Ways of thinking about music video (and post-modernism)

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    01-Oct-2016

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  • PETER WOLLEN

    Ways of thinking about music video (and post-modernism)

    Music video is generally reckoned to have begun in Britain as a promotional tool (pop promos) and then to have taken off as an international and tele- vision phenomenon with the launch of MTV (Music Television) in the United States on 1 August 1981: the first mass-audience, twenty-four hour, cable music station.

    Not only does music video raise a number of semiotic and aesthetic questions, about the relationship between musical, graphic and performance forms, for instance, but it also exemplifies in capsule many of the cultural traits which have given currency to the idea of post-modernism. We can group these under three heads. First, crossover between: (1) the fine arts/avant-garde tradition, (2) the mass-media, (3) vernacular culture (or sub-cultures), (4) the new technologies (mainly electronic) associated with the communications explosion and the information revolution. It is important to stress that both the fine arts and the mass media have themselves evolved and changed in relation to ver- nacular culture and new technologies and that this, in turn, has transformed the terms of the old avant-garde/kitsch debate.

    This has been particularly clear in the world of music. Both the music in- dustry and the avant-garde were forced to respond to the new popular music from below which followed the advent of rocknroll and which coincided with new electronic technology that transformed both performance and post- production. In a way, music video simply represents the extension of this into the television industry, at the same time as video art locked in with new trends in music (often, as with Philip Glass or Laurie Anderson, difficult to characterise as pop or avant-garde any longer).

    Thus, music video itself challenges the distinction between television and video art, which had already grown up by analogy with the avant-gardelkitsch, fine art/graphics and literature/pulp polarities. Both have converged in the experimental use of new post-production technologies. The input from vernacular culture is much more mediated than it was in the music world, though if home video technology were to become more widely available, this too would change.

    Second, the breakdown of genre distinctions and the development of new mixed-media forms. Music video, of course, is just such a form, combining elements of live musical performance, film and TV to produce a kind of electronic

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    mini-operetta, or, to put it another way, an animated record sleeve, extended in time, and with its own sound-track. This strange grafting of packaging on to capsule opera and dance both combines and transforms its varied ingredients in a novel blend to make a miniature total work-of-art, to use Wagners phrase.

    But the most significant hybridisation brought about by music video is the breakdown of the distinction between programme and ad. In origin and, from the point of view of the music industry, in function, music videos are an advertising vehicle, promoting the sale of records. In fact, MTV is often credited with the resurgence of the fortunes of the music industry in the United States. In form, too, music videos have much in common with the more sophisticated ads,,and there has also been a rapid crossover between the two (e.g. Michael Jacksons Pepsi ads).

    But music videos are treated by the television industry as programmes (e.g. the Max Headroom Show in Britain, produced by Chrysalis Records). Of course, this was already the case on radio, where records are programme material for the broadcaster and promotion for the record company. Music videos, however, are both ads for (image) and samples of (sound) the product they are promoting. At the same time, they are increasingly becoming commodities in their own right, which can be bought as video cassettes, Here we have a quite new and complex form of interaction between programming and marketing.

    Besides music performance, TV show and ad/packaging, there is a fourth element being hybridised by music video: the fashion event. Fashion already had a close relationship with music performance and with the packaging of musicians as images - witness the straddling of the music world, the performance world and the fashion world by David Bowie and Malcolm McLaren. Fashion, in its turn, has been moving into performance as the traditional catwalk has been suppIemented by music, lighting, dance and even embryonic narrative. Music video is the culmination of this trend.

    Thirdly, the art of post-modernism is one whose typical forms are eclecticism and historicism. Its characteristic modes are those of appropriation, simulation and replication. It plunders the image-bank and the word-hoard for the material of parody, pastiche and, in extreme cases, plagiarism. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, Everything can be put in a film. Everything should be put in a film. Its all there and its all mixed up. Thats why Im so attracted by TV. Post- modernism takes the modernist forms of the ready-made and collage and lets them loose in Malrauxs Imaginary Museum, recycling, not found objects, but found images and fragments of found text.

