Theories about music videos

Alf Björnberg, Structural relationships of music and images in music video

In the course of the last decade, the body of writing on music video has grown to sizeable proportions. The reason for the present addition to this bulk of literature, in spite of the subject seemingly approaching the state of exhaustion, is that musical semiotics are still rarely applied to the field. It is a fact that pop and rock music have always been heavily infused with socially determined meaning such that an autonomous musical aesthetics appears clearly insufficient to explain their significance; however, to what extent and how this significance is linked in with particular musical structures as such is still largely uninvestigated. In my view, music video may perhaps be less interesting as a phenomenon in itself than as source material for an ‘empirical semiotics’ of popular music, shedding light on signification processes of a more general applicability. Furthermore, the distinctive features of music video may arguably be better explained on the basis of an understanding of the syntactical characteristics of popular music than by prevalent theories of postmodernism; the latter appear problematic not only due to their speculative and unsubstantiated nature with regard to media reception processes (cf. Frith and Horne 1987, p. 11), but their explanatory value as regards syntactic features of music video also seems to be limited (cf. Frith 1988, p. 207).

Popular Music (1998), 17 : pp 153-185

  • Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1998:

This article provides both a description of the ways that musical and visual codes operate in a music video, and an indepth analysis that shows these operations at work in a temporal flow.

Because a music video must – above all – sell the artist and a particular song,
the degree of self-restraint demanded of its director can be considerable. A director
must usually abandon hope of creating a traditional narrative, even one which the
song’s lyrics relate. Moreover, he or she will often find that the pressure exerted
by the song prevents the accurate representation of fixed objects: objects in music
video will tend to shimmer, change continually, and threaten to fade away. Some
directors, including Ritts, have developed strategies better suited to the conventional
requirements of music video. What Ritts’ work on ‘Cherish’ suggests, and
what is shown by other videos, is that music video image can relinquish qualities
traditionally associated with vision and adopt those that resemble the experiential
qualities of sound. Walter Ong’s characterisation of the differences between sonic
and visual perception can provide a useful basis for comparison:
“Sight isolates, sound incorporates. Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he
views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer. Vision dissects … When I hear, however,
I gather sound simultaneously from every direction at once: I am at the centre of my auditory
world, which envelops me, establishing me at a kind of core of sensation and existence . . .
By contrast with vision, the dissecting sense, sound is thus a unifying sense . . . The auditory
ideal, by contrast, is harmony, a putting together.” (1985, p. 32)
Ong’s description of sound reveals perfectly the qualities of the image in a music
video like ‘Cherish’. In ‘Cherish’, the image reflects sonic properties through its
continuity of motion, most clearly in the imagery of the ocean.

Sound and vision: the music video reader By Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin, Lawrence Grossberg:

Writing on music video has had two distinctive moments in its brief history.The first wave of treatments tended to come from the culture surrounding rock music and from those who were primarily interested in music video as something which produced effects on that music.Here, two claims were most common, and generally expressed in the terms and contexts of rock jurnalism:

1. that music video had made “image” more important than the experience of music itself, with effects which were to be feared (for example, the potential difficulties for artists with poor “images”, the risk that theatricality and spectacle would take precedence over intrinsically “musical” values, etc.)

2. that music video would result in a diminishing of the interpretive liberty of the individual music listener, who would now have visual or narrative interpretations of song lyrics imposed on him or her, in what would amount to a semantic and affective impoverishment of the popular music experience.

In retrospect, these fears seem to have been rooted, less in a specific concern about possible new relationships between sound and image, than in a longstanding coution about the relationship between rock music as a culture of presumed resistance and television as the embodiment of mainstream show business and commercial culture.

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