Artists find power to ex­press them­selves with­out in­ter­fer­ence as medium en­ters new era

Windsor Star - - YOU - SO­NIA RAO

Don­ald Glover didn’t hold back when cre­at­ing the mu­sic video for This Is Amer­ica, the most re­cent sin­gle by his rap­per al­ter ego, Child­ish Gam­bino. The video is em­blem­atic of its time — bla­tantly po­lit­i­cal in a way that ap­peals to so­cial me­dia and its love of dis­sectable vi­su­als. Con­sider Glover’s danc­ing, pre­sum­ably chore­ographed to mimic a min­strel char­ac­ter; the mur­der of choir singers, evok­ing the Charleston church mas­sacre; and Death rid­ing in on a white horse.

“It’s fun to see how peo­ple have taken to it, the in­ter­pre­ta­tions,” said Larkin Seiple, the video’s cin­e­matog­ra­pher.

Po­lit­i­cal edge isn’t a new ad­di­tion to the art form, but it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the re­cent del­uge of videos ex­plor­ing racial and sex­ual iden­tity oc­cur­ring in the MTV era. Bey­oncé’s vis­ual al­bum Le­mon­ade kicked off a wave with its emo­tion­ally hefty ex­plo­ration of black wom­an­hood, fol­lowed by sim­i­larly bold videos by Frank Ocean, Janelle Monáe, Glover and oth­ers. The phe­nom­e­non is, in part, the re­sult of po­lit­i­cal trends such as po­lar­iza­tion and iden­tity pol­i­tics ris­ing in on­line con­ver­sa­tion, and move­ments such as Black Lives Mat­ter and #Me­Too. But it also owes a lot to the YouTube revo­lu­tion and the free­dom that video plat­forms grant artists.

Just ask Larry Miller, di­rec­tor of the mu­sic busi­ness pro­gram at New York Univer­sity ’s Stein­hardt School of Cul­ture, Ed­u­ca­tion and Hu­man De­vel­op­ment. In re­sponse to the ques­tion of whether the pur­pose of mu­sic videos has evolved over the years, he chuck­led.

“I’m only laugh­ing out loud be­cause yes, of course,” he said. “At one time, the pur­pose of mu­sic videos was to sell al­bums.” MTV, the first chan­nel ded­i­cated to mu­sic videos, took off af­ter its 1981 launch, and record la­bels used it as a pro­mo­tional mech­a­nism for new mu­sic. The buzz sur­round­ing videos such as Madonna’s Like a Prayer, a Vat­i­can-con­demned com­men­tary on race and re­li­gion, and Michael Jack­son’s Thriller, viewed as a metaphor for sex­ual awak­en­ing, re­minded view­ers to head out and buy al­bums.

Tele­vi­sion also meant ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars, which trans­lated to enor­mous bud­gets for the videos. But, some­times, the money meant sac­ri­fic­ing cre­ative con­trol. The more that was at stake, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral di­rec­tors, the safer la­bels played it. Strict TV guide­lines didn’t make things any eas­ier. Those who worked on Monáe’s Dirty Com­puter got a taste of this when pre­par­ing a ver­sion of the ac­com­pa­ny­ing short film to air on MTV and BET. Sex­ual lib­er­a­tion is a theme through­out the al­bum, es­pe­cially in songs such as Pynk. Di­rec­tor Emma Westen­berg made sure its video, which ref­er­ences fe­male anatomy through el­e­ments like Monáe’s so-called vagina pants, re­flected that. “The im­agery, be­cause the song is so open and free, was so much fun to de­velop,” she said. “It’s al­ready so clear what (Pynk) is about that the im­agery came from the lyrics.”

