Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Experiencing Music Video

Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context

Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 480
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Experiencing Music Video
    Book Description:

    Music videos have ranged from simple tableaux of a band playing its instruments to multimillion dollar, high-concept extravaganzas. Born of a sudden expansion in new broadcast channels, music videos continue to exert an enormous influence on popular music. They help to create an artist's identity, to affect a song's mood, to determine chart success: the music video has changed our idea of the popular song.

    Here at last is a study that treats music video as a distinct multimedia artistic genre, different from film, television, and indeed from the songs they illuminate -- and sell. Carol Vernallis describes how verbal, musical, and visual codes combine in music video to create defining representations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and performance. The book explores the complex interactions of narrative, settings, props, costumes, lyrics, and much more. Three chapters contain close analyses of important videos: Madonna's "Cherish," Prince's "Gett Off," and Peter Gabriel's "Mercy St."

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50845-2
    Subjects: Music, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    I loved music video before it existed. As a young teen, I would stay up to watch Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or The Midnight Special on television. Not much was happening in those programs, it now seems clear, but at the time I was transfixed by the image of the musician performing on camera. One day, as a graduate student without cable, I was at a friend’s house, and the television was on. He mentioned MTV, and I turned toward the set. What I saw, Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” was beautiful somehow. As a doctoral student in communication, I was...


    • 1 Telling and Not Telling
      (pp. 3-26)

      Some writers about music video have claimed that videos work primarily as narratives, that they function like parts of movies or television shows. Others have wanted to say that music video is fundamentally antinarrative, a kind of postmodern pastiche that actually gains energy from defying narrative conventions.¹ Both of these descriptions reflect technical and aesthetic features of music video that remain worthy of discussion, but they need to be placed in context with techniques drawn from other, particularly musical and visual, realms; we should consider music video’s narrative dimension in relation to its other modes, such as underscoring the music,...

    • 2 Editing
      (pp. 27-53)

      When critics of film and television say that something is “cut like music video” or refer to “MTV style editing,” what do they mean? They might mention quick cutting or editing on the beat. And indeed, one can see that the edits in music video come much more frequently than in film, that many stand out as disjunctive, and that the editing seems to have a rhythmic basis closely connected to the song. These last two features of music-video editing—that it is sometimes meant to be noticed and that it brings out aspects of the song—suggest at once...

    • 3 Actors
      (pp. 54-72)

      Record companies and videomakers will try anything once, if only because novelty can break through the onslaught of commercial messages and grab the viewer’s attention. Why, then, has there not been a video that makes it difficult to find the lead singer? Such a video might place the singer in a crowd in order to obscure her, or in a large group of performers, with each character acting slightly out of phase until the real performance is almost unrecognizable. There are videos that do without the performers, most of these being either clay or line-drawn animation, and a few that...

    • 4 Settings
      (pp. 73-98)

      Music video’s history shows that different modes of address are available to different constituencies. An avid viewer will recognize the studio set of a living room with worn wallpaper; the industrial site with naked pipes and debris on the floor; the high-ceilinged hotel with marble staircases, and “the street.” Why do alternative bands inhabit huge, fanciful spaces or squeeze into cramped ones? Why do they get to display generalized emotional and physical suffering, while R&B artists must operate within a nexus of action/adventure films, melodrama, and Hollywood musicals? Rap videos, meanwhile, have traditionally taken place on the street and used...

    • 5 Props and Costumes
      (pp. 99-108)

      Objects in music video can carry an excess of meaning and exist outside the flow of the tape. As such, they take on a heightened role. Like the ballet slippers in The Red Shoes, they appear to possess a mysterious power, as if their silence contained some truth about the video beyond what the characters embody. Certain props come to the foreground as mysterious but unknowable, graspable but unobtainable. Witness the needle, blouse, bowl of water, and glove in Madonna’s “Take a Bow”; the glittering and metallic butterfly in Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet for Butterfly”; the twirling trumpet in TLC’s “Creep”;...

    • 6 Interlude: Space, Color, Texture, and Time
      (pp. 109-136)

      One of music video’s pleasures lies in tracing a trajectory through space while following along with the music. As the camera cranes, the performer’s body twists, and the eyes follow, the viewer can pursue one thread (the music, say) or another (for example, the camera as it tracks through space or the line of the body as it leans backward). This experience raises an important question: can we apprehend more than one medium simultaneously, or are we always more grounded in one? The unfolding spaces of music video—conveying possibility, autonomy, and prowess—stand in marked contrast to contemporary lives,...

