On (moving) images in popular music: #digital #trends

JOÃO PEDRO DA COSTA

 

#ersatz #meta

In the turn of the millennium, China began to build almost real-scale imitations of western cities.

The construction of Tianducheng began in 2007 and is arguably the most eloquent example of the government plan to recreate great cities around the world throughout Mainland China as an artificial way to further inflate the brutal growth of its economy. Its central attractions are a 108-metre-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower and 31 km2 of the Champs-Elysées surrounding style architecture, fountains and landscaping.

Chances are that if you were to be teleported to Tianducheng, you’d believe to be in Paris’ 8th arrondissement. But due to its size, location, and poor planning, the town houses only a fraction of the population it was built for: 2,000 instead of the forecasted 10,000 inhabitants. Most of them work in the ghostly, decaying and eery French-themed amusement park.

Romain Gavras is the kind of music video director who likes to think big. In an age where DIY and vernacular aesthetic seem to dominate the digital media landscape, his attitude is both refreshingly reactionary and anachronistic.

It’s no wonder that he didn’t direct a single music video since Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” (2012): his budgets tend to be massive with overwhelming logistics and skyrocketing production values. For the video of Jamie xx’s “Gosh”, shot precisely at the heart of Tianducheng, his team had, for instance, to find a way to, in merely 24 hours, bleach and darken again the hair of 400 pupils of a Shaolin martial arts school.

“Gosh” strikes me as a mesmerising music video take of Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story of a black teenager with albinism surrounded by the hyperreal setting of Tianducheng (believe it or not, no CGI or 3D effects were used).

Judging how the eyes of the protagonist constantly scrutinize his surroundings, the quest seems to be finding a meaning in a world so filled with cultural appropriation and ersatz that it’s becoming almost impossible to discern reality from virtuality or genuineness from simulacrum. The epic choreography of the black-dressed multitude of Asian kids resembles a surreal Olympics opening ceremony thus adding further disorientation in an unfinished universe where nothing seems to be what it looks like.

The key to this numbing perception vortex, beautifully shot in sync with its slow-building breakbeat soundtrack, might be in its opening purple-tinged scene, where the protagonist is the only one in the room with no VR headsets: though his eyes are wide-open, one can only guess what will be the results of his psychological and moral growth.

In a world so packed with hyperactive and virtual stimuli, Jamie xx’s music and Romain Gavras’ images are no short of a ferocious critique of a species increasingly loosing touch with its peers and reality.

Funny how for centuries art made us dream of other possible worlds; nowadays, one of its most urgent functions is probably to keep us grounded.

 

#kinesis

Dirty Projectors might have said it some years ago, but it took me the two music videos for Solange’s A Seat at The Table (2016) to make me realize how stillness can be a move. And steelness a groove.

The videos for “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” were directed by Knowles and her husband, Alan Ferguson, with help of photographer Carlota Guerrero and cinematographer Arthur Jafa. The project took the whole production crew on a journey from her new home in New Orleans, through the deserts of her home state, Texas, and down to the sunbaked mountains of New Mexico.

There are a lots of similarities between them: melody, scenary, characters, choreography, colour-palette and mood. A wardrobe that mixes clothes of emerging designers with DIY pieces created with the help of her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, not only makes fashion an integral part of the vibrant landscapes but also underlines the importance of colour in the meditative, soulful and political nature of her music.

The music video of “Cranes in the Sky” is particularly awe-inspiring.

The lyrics of the song suggest that neither keeping busy nor reclusion are the best ways to deal with the problems that are looming over your head, because, guess what?, chances are they won’t go away of their own accord. Facing our demons head on and actively building a path to happiness are poetically expressed by the powerful metaphor of the song’s title. Rather surprisingly, no cranes are to be found in the video.

There are houses, though.

But not any kind of houses.

One, in particular, is rather strange and peculiar: it looks like a four-legged organism of rusty steel perched on a shabby ridge.

The “Steel House” was the life project of sculptor Robert Bruno, who built it with virtually no assistance over the course of three decades, designing and modifying it as he went, frequently tearing out portions that no longer pleased him. It is located in Ramson Canyon, USA, about 15 miles east of Lubbock. It was left uncompleted and has been unoccupied since 2008, when Bruno died aged 64.

