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Jump cut: Music video aesthetics

Annika Ström' Six songs for a time like this', 2001

Annika Ström Six songs for a time like this (video still) 2001
Courtesy: The artist; Casey Caplan, New York; c/o Atle Gerhardsen, Berlin; and Galerie Drantmann, Brussels

Jump cut: music video aesthetics

Essay by Kathryn Weir (co-curator, 'Video Hits: Art & Music Video', 2004).

William Gibson, the leading exponent of the 1980s literary movement dubbed 'cyberpunk', is known for his stylish predictions of near future developments in technology and society. Gibson's latest novel, Pattern Recognition, begins in the London flat of a music video and documentary director, inhabited by white plastic robots left over from a video shoot. Cayce Pollard, consultant in logo evaluation for high-powered advertising agencies, arrives from New York to stay in her absent friend's apartment. She has a special talent ― a sensitivity to good logos: the better the logo, the more it hurts her to see it. She is also a 'follower of the footage' and regularly posts to the website 'Fetish:Footage:Forum'. The footage consists of fragments of video, all interrelated but suggesting no single linear form or order. Each fragment has been discovered on the Internet, the source obscured, and presents a condensed expression of a moment of experience. The mystery attracts a following of fellow seekers of the next sequence of transcendent beauty, the next bite-size crystallising moment of perception, beauty and truth ― a cult for our times.1

Gibson points to the formation of new aesthetic, sensory and emotional sensibilities, a process in which music video has played a significant role. Its ubiquity and influence is largely a consequence of the decision by American Express Warner Communications' executives to launch a 24-hour-a-day cable music television (MTV) channel in 1981. This marked the beginning of a new period in terms of the volume of music video production and its visibility, though it was already an established genre prefigured by other related forms. Originally conceived as promotional films to sell records, music videos trace their genealogy ― from the 1950s to the 1970s ― through early pop music programs on television, including American Bandstand in the United States, Top of the Pops in the United Kingdom, and Bandstand and Countdown in Australia. It was expensive for acts to travel and perform live in the studio, so record companies began funding 'promo films'. In the period before television began its ascendancy to become today's mass medium, film-clip jukeboxes had been popular in bars and cafes; the Panarom Sound was developed in America as early as the 1940s, and was followed in the 1960s by the French Scopitone, showing colour 16mm music films. As far back as the 1930s, short music films were made for cinema screenings; three- to eight-minute fillers featured popular singers such as Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Bing Crosby.2

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since the birth of dedicated music television in the United States, when the Buggles' 1979 British hit Video killed the radio star provided a portentous tone to the start of programming. International expansion of MTV followed in the late 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. Music video style and content was also reflected on the big screen in films as diverse as Flashdance (Adrian Lyne, 1983) and Natural born killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), which used fast pacing, pop music, dance sequences and editing techniques popularised by MTV. Recognition of music video as an influential cultural form came quickly from critics and art institutions. The first international festival of music video was held in 1984 in St Tropez. New York's Museum of Modern Art began collecting video clips in the mid 1980s and, in 1985, curated 'Music Video: The Industry and its Fringes', which included clips by Laurie Anderson, the Cars, Thomas Dolby, Captain Beefheart, Talking Heads and the Beatles. Their commitment to collecting and programming music video continues ― in April 2003, Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and video artist Pipilotti Rist introduced programs of the top clips of 1965-85 from the Museum's now extensive collection.

This is not to deny that the flow of music and images on television is dominated by women shaking their booty, white boys pretending to be black boys and black boys pretending to be pimps. Bad music video rules the transmission tower but the exceptions go beyond the medium into a still undefined area of avant-garde experimentation. Though inescapably a commercial mass media form, at its exploratory edges, music video is fast changing in its techniques and open to new aesthetic possibilities. Evocative and condensed, its largely non-linear layering of meaning and possible interpretation is conceived to unfold through multiple viewings. Artist and VJ3, Art Jones, comments that 'music video often functions as the repository of classic avant-garde film aesthetics' in which 'linear narrative is often fragmented, elliptical or simply made secondary in importance to visual logic ― beauty, even'.4 Pop music has made explorations of abstract film, surrealist imagery, and unconventional narrative forms by the more innovative video directors, palatable to a wide public. Chris Cunningham's semi-abstract visuals for Autechre's Second bad vilbel and his nightmare, associative vision of housing estate horror in Aphex Twin's Come to daddy are examples. Cunningham has also made two art installations: Monkey drummer, an animated image of a highly-articulated simian which premiered at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, and the more abstract and visceral flex 2000, a rhythmic visualisation of sex, struggle and suspended states.

