Style over Substance: An in-depth analysis of music video styles

Zedd Records consider music videos “essential” for music artists. As they put it: “It's going to sell your song. It's going to sell your imagine. And most importantly, it's going to sell your record!” (Zubeck, 2014). The concept of music videos as promotional tools is not a new one, indeed the birth of the music video industry in the early 20th Century was from a desire to increase sales. According to illustrated songs were introduced in 1984 “... as a publicity stunt for marketing sheet music” (, 2011).

More modern music videos haven't developed much as far as promotional purposes go, but they also serve to extend the income of an artist. Nolan Feeney, writing for The Atlantic, says “commercial patronage often not only funds art these days – it colours it” (Feeney, 2013). And it is not just product placement enabling music videos to become a sources of income, “Videos festooned with ads make roughly $2 per 1,000 YouTube views” (Knopper, 2013).. According to E! News Taylor Swift's Bad Blood pulled in 18 million views, which is a viewership only television show NCIS: Los Angeles was able to surpass (Bacardi, 2016). In the same article Bacardi suggests that “many people watching music videos start with the new song but ultimately end up diving deeper in the artist's other music videos”. No longer is it simply about selling a track or record but extending the outlets by which an artists work can be reached.

David Fincher's 1990 music video for George Michael's Freedom! '09 relies heavily on commercial influences. The video features supermodels listening to and enjoying the track, shot in a very stylised way, influenced by television commercials of the time. Fincher makes it clear the cast are not singing the song themselves but listening to it by opening the video with a shot of a stereo being switched on. The promotional aspect is taken further when, in product placement for the album itself, the camera lingers on a close-up of the cover.

The influence of commercials on music videos can be seen regularly, in the 2002 video for Tenacious D's Tribute, directed by Liam Lynch, applies a similar technique to Fincher when, at the end of the video, a character holds the album up to the camera. The video even goes so far as to have Jack Black, the lead vocalist of the band, announce that the album will “change Rock history”, albeit in a tongue in cheek way. The Tribute video also utilises a different aspect of promotion or corporate synergy when it features cameos from both comedian and actor Ben Stiller and musician Dave Grohl. This serves to further extend the audience reach of the video, with Ben Stiller drawing movie-goers while Grohl's presence offers a kind of prestige among fans of the rock genre, drawing his followers to Tenacious D and vies-versa.

Using another artists image or name to attract an audience is a recurring theme in music videos, most prominently the hip-hop and dance genres. Dr Dre, for example, founded the record label Death Row Records in 1991 (St. Clair, 2015), and would often appear in videos with the artists signed, such as in 1999's Still D.R.E., directed by Hype Williams, which features Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg, The D.O.C., Eminem and Xzibit, among others, in prominent roles.

According to the featured credit “...started, however inadvertently, with “She Ain't Worth It” - a wafer-thin single by a boy-pop crooner looking to up his cred and a New Jack baller looking to expand his dominion” (Molanphy, 2015). It's clear that the idea has always been used as a way to increase the audience and capitalize on another's credibility, with a view of either selling more records, reinventing ones own image, or both, and this is no different when applied to music videos.

Synergy between music videos, films and television is not a new idea either. Every Bond film since 1963's From Russia With Love has featured a theme song and the videos often feature synergy with the films including movie clips and recurring characters. This was taken to the extreme in 2002's Die Another Day when Madonna performed the theme song and appeared as a character in the film (Die Another Day, 2002). Videos such as these are often shot in the style of the film or television show they are connecting with, such as the 1990 video for The Simpsons' Do the Bartman, directed by Brad Bird, acting as a short episode of the show, using new animation and voice-overs (Do the Bartman audio commentary, 2002).

In directors Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris and Todd McFarlane's 1999 video for Korn's Freak on a Leash a slightly different promotional strategy is used. The video features animated segments which utilise the design and style of the album artwork. Furthermore the video includes numerous references to the band's work, with posters of the band's logo and the band themselves shown adorning walls within the real world.

Despite the wildly different approaches to their subject there are key similarities within each video in terms of techniques and styles. All feature the use of editing to the beat, often cutting quickly, using multiple angles, when the song picks up speed, as seen during the bridge in both Tribute and Freak on a Leash. The use of editing and camera movement as a visual representation of music is also present in many videos, such as in Freedom! '09 when the camera whip-pans in time to a Glissando on the piano and in Freak on a Leash when a bullet hurtling through the real world smashes objects in time to the drums. As previously mentioned music videos are often influenced by commercials, usually in the use of stylised shots and editing. This is a technique that continues to reappear, even in Freak on a Leash, which features a somewhat darker tone, there is still a heavily stylised aspect present.