It’s no wonder that this part sculpture, part house structure was considered a suitable visual substitute for the cranes’ verbal metaphor. Not only are both made of steel and spread ideas of solitude, work-in-progress and unfinished business, as the former’s bold shapes, earthy colour and location fits the hazy aesthetic of the video.

American actor, comedian and musician Martin Mull once famously said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Judging by the way both “Gosh” and “Cranes in the Sky” music videos resourcefully use architecture and choreography as tools to convey their narratives and concepts, the infamous quote seems nowadays more apt to describe the fascinating challenges of filming music.

 

#haptesthai

Full disclosure: I was frankly underwhelmed when the cover of the latest Radiohead album appeared online in May 2016.

At first glance, not only did it seem to lack the graphic intricacies of previous collaborations between the band and Stanley Donwood, as it appeared to be a rather dull photograph aimed to straightforwardly illustrate the album title and its recurrent themes of ecological (un)balance.

Things started to change for me when Adam Thorpe revealed in a piece for The Times Literary Supplement the modus operandi of its creation: during several weeks, Stanley painted a series of acrylics in a barn with speakers wired up to the recording studios next door, reacting in real-time to what he was hearing. Later, all results were modified and manipulated on computer for the LP’s cover and remaining artwork.

When I received the special limited edition in September 2016 by post, the whole thing was a revelation.

In spite of the turquoise filter that sobered the original cover, the physical texture added a vibrant contrast to Stanley’s ominous and impressionist paintings. Though much has been written about how digital media has drastically changed our relation with images, A Moon Shaped Pool physical artwork might be the best recent example of how much touch enriches our visual perception.

Perhaps the next frontier in digital album artwork might be the addition of haptic information that will be in a near future processed by fans and users. In the interim, even high-quality jpegs, pngs or tiffs of the cover of Radiohead’s latest album will be condemned to be a pale shadow of its tangible version.

 

#transmedia

Justin Vernon is an artist who likes to take his time to meticulously compose, produce and release each record for his indie band, Bon Iver. And each time, he tentatively dares to pretty much reinvent himself from scratch.

With 2016’s 22, A Million, we were graced with an extremely intricate collection of songs (and visuals – more about that later) with chopped lyrics, fractured bits of sound, treated instruments, altered vocals and chaotic samples. There are still, of course, his voice, the occasional strum of an acoustic guitar, and the inclusive vibe of gospel and folk that are so typical of Americana mountain songs.

This time though, he also embraced and celebrated the many ways computer-mediated technology has affected our digital age, namely the way we think, feel, collect, consume, share and create. The result was, by far, his most challenging and experimental record to date, ditching both the immediate intimacy of For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) and the grandiose eloquence of Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011), without jettisoning the spiritual component that has been paramount to the emotional core of his music.

What has also been quite admirable in the rollout of his latest album was witnessing that not only the meticulous care he devoted to his music has also been applied into the album’s graphic identity, but also how the latter echoes and further explores its elusive structure and dense themes of existential anxiety. In a collaborative process that immediately brings to mind the already mentioned two-decade working partnership between Radiohead and Stanley Doonwood, Brooklyn-based artist and designer Eric Timothy Carlson developed an extremely layered and fascinating semiotic artwork that digitally articulates numerology, icons, pictograms, photographs, calligraphy and drawings.

This multimedia ensemble creates a harrowing fluidity between text, image and sound furthermore symbolized by the recurrent use of the yin yang symbol (which, as you may know, in Chinese philosophy, describes how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another).

One only needs to glance the track listing to realize that even the songs titles have been contaminated by the album overall graphic approach: titles such as “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” or “666 ʇ” are prone to make any Mark Z. Danielewski fan salivate.

All this admirable work was also used quite resourcefully to market the record in a transmediatic fashion: it populates promotional photos, social media posts, music magazines, a limited edition newspaper, giant urban murals and outdoors, merchandising, props, stages, the whole scope of physical audio formats (vinyl, CD, cassette) and, even more fascinatingly, music videos.