Where visual artists have made clips for bands - plugging into the global distribution networks of music television ― they speak to an exponentially expanded public. Other artists have 'digested' the form for an art audience. Their responses to music video draw on alternating currents of irony, nostalgia, critique, camp and celebration, and develop the genre further in an art context, whether citing music video style, commenting on its form, or challenging our perceptions of the relationship between music and images. Those who are critical of the structure and content of music television recognise that the effect of any resistance within art practice to commercialism and cultural homogenisation is minimal. As Candice Breitz has stated:

Every possible strategy of aesthetic resistance is absorbed, packaged and marketed as product in our current culture . . . for more than a century now, artists have been the research and development arm of the fashion and entertainment industries, where their difficult and innovative ideas are repackaged for easy consumption.5

Tony Cokes, '6^', 2001

Tony Cokes
6^ (video still) 2001
Purchased 2004
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Courtesy: Video Data Bank

Tony Cokes's works in 'Video Hits: Art & Music Video', 3#, 5% and 6^, 'comment critically on the forces that produce and reproduce culture and value'. Cokes suggests that any critique is severely limited in a mainstream context by the viewing patterns that television elicits.6 In 'Over Above' from Love songs #1 2001, Art Jones underlines the passive, disengaged viewing state of music television, showing us a distant scene of brutality in the street through an icy window, like the view from a passing bus on a cold day. Cibo Matto sing 'why can't we dance in the same groove every day?' and we float by in a pop-induced trance, unable or unwilling to intervene or even have an opinion.

Some music videos for high profile bands have parodied the medium's methods of promoting songs by creating pleasurable associations, and exploiting fantasies and stereotypes which reflect the music industry and its target audiences. Chris Cunningham underlined these stereotypical images, and what is effaced from MTV viewing, in his satirical commentary on sex, cars and the lack of cellulite in hip-hop clips for Aphex Twin's Windowlicker. This gender-bending video elicits reactions of fascination but, in critical terms, only inverts expectations, and underlines the MTV audience's conviction that fat is ugly and real women have less facial hair.

Much has been made in art criticism of high culture's fascination with, and borrowings from, the low, yet art and mass culture have historically been discussed as discrete areas of cultural production, despite many examples of artists moving between commercial work and their own art practice. Now, more than ever, makers show work across different exhibition networks, and visual languages are quickly propagated across various distribution channels.7 The conversations surrounding objects may change between contexts for display but different publics are increasingly exposed to similar images, sounds and other forms. Television has rarely been considered from an aesthetic perspective, as its productions are treated as ephemeral and collaborative, proper to the private and prosaic space of the lounge room, rather than the museum. Aesthetics is historically the province of art, but clearly art borrows not only content but formal qualities as well. Today, there is no doubt that aesthetics ― formal qualities beyond the communication of shared meanings ― finds fodder in film, television and music video.

