewer. Construction/deconstruction and re-synthesis are the methods used to provide
an audio visual experience that provides a platform for the internal musings of the audience. The fact that the music and visuals are live, presents unique opportunities the audience and performers. The loosely arranged physical space allows for the audience to roam freely among the performers, even getting into discussions during performances. Audience members even get involved in performing, helping to shape the visual's or music by interacting with the instruments themselves as well as the performers, simultaneously creating new experiences and associations for those involved in the conscious-streaming of immensely condensed information. In the V-jay system the human operator can be considered as the interface between the
music and the visual's. The human interface takes input from the music and the visuals and makes changes in the many controls to determine the subsequent combination and effect. The human interface works in real time while listening to the music and viewing the display on the monitor and controlling the many parameters of the lightshow, Changes and adjustments are made almost continuously throughout the show to maintain the viewers interest. But the inputs, music and visual are determining what those changes will be on a basically unconscious level. For instance: the tempo of the music will influence what actions are taken with the controls which determines what visuals are put on the screen but since the screen is being watched continuously, and this is what is being recorded to videotape, this influences subsequent actions as the music progresses--another kind of feedback loop. The emotional content of the music is also very significant but it operates in an unconscious, unthinking way. So the ways in which VJ's process information can be very similar to machines, however the live interaction between technological media and the human interface, is not just the mediation of audio-visual technologies as extensions of our bodies, it is a full integration of processing devices to produce a human machine, infinitely more complex than the non real-time interaction between individuals and machines. This is what is meant by the human interface between audio and visual media.
Artists like Coldcut and Hextstatic are now pioneering this kind of Club aesthetic, they spent the early 90's building a diverse, avant-garde collage of activities, preparing their own vusical breakout, both in and out of the studio, experimenting with sounds and visuals. Their work only began to make sense and take shape with the release of "Let us Play". There is one standout vusic piece, 'Timber' the third single from 'Let Us Play', released in February 1998, as a collaborative piece with Hexstatic. 'Timber' is a unique audio-visual collage, not an audio or video track, but both. What you see is what you hear: in 'Timber' all sound components co-exist with their video sources... the result: an intimacy of sensory stimulation
that is compelling and hypnotic. Though crucial to the concept of the 'Timber' single these extra videos actually rendered the CD formats ineligible for the singles chart and therefore its exposure to a wider mainstream audience was limited. As well as demonstrating the purity and authenticity of audio-visual language it also seems that artists like Coldcut and EBN are also inventing the tools that make it possible for other audio-visual artists to create whole audio-visual pieces., purely because
they just didn't exist previously. The most well known of these is the VJ/DJ software Vjamm also designed by Coldcut and first released on "Let us . Video can now be jammed or scratched with as easily as sound. This has been since followed this up by Hexstatic and other musical artist with 'Transambient', first screened as a one-off on six part series by Channel 4
in 1998, followed in 1999 when it was released as a DVD album. Transambient. The vision behind the project was to create something that wasn't just music with visuals or visuals with music, but a real synergy of the two. But even as true audio visual representation may be the next step forward in music video, it is already being appropriated and exposed to the
public by commerce in the form of the currently broadcasting Nike "Freestyle" adverts. What Hexstatic, Coldcut and others have created or set the benchmark for, is the music video as a product in itself, where the designers signature or personal imprint creates a meaning that transcends the original (in many cases commercial) function to become self contained, musically inspired artefacts. No longer will the few music videos on sale in the high street shop be Michael Jackson or Madonna videos, they will be dedicated music videos designed for your pleasure.
The desire that artists possess for a totally new aesthetic experience may be an overly utopian view. But it is understandable to react with an equal and opposite reaction when presented with totally distopian concept of the use of muti-sensory perception as in "Brave new World". The striking similarities that exist between Huxley's world and the present climate of
media monopolization by a few multinational conglomerates provides eloquent testimony to the struggle of the present-day avant-garde movement face in overcoming a caste system designed to keep mono-culture at the bottom of a hierarchy system. The hierarchy is one of subculture and mainstream culture. The subculture is on the top, because it has an integrity formed from reality. Then this is expanded and, through media, becomes mainstream. For a moment, the mainstream is refreshed and uplifted by those authentic subcultural values. But then "you are dissatisfied with the mediated state of mainstream culture, where everything seems fake. Forcing you to turn back to the subcultures in search of some reality, some authenticity." Leading to the constant desire for the truth subculture represents. By democratizing media and cutting the marketing middleman out of the production consumption loop, sub-cultures will be pushed away from the mainstream and proliferate into infinite genres and interests (as we are seeing with the Internet) of like minded individuals and with it the original notion of the avant-garde may be left obsolete. At the end of the 20th century, it can be argued that the simplistic perception of developments in modern art in terms of "movements" is untenable. The use of technological developments as new media in making art, among other reasons, has made such a perception irrelevant. The popularization of digital technologies as a potentially truly independent and democratic media has in effect made everybody part of the avant-garde and itself obsolete. If the avant-garde are no longer the driving force of Art then perhaps we have become liberated from the constraints of commercialism, however as with all democracies we know that these liberties must be constantly asserted in order to maintain independence of them.
What audio visual media now needs is its own theory, where technique is seen, not as productive force, but as media, as the form and principle of a whole new generation of meaning.
This theory must be able to shape and define the form of Audio-visual entertainment / Art, not just appropriate other media theories like those that were "amputated" to fit the anomaly in art, that is music video.