Justin Vernon has showed before that he is aware of the importance of music videos in our digital landscape. In 2011, he boldly commissioned from several directors a music video for every track of his sophomore album and uploaded them to YouTube, almost two years before the audio-visual bravado of Beyoncé eponymous album (in fact, visual albums go way back to pre-MTV era, when David Mallet directed in 1979 a music video for each track of Blondie’s Eat to the Beat). For 22, A Million, though, there are two relevant novelties: every single video was co-created by Aaron Anderson under the supervision of the same person responsible for the overall art direction of the record (Eric Timothy Carlson); and they are all lyric videos.

One of the first instances of lyric videos to ever surface the mediasphere was broadcasted by music television in 1987. Due to the reluctance of Prince in recording a conventional music video, his label asked director Bill Konersman to direct the official video for “Sign ‘O’ the Times”. He then famously delivered a karaoke-inspired visual treatment in which the lyrics of the song, written in typeface Times, appear on-screen in differing graphic displays alongside geometric shapes.

In the digital era, the popularity of these kinetic typographies (it wouldn’t be farfetched to trace its inspiration back to the revolutionary work of Saul Bass for the opening credits of 1959’s Hitchcock movie North by Northwest) exploded with the lyric video of Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” (2009) and have since increasingly crowded audio-visual vortexes such as YouTube and Vimeo.

Lyric videos end up being a very apt choice for a record that so intensively tries to musically replicate the fractured, crowd-sourced and hyperlinked nature of digital culture, considering that most of lyric videos found online are made by fans and graphic design students for class projects using Final Cut, iMovie or Premier (which are arguably nowadays the visual software equivalents of the sonic-oriented Pro-Tools). It comes then as no surprise that this amateurish atmosphere or vernacular aesthetic happens to be a common denominator of the busy, disorientating structure of both audio and visual components of 22, A Million transmediatic experience. Its cohesiveness is furthermore cemented by the fact that the kinetic typography of all lyric videos not only integrates the symbols, pictograms, photographs and drawings, but also the graphic display of the lyrics included in the inlays of both vinyl and CD formats of the album.

Back in the early eighties, when academia tried to seize the post-modern elusiveness, ephemerality and fragmented nature of music videos, some scholars compared the medium to some sort of electronic wallpaper or animated record sleeve. Three decades later, 22, A Million‘s exploration of text, sound and images proves that they were absolutely onto something.

 

#vernacular #remix #crowd-sourcing

If, by Kanye West’s own words, the packaging of Yeezus (2013) was intended to be an open casket to the demise of physical releases of music, the one of The Life of Pablo (2016) looks to this day like its rotten corpse.

Just like its music, which received several updates throughout the following months of its release, the album cover had two versions.

The first one has the title repeatedly displayed in three vertical rows over a peach-like orange. The text is not perfectly displayed and the typography overlaps, creating a disconcerting visual noise. A small picture of a black family wedding (that was rumored to be of his parents) is also oddly pasted on the left bottom.

The second version uses bigger black font over the same backdrop colour, but this time there’s only one column that features the title, with two vertical columns displaying several “WHICH/ONE” underneath it, which seemed at the time a tease regarding which Pablo’s life influenced the album (the addition of the track “Saint Pablo” in June, 14th 2016 pretty much answered the question). Finally, a bigger version of the same wedding photo is moved into the center and a picture of swimsuit model Sheniz Halil is pasted in the bottom.

If “ugly”, “sloppy” and “lazy” might be the first words that come to mind when we look at both versions of the cover, we all should know better, since Kanye West is a man who deeply cares about design.

Though it seems to lack the sophistication and attention to detail of his previous artworks, the cover of The Life of Pablo was also commissioned to a renowned visual artist. Peter De Potter is a Belgium creator that gained some worldwide recognition due to his collaboration with fashion designer Raf Simons, though he has been publishing for years in his blog strangely crafted collages that overlap original work with images he discovers on social media. This vernacular aesthetic triggered not only an overwhelming number of visual remixes by fans unhappy with the original design(s) but also a popular alternative cover generator.

If Kanye intended for the music of The Life of Pablo to be “a living breathing changing creative expression”, its apparently plain album cover ended up being something even more dynamic and fascinating: a crowd-sourced visual lifeform nurtured and disseminated throughout the digital media landscape.