In the early days, most music video directors came from backgrounds in advertising and television, though some were artists and graphic designers, and a small number of musicians made their own videos, including Malcolm McLaren, David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Ray Davies (Kinks). These directors and their work were usually not well known; but this is changing, especially for those also making feature films, including Michel Gondry, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, John Landis, Russell Mulcahy, Brian de Palma, Mark Romanek, Martin Scorsese, Dominic Sena and Julian Temple. Increasingly, directors make videos marked by an individual style. Film and video director Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) is associated with a spontaneous vérité approach, possibly inspired by his earlier photography of street cultures, and evident in his prize-winning Praise you video for Fatboy Slim. Gondry is often recognisable through a theatrical, handmade look, which reflects an inventive, artisan-like approach to effects and sets. For Björk's Human behaviour, he created a handmade forest and used animations, rear projection and narrative; the end result is a magical children's fable in super-saturated colour. Chris Cunningham worked in feature film effects laboratories for David Fincher on Alien 3 and on Stanley Kubrick's AI project, before crossing over to music video. His celebrated video for Bj?s All is full of love mines an early interest in robotics to create a retro-futurist vision of white robot romance. Exploring the inherent qualities of the form, directors such as these are continually experimenting with new ways of making music visible and images rock.

The interweaving of sound and images is what fundamentally defines music video and constitutes its direct sensory appeal. A number of twentieth-century experimental film-makers and artists have explored this relationship of synaesthesia between the rhythm of images edited in sequence and an accompanying soundtrack. Oskar Fischinger made short films from the 1920s onwards, combining abstract images with classical music or jazz. One of his later works, the opening sequence of Fantasia, is seen as a direct influence on music video.

In feature film, the musical soundtrack is usually treated as secondary to the action; video clips invert this hierarchy. The music is the structuring element and all visual content is in some way keyed to this, amplifying its mood and meaning. New narrative or symbolic elements also accrue and the evocation of atmosphere and location is important, though successive jumps in time and space are common with little or no explanation. Filmic conventions for establishing a logic of time and place are set aside in favour of ambiguity, fantasy and wish fulfilment. Atmosphere, mood, place and pace ― highlighting moments of emotion and experience ― are much more important than any linear coherence. Clips may describe mini narratives and include dialogue, such as Spike Jonze's small-town dog in the big city clip for Daft Punk's Da funk, Michel Gondry's video for Björk's Bachelorette and the extended introductory sequence created by Chris Cunningham for Aphex Twin's Windowlicker. It is the music that provides the motor, however, and the performers' relationship with the soundtrack is critical. In feature film, the characters are unaware of the swelling orchestration used to magnify the emotional impact of a sequence ― this is known as non-diegetic sound, and is not part of the film actors' world. Music video performers, on the other hand, move to a beat that they hear, though it has no source or explanation within the image. They dance to unseen instruments and lean in towards the lens and address a patter of lip-synched lyrics to the viewer.

Shooting and editing images to emphasise a drum beat, guitar or vocal line makes music visible, and when successfully realised can be exhilarating, as music journalist Jim Farber has underlined: 'When executed with elan, an edit becomes a backbeat, a crane shot, a solo, a close-up, a hook'.8 For his White Stripes' The hardest button to button clip, Gondry multiplies drum kit on drum kit, beat by beat, then guitar on guitar, playing with the formal qualities of these basic building blocks of pop music production and integrating the music and its physical representation. Sections of many feature films are also cut to the rhythm of a soundtrack sequence and music television has reinforced the pervasiveness of this stylistic choice.

Art Jones, 'Love songs #1', 2001

Art Jones
Love songs #1 (video still) 2001
Purchased 2004
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Courtesy: Video Data Bank

A number of other regularly recurring technical and stylistic features can also be identified. A jump cut is an edit that moves from one time or place to another without any transition. The use of this non-standard editing technique (as opposed to the classical match cut) has been widely linked to music video. It is used to convey mood and high energy, as well as to create new meanings through juxtaposition. Of course, in this ferociously competitive form ― experimental partly because of the pressure to find new ways of grabbing and holding the audience's attention - anything goes in editing terms. A range of clips, such as Spike Jonze's video of a burning man running along a Los Angeles street for California's Wax, go to the other extreme from fast-paced editing to rely on a single take. Playing with perceptions of time, from high-energy, ADD-inducing layering of simultaneous activity 9, to the seduction of slow motion, music video creates its own time zones. This lack of standard points of reference is also reflected in the use of close-ups rather than wide shots. Functioning to keep attention in the foreground of the frame and reduce explanatory information, this makes the viewer intimate with the performers, hooked and unquestioning as the camera tracks up a toned body, waiting to be seduced by the come-hither look. Art Jones inverts this visual teasing in the first of his Love songs #1 ― a slow pull out from a woman's face in soft focus to the tune of the Delfonics crooning 'Didn't I blow your mind this time, didn't I?'. The last wide shot is of a bikini-clad woman blasting an off-screen target with a submachine gun.

