Music Videos as “Low” Filmmaking?

Over the past couple of years I received a question from two different academics in regards to my focus on making music videos. Both of them asked me the same thing:

“Do you plan on moving on from music videos?”

I found the question a bit strange. Why should one “move on” from music videos? Is there something arrested in filmic development about the music video? Some people like to make shorts. They may continue to make shorts while also making feature films, or perhaps they’ll stick with shorts. Music videos are a kind of short film, so what’s going on here? What’s wrong with continuing to make music videos? I was most vexed.

I told both of them that I intended to explore different types of film in time, such as fictional narrative and documentary. In fact, I had already made a couple of works that were not music videos (though they had music in them). Nonetheless, I said I would probably always be interested in making music videos due to the central importance of music in my life, the influence of music videography on my filmmaking style, and the visual images that listening to certain music evokes for me; I have always had an automatic link between sound and color or shape in my mind. I saw at that time no reason to justify it further, but the comments have continued to trouble me to the extent that I must explore this question further.

One of my earliest memories in life, for whatever baffling reason, is watching Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” on MTV. According to my parents, I’d toddle right up to the TV when I was very little whenever Siouxsie Sioux or Kurt Cobain was on the screen. Two of my favorite VHS tapes to put on when I was a kid were Fantasia and Pee-Wee’s Christmas Special, both rather music-heavy.

Due to being between 1 to 3 years old for all of these incidents, unpacking just why music is so important to me has been an immense challenge. When something has swirled around you your whole life, how do you figure out why it is important to you or what it really means?

Certain music has become a kind of shorthand for identity for myself. My partner Dan and I realizing that we had both grown up hearing Soft Cell — thanks to our parents — made us both joke that this must explain our sexual orientation. When I find out that someone likes the Manic Street Preachers, the likelihood that we’ll be in the same neighborhood politically or in terms of literature increases dramatically. Sorting out which men in rock I was attracted to and who I wanted to be like in terms of gender — or both — was integral to sorting out my identity. The list goes on: music underpins my very sense of selfhood in a way that no other medium does and stands in for all kinds of other bits and bobs of who I am and how I view others.

I fell into filmmaking quite by accident. Compared to listening to music, reading books, or playing video games, my film education was quite weak. I grew restless when I was taken to the theater and was easily bored or disappointed. Even at home, I was frustrated at how I couldn’t listen to music while watching a film, as one could with books or even video games on occasion; there’s only so many times you can hear a looping dungeon theme or battle music. It took me some time to break out of the notion that any time spent not hearing beloved or new music is time I must surely be wasting. You only live once and there’s a lot of musical treasure to hunt for — what if I missed something important because I spent 2 hours and 30 minutes watching some dreadful film I desperately wanted to escape from the whole time it was on?

At age 21, I started to go through queer film lists. Perhaps threading film in with identity — as I’d done subconsciously with music — would enable me to more fully enjoy film. I began to watch Derek Jarman’s films and music videos and felt as though a switch had been flipped. I become engrossed in tracking down and watching as many as I could, even watching some more than once (!), something I’d almost never done with film before unless I hadn’t seen the movie in ages. There was a lyrical quality that felt familiar to my own way of thinking, of pairing images with sound, and all kinds of other colorful textures and poetic meanderings. Jarman’s books too filled me with inspiration and admiration, Chroma: A Book of Colour being my favorite.

Emboldened by my Jarman appreciation, I steadily found other films that appealed to me and also turned a more critical eye to music videos. As a teenager, I had previously neglected to look into music videos for the majority of bands that I had been a fan of, unless I had found one or more members attractive. Now I could confidently branch out and find more to enjoy and think on, though male aesthetics is still very much a topic of critical interest for me.