 

#NSFW #censorship

When The Hotelier finished recording Goodness (2016), frontman Christian Holden sought out Brooklyn-based artist Xirin as a collaborator to flesh out a bold and uncompromising idea for its cover: a picture group of fully nude aged folks joyfully enjoying the sunlight. They posted an ad to Craigslist seeking for older models for a project that included the production of not only the album cover but a also teaser video shoot, stressing that both would involve non-erotic nudity.

It was after releasing the Goodness teaser video that problems started.

Some of the major distributors, including Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify, required them to censor out the nude bodies. After discussing numerous alternatives, Holden and Xirin opted for a all-or-nothing approach, blurring the entire center of the photograph with big pixelized squares. Surprisingly, the result didn’t look like self-imposed censorship as much as an invitation of sorts for fans and users to seek out the original artwork on their own.

In an era where NSFW covers are based on airbrushed and highly sexualised bodies, Goodness original cover forces us to look at unfiltered and imperfect human nudity, which is to say it demands us to stare at what most of us will eventually come to look like (if we’re lucky).

Just like Death Grips with the infamous album cover of No Love Deep Web (2012), The Hotelier use nudity as a political stance to express the conflict between their anarchy-punk leanings and the fact that they are a commercial band. That major corporations see that as a potential offense to a generation used to routinely grace over album covers packed with young, naked and sculptural bodies without even a second thought, not only shows capitalism’s rampant hypocrisy but how much we have all become blindfolded when it comes to deal with our own mortality.

 

#producerly_text #excessive_reading #Chekhov’s_gun

In Understanding Popular Culture (Routledge, 1989), John Fiske defined and applied the concept of producerly texts to media products that allow its audience to participate in the production of their meaning through an exercise of what he calls excessive reading. Producerly texts have loose ends that escape their control, meanings that exceed their own power to discipline them, gaps wide enough for whole new texts to be produced in them by their readers.

In other words, a media product doesn’t have to give up having a clearly defined message, but in so far as it limits its potential meanings, it limits its potential circulation. A producerly text is, therefore, one that can be enjoyed, accessed and read on multiple levels: it can be taken at face value, but it also leaves room for deeper and more active interpretations.

The busy, socially-conscious music video that Hiro Murai directed for Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) is a fine example of how the producerly features of a multimedia artifact can enhance viewer’s engagement and propel a series of excessive readings throughout the web.

The first sign of the producerly nature of the music video can be attested by the fact that “This is America” had crossed one million pageviews on Genius in just 45 hours, becoming the fastest song to reach that landmark in the site’s nine-year history. This highly successful online annotation-embedded platform allows users to provide annotations and interpretations of song lyrics, music videos, news stories, sources and other documents, thus fostering in recent years some of the most fascinating crowd-sourced vernacular theory and excessive reading in popular culture.

Besides of having debuted on the #1 spot of the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, the popularity of “This is America” can also be attested by the fact that its music video reached 100 million views and 300 thousand comments on YouTube in its first week. The comment section of YouTube is another example of how social media has become a cosmopedic space (Pierre Lévy) that not only feeds the collective intellect of all of the pertinent knowledge about a given topic or media available at a given moment, as it also serves as a site of collective discussion, negotiation and development.

Unanswered questions, cryptic symbols, missing puzzle pieces or loose ends tend to create tension within cosmopedic space, indicating regions where invention and innovation are required. In “This is America”, these areas are mostly condensed in its music video, whose moving images reveal themselves to be an extremely focused catalogue of dramatic and cinematic devices such as MacGuffins, Red Heerings, Deus Ex-Machinas and Fake Shemps that keeps triggering a transmediatic storytelling between the video and its viewers.

If, at first glance, the plot, wardrobe, scenery, choreography, props, characters and unapologetic violence of the music video might appear as mere flashy visual hooks aimed at grabbing the attention of viewers, its producerly texture ends up positioning it not only as a disciple of Chekhov’s gun (the dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary), as a worthy successor in the tradition of rap videos that have struggled against racism in the last four decades.

 

João Pedro da Costa é música, lavoura e corridas.

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