    • 7 Lyrics
      (pp. 137-155)

      As we step back from the surfaces of music videos, the twitches and turns of bodies, the melting colors, dazzling camera work, and fleeting edits, we might wonder what the lyrics are doing.

      This chapter attempts to address this question, discussing such aspects of the topic as (1) How important are the lyrics of music video in relation to their image and music? (2) How do viewers receive a music video’s lyrics, and how does this reception differ from that of lyrics when the song is heard alone? (3) Do music-video lyrics function similarly to pop-song lyrics, poetry, or dialogue...

    • 8 Musical Parameters
      (pp. 156-174)

      Almost any musical feature can be reflected in the music-video image. The image often directs our attention to different musical elements one by one, like a tour guide. By the end of the song, the video has revealed many musical features. A single image can also underscore several musical parameters simultaneously. When music, image, and lyrics are placed in relation, questions of cause and effect arise—is the music generating the visual dimension, or does the image somehow transform the lyrics and the music? The people and objects depicted in videos seem to inhabit a strange world, somewhere between the...

    • 9 Connections Among Music, Image, and Lyrics
      (pp. 175-198)

      This chapter examines the ways that music, image, and lyrics exist in relation. Directors can establish connections across media through a number of devices: the image can be shaped so that it mimics the experiential qualities of sound; an image can be chosen that has drifted away from its sound source but is still linked to it through a syncretic relationship¹; an image may match a sound through a symbolic, indexical, or iconic resemblance; sound, image, and lyrics can be placed in a metaphorical relation. In addition, any highly marked image, if repeated, can create a sync point, especially if...

    • 10 Analytical Methods
      (pp. 199-206)

      For months, when I worked on Prince’s “Gett Off” video, I could not find a way in. All I could do was admire a number of its features: its ability to seem warm and forthcoming, yet reactionary; its ability to embody so much detail. In this case, I learned a new way of attending to subtle inflections in the background of the image, and I became interested in holding off the analytic method until I had found a way to be sensitive to the demands of the video before me. But when materials run dry, I consider the video by...


    • 11 The Aesthetics of Music Video: An Analysis of Madonna’s “Cherish”
      (pp. 209-235)

      When we become engaged with a music video, what draws us in? What constitutes craft or artistry in the genre? Theorists of music video have usually addressed these questions from the perspective of sociology, film theory, or popular cultural studies. Film theory, in particular, has had a tremendous influence on the analysis of music video, because of the two genres’ apparently similar structuring of sound and image. But by the criteria of film, music videos tend to come off as failed narratives; the genre’s effectiveness eludes explanation.

      Much has been written about the ways that advertising, film, television sitcoms, and...

    • 12 Desire, Opulence, and Musical Authority: The Relation of Music and Image in Prince’s “Gett Off”
      (pp. 236-249)

      In prince’s “Gett Off,” two women calling themselves “Diamond” and “Pearl” gain admittance to a huge performance space. The space is extremely ornate, disposed with the band members, many extras, and a vast number of props. As Diamond and Pearl move toward the back of the space as a locus of fulfillment, they encounter Prince at various points and in various guises. All three figures tease each other in what amounts to a complex courtship ritual. The video ends with the scene of a mock orgy. Reflecting the song, the video alludes to many visual and musical styles. This allusive...

    • 13 Peter Gabriel’s Elegy for Anne Sexton: Image and Music in “Mercy St.”
      (pp. 250-284)

      The video for Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy St.” begins with a man taking a boat out onto the water. He carries some unidentified cargo that might be a person—alive or dead. A woman, possibly institutionalized, prepares for death through the practices of Catholic faith. The connection between these two strands is never made clear, partly because the two stories move at different paces. At the end of the video, the man remains on the boat, but the status of the woman is unknown. The figures become more purely iconic as the video progresses; they change in some degree, but it...

    (pp. 285-290)

    This book focuses on particular aspects of music video—volatility, fragmentation, playfulness, heterogeneity, and density. The text attempts to lay out the basic materials of music video, much as David Bordwell and his colleagues do for cinema in The Classical Hollywood Cinema or Film Art, or Jan La Rue for Western art music in Guidelines to Style Analysis.¹ The preceding chapters describe the ways that music videos are structured, using forms such as the process, the series, the catalogue, and the tableau, and trace the function of individual parameters in music video rather than in a Hollywood film or musical....

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 291-322)
    (pp. 323-328)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 329-342)