Often times the genre of music will influence the style of the video. Lynch's video for Tenacious D's Tribute has a comedic look in terms of lighting and angles due to the comedic and self-referential nature of the song. Visual effects are also often used in music videos as a way to enhance the audiences understanding and engagement of the song or artist. In Tribute visual effects are used as a way to enhance the more cartoonish aspects of the video, especially in the moments when the video is visually interpreting the lyrics, where the band members wander through green-screened backdrops and the line “there shined a shiny demon” is accompanied by an image of a shining shiny demon. Freak on a Leash features a strong use of visual effects but also another style music videos often employ: animation.

Animation in music videos is often used for aesthetic reasons, although in Freak on a Leash the animation is used to create a clear differentiation between the real world and the world of the album artwork. Tribute uses visual effects and animated backdrops as a sort of homage and pastiche of rock bands from the 70s and 80s. Music videos often parody or reference other works of art and pop culture, often in an effort to showcase their inspirations or to poke fun at modern trends. Tenacious D's Tribute was inspired by Metallica's One and Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven (Gass, 2016), which is where the influence on the video comes from, but the band never take themselves too seriously, as described by Jack Black in a phone interview, “I love rock, but I also love to make fun of rock at the same time as loving it” (The Vermont cynic, 2013).

Visual representations of lyrics tend to be present in most music videos, from the parodying self-referential style of Tribute to the more serious Freedom! '09, where a leather jacket, jukebox and guitar, all of which featured in the music video for George Michael's Faith, destruct to the lines “I just hope you understand / sometimes the clothes do not make the man”. Often this visual interpretation is used a way to extend the audiences understanding of the song, such as in Freedom! '09 where there is something of a personal reinvention taking place. History plays a part in the interpretation as, in many ways the video represents Michael's own hopeful freedom from his pop star status, and the destruction of the objects synonymous with his most famous song represents that in a heavy-handed way, as he told the LA Times, “I decided that the thing I really enjoy... the thing I really needed was my songwriting. I didn't need the celebrity” (Hilburn, 1990).

Another often used trope is miming or lip syncing to the song. More often than not this is to give the impression of singing or a liver performance. Heavy bands featuring musicians tend to lean heavily on the as-live aspect whereas solo artists usually employ a simple lip-syncing, which is perhaps down to a bands emphasise on music created through instruments as oppose to solo artists often using backing tracks. Though this style is not featured with Freedom! '09, it is present in both Tribute and Freak on a Leash, which both feature the bands performing the song “live”.

Tribute employs a narrative style in which the band break into a karaoke booth to record their album. Narrative structures are used in many music videos, often as a literal interpretation of the lyrics, because “narratives engage the audience by providing enigmas and mystery” (Turner, 2013). Freak on a Leash is more impressionist and surrealist in its approach, as co-director Jonathan Dayton told the band, “think of it like an episode of Twilight Zone. It's going to be this black room, this sort of weird space that's full of bullet holes, but it's all smooth black walls, so it's not in this world” (Olidale79, 2011). Impressionist and surrealist styles are also common techniques used in music videos and often intertwine with a narrative structure. Despite Freedom! '09 featuring a narrative of people listening to the track, for example, it also features some impressionistic moments, such as the aforementioned destruction of the objects from the Faith video, and the use of lighting and locations give off a surreal vibe.

Artists also often break the fourth wall in music videos, directly referencing the camera. This technique is used in film and theatre, where directly referencing the audience “makes you feel actively involved in what you're watching, makes you feel part of the performance” (Tripney, 2008). A similar logic applies to music videos, where the end result is to increase the viewers engagement in the hopes that the viewer becomes a consumer.

Music videos often employ similar styles depending on genre. Rock bands are more likely to feature darker themes and as-live performances within their videos, like Tribute or Freak on a Leash, whereas pop videos tend to keep the emphasis on fun, such as Freedom! '09. In hip hop and dance videos, like the previously mentioned Still D.R.E., the artist or artists are almost always dressed in lots of expensive clothing and jewellery, and are often shown driving expensive cars or having fun at a huge party filled with beautiful people.

Of course all of these different elements only serve to further an alignment with the strategy of the producer or record label, which is that music videos are promotional tools designed to make money and sell the artist(s), their image and their music. Whether through the use of imagery to sell an artists reputation or simply just by creating a visual compliment to help audiences engage further with the song, consciously or subconsciously the end goal is clear. As music industry vet Kevin Cornell writes, “The impact and reach of a great song can be magnified exponentially if it's accompanied by a great video” (Cornell, 2015). Even independent artists benefit, their audience reach widens and more people are introduced to their sound. Music videos, it would seem, really are “essential”.

This was an analytical essay I had to write for the Music Video Production Unit of my Film and Television Production degree. I was quite proud of this work, and I'll publish some other essays I've written during my degree here when I can.

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© Alex Secker 2018