This should really be done with streaming video; me interposed over the images with white placards pretending to be Michael Hutchence (or Bob Dylan, to cite origins accurately, but we are talking about music videos here). But, you'll have to settle for the textual version here and be comforted that I suffered through the videos for you. Some of them several times.
The predominant result of the last twenty years is that a film like Armageddon was actually successful. Michael Bay is the grand raconteur of the stutter image_the persistent use of the jump cut so loved by MTV. Each video approximates a full lifetime in the five minutes that it has to entice you, to enthrall you, to make you sweat with desire to purchase what you have just seen. Somewhere along the way, the forest grew so thick you can no longer make out the individual trees. Watching an hour or even twenty minutes (if you can actually find twenty minutes of sustained videos these days) is like being asked to memorize any page selected at random from Finnegan's Wake. The music video has become a marketing tool designed by a flock of schizophrenics with Attention Deficit Disorder. And most of them don't understand the basic principle of marrying image to sound. You know, so what you remember has more than a visual component? So it'll actually stick in your brain longer than twenty seconds? (Mark's First Rule of the Successful Video.)
Look over here. Imperial Teen's "Yoo Hoo" The video essentially charts a run-in between the band members and Rose McGowan, star of the film Jawbreaker. The purpose of this five minutes of S/M alterna-rocker entertainment is two-fold, showcasing the band and making you think about checking out the film. Everybody wins in this one, because the video is smart and clever and doesn't get bogged down with spotty footage from the film. What this video does well is that it weds the song to the visuals. Running through the song is a thread of heavy breathing. And most of the breathy accents (as well as the "yoo hoo's" of the chorus) are matched with actual breathing of the tied up band members or their furtive attempts to escape their ropes.
Hang on. I need to watch this one again. Yep, it works. What you see has a component with what you hear. It lingers. Hell, I'm even humming along.
That's not to say that running the pictures parallel to the aural component is the answer. Concert footage is not effective, even if it does satisfy this first principle. The primary corollary to the First Rule is: watching videotape of a concert is fucking boring (Exhibit B: Monster Magnet, "See You in Hell"). All it does is remind me that I wasn't at that show. And it's even worse if it looks like it was a good show. What's my response? Change the channel. Bang. You've just driven me away from your product. Fire your marketing director and try again.
However, you really can't get away from showing the band. A video, by nature, is visual accompaniment to the song and sometimes watching the singer and the band do their thing in an exotic location is accompaniment enough. Again, it depends on what is being marketed. If you're talking Shania Twain or the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync, then showing the audience the product is half the marketing battle. Call me shallow, but I'll watch Shania Twain. I'll put something else on the stereo and mute the TV, but I'll watch. The fact that she's got someone filming her who understands something about shadows and lighting helps. But if you have to show the band, make sure they can mug properly for the camera. Lip-synching is important for the illusion. Of course, if you can get Winona Ryder, Giovanni Ribisi, and John C. Reilly to impersonate you, all the better.
Mark's Second Rule of the Successful Video: Have a hook. You've got about fifteen seconds to interest me. Metallica's "Whiskey in the Jar" (directed by MTV award winner Jonas Akerland) opens as an outside shot of a house party. You hear that ubiquitous sound of something breaking upstairs (as it always does) and the next shot is Metallica jamming in the living room of this party. It worked. I wondered what Metallica was doing playing someone's house and I stuck around. (By the way, boys, what fanbase were you trying to entice with the Anton Corbijn makeover? Depeche Mode's?) A decent hook can salvage a mediocre song into something fun, something worth watching. Offspring's "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" is made immensely entertaining by the visual story that accompanies the song. It even (gasp!) opens with a tracking shot, sustaining that initial image long enough for you to consciously decide to stick around, instead of flogging you with so many unrelated images that you change the channel just to get away from that incessant assault.
Tin Star's "Head" is nothing more than the band aping their performance in an empty warehouse. It's effective because of the use of Kai's Power Goo to alter the images of David Tomlinson, the lead singer, twisting and distorting his features. Coupled with some simple tricks with string, the Olly Blackburn directed video becomes this paralyzingly effective exercise in unsettling facial tics. Probably took them a couple of hours to shoot and a week to edit. A clean and simple concept.
Which brings us to Mark's Third Rule of the Successful Video: Money cannot resuscitate a shitty concept. Back in 1997, Spike Jonze did a video for the Chemical Brothers that was nothing more than a floor routine at a gymnastics competition. The song was the soundtrack to the gymnast's routine and Jonze created an entire life in the space of the song. The story of an underdog victory that would have made any Olympic telecast proud. I was on the edge of my seat, cheering for this girl. "Get up!" I shouted when she came down hard on her injured ankle and collapsed. "Get up! Finish your routine. Kick that other girl's ass!" It was just a video, I had to remind myself. Entire cost? Probably less than the price of catering lunch for Puff Daddy's entourage at any Bad Boy shoot.