The Dirty Com­puter that aired on TV was quite dif­fer­ent from its on­line coun­ter­part, said An­drew Donoho. He co-di­rected the nar­ra­tive por­tion and said the team had to cut shots that in­cluded nu­dity and stuck-up mid­dle fin­gers. “It’s def­i­nitely some­thing that can only ex­ist in the here and now,” Donoho said of the on­line cut. “There were plenty of artists in the ’80s and ’90s that would have loved to make con­tro­ver­sial pieces or videos that pushed bound­aries, but cen­sor­ship and hav­ing to cater to TV net­works and la­bels and go through all the hands and pol­i­tics, I’m sure there’s a lot of art that never got made.” Dirty Com­puter shares this “here and now” qual­ity with Frank Ocean’s videos, es­pe­cially the one for his sin­gle Nikes. It cri­tiques he­do­nis­tic plea­sure by con­trast­ing shal­low joy (shots of money and the tit­u­lar shoes) with harsh re­al­i­ties (pho­to­graphs of Trayvon Martin and dead hip-hop artists). Du­elling voices — Ocean’s and a higher-pitched ver­sion — mimic this jux­ta­po­si­tion, and his an­drog­y­nous style along with glit­tery and an­gel-winged bod­ies add sex­ual flu­id­ity.

Such videos feed our cul­ture’s de­mand for art shaped by pol­i­tics in to­day’s an­tag­o­nis­tic en­vi­ron­ment, where the stakes feel high for both sides of every cul­ture war. Zia Anger, who has di­rected videos for Mit­ski and An­gel Olsen, said YouTube makes it easy to fig­ure out what fans want, giv­ing artists a more per­son­al­ized look at their base.

“There’s a cer­tain amount of vis­i­bil­ity in­volved with see­ing a viewer on YouTube,” since every­one can see viewer fig­ures and com­ments, Anger said. “I guess there were Nielsen ratings for MTV back in the day, but this ... is a to­tally dif­fer­ent beast.”

“These days, with the ad­vent of on­line, the power re­ally is in the artists’ hands,” said Devin Sarno, vice-pres­i­dent of cre­ative ser­vices at Warner Broth­ers Records. “They can put out a piece of con­tent when­ever they want,” and at what­ever length they want.” Bey­oncé, the queen of craft­ing an im­age, sur­prised fans in 2016 by drop­ping Le­mon­ade on the JayZ-owned stream­ing ser­vice Tidal and the 46-minute film ver­sion on artist-friendly HBO. For­ma­tion, the work’s most-dis­cussed power an­them, calls on black women to stand to­gether and fea­tures the singer in an aban­doned plan­ta­tion and atop a sink­ing po­lice car, among other mem­o­rable im­ages. The video is wo­ven into the nar­ra­tive of Bey­oncé nav­i­gat­ing an en­vi­ron­ment of­ten hos­tile to women of colour, which a Mal­colm X voiceover ex­presses early on: “The most dis­re­spected woman in Amer­ica is the black woman.” Mu­si­cians have al­ways told sto­ries, but these al­bums are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the ac­com­pa­ny­ing im­ages, and are far less pow­er­ful with­out them. “I think a lot of artists are re­ally ed­u­cated at film­mak­ing and in­ter­ested in it as a cre­ative ex­ten­sion from mu­sic,” Miller said. “I think the cur­tain has been drawn back. In the ’90s, not as many peo­ple knew how to make film, and now it’s so much more ac­ces­si­ble.” The short film route is tricky, as at­ten­tion spans for on­line con­tent al­ways seem to be shorter. So the videos have to grab you. View­ers can’t look away from This Is Amer­ica be­cause of Glover’s mag­netic pres­ence the first time they watch, and the back­ground chaos the sec­ond time. There’s so much to un­pack, said Seiple, the cin­e­matog­ra­pher — and that helps give the video a vi­ral qual­ity.

“You can’t just shoot some­one per­form­ing in a cool venue, you have to make some­thing unique or out­landish,” he added.

It’s a lot to ask for. But ac­cord­ing to Huang, bold state­ments will usu­ally do the trick. “Artists need vi­su­als and videos to com­mu­ni­cate the per­sona they’re try­ing to get across more than ever,” he said. “There are cer­tain mu­si­cians where the minute their video comes out, you want to know who (worked on) it. That’s the mark of a great mu­si­cian, some­one who is se­lec­tive and cares very much about the en­tire pack­age.”

There were plenty of artists in the ’80s and ’90s that would have loved to make con­tro­ver­sial pieces or videos that pushed bound­aries ...


Sex­ual lib­er­a­tion is a fre­quent theme for singer Janelle Monáe, and she has taken ad­van­tage of the free­dom that on­line video of­fers to ex­plore it with vivid im­agery.

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