During my education at San Francisco State University, I enrolled in a digital video course. I had previously done very little with video and didn’t know it come to anything more than fulfilling a credit requirement. What I found was that the video editing process was incredibly relaxing and that I’d completely lose track of the passage of time once I really got going. My final project was a music video for my partner Dan. I knew then that this is the medium I wanted to keep going with above all others. I made music videos for other artists on my netlabel Vulpiano Records, as much as gifts to them as creative exercises for myself. I approached artists I value like Pictureplane and Momus to present them with music videos I made in tribute to their work. Everything was going so smoothly as I learned new techniques, incorporated virtual worlds like Second Life into my work, collaged in public domain and Creative Commons resources, and so on.

Up until I was suddenly asked if I planned to “move on” from music video.

I first tried to see whether there was any point in this suggestion. I was thinking of fan video edits such as anime music videos, video slideshows set to music of dead or beloved rock stars, and amateur music video work that uses music as a base to cut footage too obviously or simplistically (these colors will flash to the beat, these shots will be cut to the guitar riff, a soaring vocal or synth will be accompanied by a fade to another scene, etc.). I thought of the entanglement of the music video with pop culture, the nostalgia of what MTV used to be at its outset.

Hand-waving away the possibility of the music video is part and parcel of the denigration and oversimplification of pop culture as an inherently stupid wasteland where the intellect is cast off into the dustbin. Accomplished filmmakers must cast-off this embarrassing relic of their past, when they were still learning, surely! Much like the dim view of comic books and video games, and (longer ago) photography and film in general, I think this is another erroneous assumption of the lowbrow or juvenile, viewing the music video as an ephemeral promotional tool and nothing much beyond that. This is nothing to do with what can be achieved with the format itself or whether the music video in question bears any resemblance to the mainstream notion of what a music video is.

In Music Video and the Politics of Representation, Diane Railton And Paul Watson write:

Music video is a significant and interesting form of contemporary popular culture, one which is widely circulated, complex and important. This claim is, however, a potentially controversial one. For it is easy, as many critics have done, to either dismiss music video as a worthless by-product of capitalist business practice or, worse, to ignore it all together. Graham Fuller spells out this situation in ‘A Good Music Video is Hard to Find’ in claiming that ‘the search for the art and artistry of the music video goes on but the consensus is that El Dorado or Santa Claus will turn up first’. He goes on to say that, since the inception of MTV in 1981, ‘what critical evaluation of music video there is relegates it to the trash can of popular culture’.


…while reviews of albums, singles and live performances now regularly occupy a significant number of column inches in both dedicated music magazines and the review sections of the press more generally, reviews of the latest video releases are notable only by their absence. And in many ways this is understandable if we think of music videos only as advertisements. You wouldn’t expect a review of the latest perfume or mobile phone to make reference to the television commercial which was used to advertise it. However, when we consider that music videos have a life of their own – with television channels and websites dedicated to screening them – which other commercials do not, this critical neglect becomes difficult to understand. For music videos are not simply advertisements; they are, rather, as Thomas Doherty suggests, both ‘promo and product’ and, as such, have ‘revised the nature of contemporary music’.

I would go one step further to suggest that, while perhaps not to the extent of music videos, commercials for products have also occasionally attained a life of their own. Sometimes this is through the inclusion of external music that recontextualizes the original content, highlighting or exaggerating the capitalistic fantasy world they embody. Vaporwave is particularly rich with such examples:

At other times, this is sheerly through the merit of their own artistry or weirdness. The ‘product’ in question is secondary or forgotten in the wake of the surreality of what we’re seeing on screen:

Assuming that a whiff of the advertisement is enough to make something no longer art (or, at the very least, less than fine art) is falling into the trap of assuming  the value of art is lowered or annihilated as soon as moneybags — even the assumption of their presence — are looming overhead.

Thanks for the reminder, Sonic. (Source)

How many times have you groaned at the strangely pervasive notion of the “starving artist” or the shocked takes on artists who work on commission?

Association with commercial interests or pop culture should not be enough to bar the music video from artistic creativity among videographers and a critical, careful eye and scholarship among viewers. Unquestioned elitism doesn’t do filmmakers or fellow academics any favors.

Further links:

Internet Music Video Database

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