How the pop video got weird again

From Jamie xx’s intense video shot under a Chinese Eiffel Tower to high-concept productions from Beyoncé and Rihanna and Aphex Twin’s lo-fi stylings, music promos have become an event once more

As a solemn man with albinism courses through the empty streets of Tianducheng in an ice-blue Subaru Impreza, hundreds of Chinese teenagers with uniform, bleach-blond haircuts sprint towards a rusty, imposing replica of the Eiffel Tower. Behind the eerie development in Hangzhou, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, a smoggy skyline looms.

Film-maker Romain Gavras’s cinematic vision for Jamie xx’s Gosh – which features a cast of 400 people and eschewed CGI and 3D effects – came with one instruction for its viewers: fully immerse yourselves in the apocalyptic experience. “Please watch full-screen with loud speakers or headphones,” Gavras tweeted on its release this month. The video was a moment, rolled out for a track that was originally released more than a year ago. It’s a track that really doesn’t need a music video, let alone a physical copy, designed to look like a knock-off DVD, of a 40-second trailer for said video, which was delivered to journalists days before its official premiere.

At a time when the music world is still dealing with illegal downloads and streaming culture, such an ostentatious approach to promoting an old song may appear incongruous. But thanks to the power of a small number of elite artists, music videos are having a renaissance and once more becoming events in themselves, the way they were when Michael Jackson released Thriller or Madonna put out Erotica. Some are cinematic: Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which is set to sweep the board at this year’s MTV Video Music awards; Rihanna’s Sledgehammer, the first video shot using solely Imax cameras. Others, such as David Bowie and Radiohead, have engaged with a new demographic using short, shareable Instagram vignettes.

Major artists and their labels are again spending serious money on music videos. However, unlike a few years ago, when the likes of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus were going for the shock factor, artists are taking artistic, inventive approaches. When they do try to provoke outrage – as with Kanye West’s Famous or Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money – it’s a step beyond Blurred Lines or Wrecking Ball.

Sarah Boardman, head of music at award-winning film studio Pulse Films – whose client list includes one of Lemonade’s directors, Kahlil Joseph – says the problem is that this flurry of invention is limited to pop’s top tier. “At the moment, you have no middle in budgets – you have £30,000 for the majority of artists, then you have £200,000 for [Justin] Bieber or Carly Rae Jepsen, for a big pop star, but there’s nothing in between. You used to get £50,000, £60,000, £70,000, £90,000 quite often. Now you have good, credible artists and they’re getting £30,000 or £40,000, and it’s really difficult to make something stand out for that sort of money.”

David Bowie Blackstar
David Bowie used Instagram vignettes to share his work with a new demographic. Photograph: YouTube

Even so, while the biggest stars have revived the video-as-spectacle, artists with fewer resources have had to find new ways to make an impact with video. The gradual decline of “premiere culture” – in which one website or blog gets the exclusive launch of an artist’s video and, theoretically, reap the benefits of the traffic it generates – has had a profound impact on low- and medium-profile artists, who have neither the budget to make dramatic videos nor as wide a variety of platforms on which to promote them. Streaming services such as Spotify and Tidal – which compete for monthly subscriptions – have become the first place an artist will deliver new music, with some videos funded by the services themselves. When Apple Music launched in 2015, it looked as if it might become a key facilitator, in terms of funding and promoting all levels of artists (it reportedly footed the bill for Drake’s Hotline Bling video).

Boardman certainly hoped so. “We did a Purity Ring video and we got $100,000 [from Apple] – they aren’t a big band, we were super excited. We thought: ‘This is going to be our saviour! It’s going to become this platform like MTV!’ But it has moved away from that. They are still investing in music videos, but only the big ones.”

‘A step beyond Blurred Lines or Wrecking Ball’ – Famous by Kanye West.

“Production teams and directors increasingly walk away, losing money on video projects, and the financial risks and hits artists and labels take on each video are hefty,” says Samuel Strang, creative director at the indie label 4AD. “Taking third-party funds can help, [but] it often means sacrificing rights and content hiding on specific platforms and channels.” At the same time, finding ways to cut corners can add a fresh dynamic to a project, he says.

A DIY attitude is something that director Rollo Jackson has noticed emerging more often among those with a dedicated fanbase who are unable to get a wedge of cash from an investor. While he was shooting a documentary in Tokyo with Stormzy at the start of 2016, the grime star took it upon himself to film and upload a video within the first 24 hours of arriving in the city. “It was a freestyle video, rather than a big complicated video, but in the space of a week it had done a million hits. That’s a power in itself.”

The absence of cash isn’t the only reason why artists outside the elite are less inclined to make the type of glamorous videos that were prevalent in the 1990s. When social media, in particular Snapchat and Instagram, gives fans a chance to see – supposedly– what an artist’s life is like behind the curtain, the fake flamboyance of music videos appears more overtly manufactured.

Grant Singer says his video for the Weeknd’s track The Hills ‘has created a sort of internal conversation’ among online commenters.

“Maybe the world [an artist] exists in isn’t quite as grand,” Jackson says. “It isn’t quite the P Diddy world that it used to be. You see fewer videos where people are in golden palaces with tigers and yachts, because you’ve probably seen how they live on a day-to-day basis anyway. If you think of all the videos by Young Thug – he does a lot of videos and they are pretty constant – they look pretty real to how he’s living. It’s just extensions, better-produced versions, of his Instagram. They’re not these massively grand spectacles.”

Grant Singer, who has made chilling videos for the likes of Ariel Pink and the Weeknd, says below-the-line commentary has also pushed artists and directors to favour a more ambiguous, unusual approach, something that gives the final creation greater longevity.

“A lot of artists have really great taste and can do bold, transgressive things and it won’t hurt their brand,” he says. “When I made The Hills with the Weeknd, which has had almost a billion views now, a lot of the comments were people trying to interpret what the video means. I think that that’s great, I think that that’s really important. You create a visual that is very simple in some ways, that for almost a year now has created a sort of internal conversation. I think that’s really cool. Maybe five, 10 years ago, most videos didn’t have that.”

Aphex Twin  CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix]
Aphex Twin’s CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix], as filmed by 12-year-old Ryan Wyer. Photograph: YouTube

James Lees, whose recent work has included a condensed romcom for Lil Dicky and a desert dance spectacle for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, is not totally convinced this burst of creativity can last. “The optimistic side of me says I would hope people now expect to be challenged and made to think a little more, that purely sex and the shock factor are not enough. The pessimistic side of me says that music videos, like all forms of art and culture, go through trends, and we’ve simply entered a new trend, and within three years it will be something completely different again.”

Boardman predicts that, in the future, more emphasis will be placed on virtual reality (although she believes “no one has properly figured out how to make a really good music video with it yet”) and short-form, social-media-orientated videos. But what of the renegades, the rulebreakers of the music video world? Can the next Chris Cunningham break through in this climate?

Maybe Aphex Twin, always one to push the boundaries of visual marketing, has the answer. For the release of his track CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix], Richard D James enlisted 12-year-old Ryan Wyer from Rush, County Dublin, to direct the video, having reportedly found his YouTube gaming channel, epic1:40d Gaming, where he posts Aphex Twin reviews alongside gaming commentary. The result is eight minutes of frantic camera filters, infrared and dodgy camera work: all in all, a vibrant, yet overwhelmingly nightmarish, creation.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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