Mark's Fourth Rule of the Successful Video: Know your audience. Two words: Shania Twain. Two more words: Sex sells. Rob Zombie's videos are a melange of monster movie footage, smoke-obscured stage shots, and Zombie's own monstrous image. He's not shooting for the Urban Contemporary market. Really. Sorry if that shatters an illusion of yours. 'N Sync focuses on what draws their audience to their shows in lemming-like droves: those pretty, pretty boys (who managed to find the only asylum that sported wind tunnels off every rubber-walled room). Mark's Fourth Rule of the Successful Video is to simply remember who you're providing this visual feast for. Cater to your audience, pander even. You're not insulting them. You did that "artistic vision" thing with the music. Provide a proper film to match your music, provide for those who will be buying your album. And never forget that gorgeous people in expensive clothes make everything more appealing.
An observation: Not even an overwhelming application of SGI video effects and the incomprehensible juxtaposition of Busta Rhymes' near-Tourettian spiel over a soft R & B groove can obscure the fact that Janet got all the sexuality in the Jackson family.
Mark's Fifth Rule of the Successful Video: Marketing, marketing, marketing. Proper marketing has the proper effect: Benjamins, baby, Benjamins. George Lucas slapped together movie footage with some documentary style clips from the making of the new Star Wars movie. VH-1 ran what is essentially a preview for The Phantom Menace over and over for at least an hour on the first day the video was released. This was before putting the "video" in high rotation. George must still cackle with glee and make the "Ka-ching!" noise every time he sees it played on TV.
Chris Cunningham delivers an astounding application of these rules to the new Aphex Twin single, "Windowlicker." You really have to see it. It's a send-up of Gangsta videos, complete with scantily clad women gyrating to the music. The hook? Every woman has Richard James' face superimposed over their own, complete with crazed grin and shaggy beard. It's hysterical and terrifying and Cecil still hasn't recovered from seeing it.
So, let's put these rules in action. Ricky Martin's "Living the Vida Loca" is up next on my tape. I have to admit I've managed to avoid hearing the song, so I'm actually the perfect target for this pitch. The backbone of the video is an open-air concert with Ricky surrounded by an audience that are all Broadway dancers slumming for an evening. Interspliced with this "concert footage" is the story of Ricky and his "girl" that is "into superstitions, black cats, and voodoo dolls." Mix in some morphing shots and a heavy dose of wet bodies and you've got a 3:42 advertisement for the good life. The stabs of the horn section and the percussive pulse are all matched by the visuals, mainly linked through the sharp movements of the dancers. The pace of the visuals matches the song, the CGI elements falling into the bridges and instrumental solos, the emphasis on Ricky during the vocal verses. The hook? Sex, sex, sex. Rule Four in effect as well. Rule Three? Money well spent. Everything is used. Nothing is simply window dressing, though the window dressings are pretty damn nice. Fifth Rule? The song isn't long enough to do much more than inspire a shopping suggestion in your brain. But those horns strike deep and bury their salsa-fueled groove into your medulla and you'll feel your fingers lightly tapping the counter in fond memory while you wait for Visa to clear. Oh wait, did he actually sing, "She'll take away your pain/Like a bullet to the brain?" Whoops. The cliché-o-meter just exploded on the couch next to me.
Of course, applying Mark's Sixth Rule of the Successful Video helps. Hire a great director. In this case, Wayne Isham, who could direct me eating a sandwich and make it riveting video. Not to mention better lit.
Finally, I'd like to offer my services to those considering shooting a music video. Kind of a "common sense" consultant, dispense a little advice to avert potential disasters that can hurt your project. I can't help those who've already made these following mistakes, but everyone else can at least benefit from their errors.
702: An executive briefcase is not a proper fashion accessory to an off-the-shoulder sweater dress, especially when you're sporting spike heels.
Puff Daddy and Nas: So, if you're not depicting Jesus Christ in your video (witness their disclaimer up front), then who else am I supposed to anchor the allusion to? Let's see: wooden cross, angry crowd dressed in fashion about two thousand years out of date, crown of thorns, spikes driven through your wrists. Hmmm. Looks like Jesus to me.
Anyone considering using Hype Williams as director: Call it what it is. Soft-core porn. And include your phone numbers on screen, because I can't imagine what else you're selling through this video other than your services as stud.
MTV: Kids don't have FireWire ports in their foreheads. You can ease off the information download.
Vanilla Ice: Get a sense of humor. At least you weren't number one on the list of Worst Videos.
Britney Spears: Catholic School Girl uniform: good. Midriff-baring tank top and sporty pants: bad.
For those who are looking for the missing Bond Astin-Martin: Check Robbie Williams' garage.
Next cliché to avoid: Cameos by game show hosts. And on-screen vomiting. I know it's a mark of independent film-making in the '90s, but if I wanted to see vomiting, I could walk up the hill on Friday night and see world class regurgitation at any party along Frat Row. Trent Reznor licking the pole of a microphone: bad. Ricky Martin licking the neck of a stacked brunette: good. Simple polarities to keep in mind.
Great videos remain with you. I saw Peter Murphy's "All Night Long" probably all of twice nearly ten years ago. I can still remember a lot of it. Jean-Baptiste Mondino found a string of pearls, some desolate farming landscape, Peter in a funny stocking cap, and about a mile of gauze to shoot most of the video through. He did it right and it stuck. To this day, I can't hear the song without having the visual images of the video rise up in my brain.
Now, could someone get this tape out of my VCR? It keeps rewinding and playing the Ricky Martin video over and over. I can't make it stop. It just doesn't stop.