Official History of Music Video

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Think of widescreen televisions, computer panels, iPod displays, even museum gallery monitors as miniaturized movie screens. Even when art is specifically made for these forms, the best of it always seems like shrunken-down movies—that is, until Lincoln Center’s yearly Scanners: New York Video Festival makes them big. The idea is to open up viewers’ eyes and widen their minds about video as an art form.

Of all the new media on display this week at Lincoln Center’s Scanners, it’s music video that remains the best known and most popular. “The Official History of Music Video—An Introspective” is the series’ July 28 program (7pm at the Walter Reade Theater). It connects the high-art, experimental examples of video production to the liveliest, most viewer-friendly instances of video innovation—the video art that people talk about and dance to.

To my delight, I%u2008have had the opportunity to present this music video program at Lincoln Center over the years, and it has led to this season’s assessment of an “Official History” in order to set the record straight about why music videos matter and which ones have stood the test of time. I subtitle it “An Introspective” because this visualized form of pop music, when widely broadcast and enthusiastically sought out by viewers who want to repeat the audio-visual excitement in heavy rotation, provides insight into the private fantasies and pleasures of the pop audience.

That’s why it was always wrong when music critics, in the early days of MTV’s domination, complained that music videos imprinted prefabricated images onto the shifting illusions of a song. When a music video strikes a nerve, it gives pop listeners a rare chance to interpret a song visually. And these ready-made mental pictures that came across on the TV screen could powerfully influence our own imaginings. Viewers learned how to dance, dress, flirt and dream. Music videos created a large audience responding to the same visual ideas the way moviegoers do, but now as a supplement to the special meanings and rhythms that the different styles of popular music offered to its various tribes. The videos helped people articulate their own tentative feelings.

Music video could unite the tribes, making metal heads into fans of rap (Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” playlisted next to De La Soul’s “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays”), turning on R&B romantics to the joys of Britpop (Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” aired with Erasure’s “Chains of Love”), making alt-rock isolates give it up to infectious dance pop (Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” playlisted alongside Janet Jackson’s “Nasty”). These examples of cross-cultural pollination were never-before-thought-of instances of visual democracy, true Pop. The popularity of music video derived from the new thrill of putting imagery to music, the surprise of making graphics out of the beat. Because this form of entertainment can be so intense and so personal, its appeal has lasted beyond the dictates of TV-programmers. The form thrives even through periods when the record labels are uninspired or simply following formula.

But since this is the normal history of any art, music video deserves the consideration of a new Official History—not the bored, fake sophistication of pop journalists who mistakenly reject the form as old news, but a history that takes account of a viewer’s personal response and distinctive needs. Therefore, “An Introspective.” By looking at personal reactions to music video, it becomes possible to understand how music videos gain significance in spite of the mainstream media’s indifference.

The past decades of music video, whether seen on TV, in clubs or on the Internet, have presented numerous art works expressing the street life and fantasy lives of modern sub-cultures. The experiences and enticements vary, whether one responds to urban drama (Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” Naughty By Nature’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”), girl power (Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”), money (Mase’s “Feel So Good,” Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin”), patriotism (Kenny Chesney’s “Who You’d Be Today,” John Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses”), dancing (Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”), adolescent nostalgia (Smashing Pumpkins’ “1969,” Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”), flamboyant narcissism (Beyonce’s “Check On It,” Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”) or just plain astonishing graphic ingenuity (The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl,” REM’s “Imitation of Life,” U2’s “Mysterious Ways”).

Night of the Living Baseheads
Confirmation that music videos were something more than advertisements for pop singles came with a quintessentially New York story: the 1988 release of Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads.” As directed by Lionel Martin, founder of the New York production house Classic Concepts, the outfit that gave first chances to iconic directors Hype Williams, Paul Hunter, the “Baseheads” video broke new ground. It presented the music video as a form of social expression from the subculture of hip-hop music.

Martin and P.E. producer Hank Shocklee conceived “Baseheads” as a modern reflection of television’s mainstream as encountered by hip-hop radicalism. They used news footage of crack houses and homeless crackheads to set the stage for comic depictions of a TV news program (PE-TV), plus commercials, interview segments with victimized ghetto families, the fantasy of PE as a superhero group abducted by hip-hop-phobes, yet breaking free with the news of black America in crisis.

It was postmodern as all get out, but its postmodernism also verified that music video could be a vital response to the pabulum Hollywood at that time (as today) was feeding the American public with offal, like Die Hard, Rain Man, Mississippi Burning and Working Girl. The satire and sincerity in “Baseheads” effectively countered the disingenuousness and outright falsehoods of those feature films. Music video watchers were thrust ahead of the cultural curve but were provided fresh insight into contemporary social issues—teased into using their political imaginations.

Shocklee explains “Baseheads’” radical-seeming approach as, “We wanted to do something original. If people wanted to hear the record, they could play the record. But when they watch the video we want them to see it as a separate and original thing.” All the great hip-hop videos that reported daily life and political drama—Bushwick Bill’s “Ever So Clear,” Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez,” Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop”—all derive from the revolutionary “Baseheads.”

Music Video as Pop Art
A Hollywood story also validates music videos as an important pop form. The clips designed to simply provide ecstatic entertainment were the unique product of mini-moviemakers who may not have had talent for the long-form established by the great directors of Hollywood-movie musicals but who ushered that same ecstasy into a new, condensed medium.

Inspired by Michael Jackson, Madonna, David Bowie and Bjork, recording artists who connected to movie-musicals and contemporary pop graphics, such directors as Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Michel Gondry, Jean-Paul Goude, Mark Romanek, Marcus Nispel, Spike Jonze and Ben Stokes created music videos that highlighted the beauty of dance and heartfelt singing. It’s a gift that today’s film directors are inured to. Recent movie-musicals—from the hellish Moulin Rouge and Chicago to the inept Dreamgirls and The Producers—merely borrow the banal frenzy of TV-commercial editing and off-balance compositions; these are insipid attempts at making movie-musicals seem modern.

But the auteurs of music video (whose names deserve to hyphenate the performers credited above) have demonstrated the talent to preserve the Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, George Sidney virtues and connect them to the innovations of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, that Richard Lester devised in A Hard Day’s Night and that Ken Russell heightened in the great, delirious Tommy. These new music-video directors have sensibilities that connect to pop-star iconography and use it to feature the outward expression of pop stars’ personal fantasies, and these fantasies, in turn, connect with the public’s individual desires.

Music videos prove that despite the proliferation of polls and lists and award shows (namely, MTV’s laughable VMAs), the official history of any art form must be a private one.

Scanners takes place July 27-29. Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (at Amsterdam Ave.), 212-496-3809; $7-$10. Armond White’s presentation takes place July 28 at 7.

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