Liisa Lounila, 'Play>>', 2003

Liisa Lounila, 'Play>>', 2003

Liisa Lounila, 'Play>>', 2003

Liisa Lounila
Play>> (video stills) 2003
Courtesy: The artist; Galerie Anhava, Helsinki; and Gallery Wilkinson, London

Another technique used to place the viewer amidst the action is the cutting together of multiple near-simultaneous points of view on a particular sequence. The effect is of being able to move through the performers and enjoy the events from all perspectives instantaneously. Liisa Lounila uses a variation on this technique in her video work Play>> 2003, which portrays a party scene with photographs from simple pinhole cameras. Snapshots taken at the same moment from different angles are animated in sequence to create an impression of relative motion. The viewer floats through a frozen instant, disquieted by the contrast between the liveliness of the video's pop soundtrack and the animated actors, and our intermittent access to events. The state of floating is seductive but disengaged; the gatecrasher remains outside longing to interact with the group of friends caught in the acts of dancing, drinking and talking.

Condensed and associative, music video, like poetry, is a short form that offers free play or established genres. Many attempts have been made to develop a typology of form and content 10, the simplest and most pervasive distinction being between performance video (the musician or group perform the song, stylised through sets, location shots and costume changes) and concept video (the images develop an idea, metaphor, theme or narrative, giving another dimension to the lyrics and mood of the song). Some very established, hackneyed content is often used in combination with particular music genres ― hip-hop and heavy metal are repeat offenders, much to the delight of Sydney visual artists and drag kings, the Kingpins. Versus 2002 is their version of the Aerosmith-Run DMC collaboration of 1986, Walk this way, and offers them an open door to explore headbands and dark glasses alongside track pants and trainers. Neverthless, it is clear that music video can encompass any subject matter, and it is its variability and the self-conscious citing of other cultural forms that is most characteristic of its content.

Music video is a mirror for broader cultural production, a music and image processing machine that digests anything in its field of vision ― or within earshot. The heroes of this world play out privileged moments loosely linked by fragmented lyrics. There is no place outside this accelerating circulation of pre-digested material but it is possible to create alternative forms and meanings within it.

  1. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition, Penguin Books, London and Melbourne, 2003.
  2. For a more detailed genealogy of the music video see Neil Feineman's 'Introduction' in Steve Reiss and Neil Feineman, Thirty Frames per Second: The Visionary Art of the Music Video, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2000, pp.10-29.
  3. VJ - video jockey; presenter of videos rather than discs.
  4. Art Jones, unpublished interview with Kathryn Weir and Nicholas Chambers, January 2004.
  5. 'Candice Breitz: Fighting Words', Interview with David Hunt, Flash Art, vol.33, no.211, March/April 2000, p.85.
  6. Tony Cokes, unpublished interview with Kathryn Weir and Nicholas Chambers, January 2004.
  7. Catherine David, Curator of 'Documenta X', uses the term 'authors' and states in a recent Artforum roundtable on globalism: 'The question for me is not about who is leading or even less about who is the artist but about how to produce, discuss, debate, and circulate to various audiences a certain number of ideas and formal articulations proposed by author(s). At this level, I think that many people (in this case, too, I prefer to say "authors") with whom I am working no longer correspond to the economic, social and cultural figure of the "artist" as it has been constituted in the modern age.' (Artforum, vol.43, no.3, November 2003, p.158).
  8. 'The Top 100 Music Videos', Rolling Stone, October 14, 1993.
  9. ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder.
  10. See for example Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1992; Ann E. Kaplan, Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism and Consumer Culture, Methuen, London, 1987; Steve Reiss and Neil Feineman, Thirty Frames per Second: The Visionary Art of the Music Video, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2000.