    It is as if the relation between nature and culture has shifted radically. In an age marked by an ever-increasing and ever-accelerating proliferation of signs, of all types, the immediate environment becomes itself increasingly dominated by signs, rather than natural objects or events. The realm of signs becomes not

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    simply a second nature but a primary reality. (The quotes around reality mark the effacement of the traditional distinction between reality and represen- tation in a world dominated by representation, as described, for example, by Baudrillard, in vatic terms.)

    As Benjamins age of mechanical reproduction is replaced by our age of electronic reproduction, the trends which he discerned are further extended. Reproduction, pastiche and quotation, instead of being forms of textual parasitism, become constitutive of textuality. Repetition and citation become the typical forms of post-modern cultural production. Clearly, these developments reflect the massive capacity for information storage made possible by the invention first of photography, then of audio and videotape, then of the computer. We can expect the production of both image and sound to become more and more a matter of combining and altering already existing images and sounds extracted from one or other information store.

    Music video, with its emphasis on post-production technology and departure from the reproduction of live performance, is already replete with quotation and allusion, ranging from pastiche of Hollywood film styles (film noir, science fantasy) through Fritz Langs Metropolis to images taken from Magritte or Warhol (purloinment upon purloinment). At the same time, the music is also ceaselessly recycling itself. Malcolm McLarens Farzs, for instance, is a bricolaged mix of opera (Carmen, Madame Butterfly), rap, and self-referential material from McLaren himself. Songs are made out of found music, images out of found footage .

    Clearly, post-modernist forms, like those to be found in music video, demand a post-modernist aesthetic. The polarised distinction between avant-garde and kitsch, high and low art; the doctrine of the purity of genres; the cluster of aesthetic concepts around the idea of artistic originality - all these are useless for any serious engagement with a hybrid and technologically sophisticated form such as music video. The whole apparatus of levels, standards, hierarchies, boundaries, limits, centres and sources needs to be re-thought,

    This is not to say that music video should be welcomed uncritically or unquestioningly. It is rather that the necessary criticism and questioning demands new concepts and new attitudes. The old critical apparatus has tended, in practice, to lead either to an exaggerated cultural pessimism or to a polemical over-enthusiasm. It would be too easy to inflect a traditional aesthetic with a critique of the spectacle and the commodity-form and denounce music video out of hand. Or, conversely, to extol it as a form which infects mainstream television with a subversive new mode of sipifiunce, associated with the youth audience and youth sub-cultures. Neither of these approaches will do.

    Artistic innovation is always ambiguous. On the one hand, it represents a phase of transition from one aesthetic orthodoxy to another. In this sense, the

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    modernist chapter of art history, once consecrated in museum, university and concert hall, is inevitably ordained to be challenged and eventually superseded by the next chapter - post-modernism becoming, in its turn, a new orthodoxy. Post-modernism is then simply the mode of art appropriate to the next epoch, marked by new technologies and audiences. On the other hand, artistic innovation is also the bearer of a subversive and corrosive potential, one which challenges and contradicts established aesthetic norms and, thus, if pushed far enough, the role of art itself.

    In Ernst Blochs terms, even music video, trashy, glitzy and prematurely hackneyed as it often is, still can contain a nouum, an instance of the radically new which has never yet been. We need an open aesthetics, future-oriented, to deal with an art which is still in process, not yet sedimented or stereotyped. Music video is still an arena of possibilities: its identity is still unsettled. Bloch argued that the human condition, like adolescence, was defined by its possible futures, its unidentified desire and unarticulated want. Music video is a form of the adolescence of post-modernism. It still holds the utopian possibility of being on its way to somewhere else, somewhere which is not necessarily television, but could be displaced into another kind of form and institution, by a knights move. That is why music video is worth listening to, watching, theorising, learning from.

    Brown University.

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