"Black Skinhead", and the Difficulty of Making an Iconic Music Video Now

07/10/2013 12:58 PM |

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Yesterday, Kanye West took to his most natural habitat, Twitter, to report that the dark and SIMS-y music video for Yeezus single “Black Skinhead” was in fact a leaked, unfinished version of a clip that he and director Nick Knight have been laboring on for something like 5 months. There’s an easy joke to make about Kanye’s ego in laboring over the perfect CGI version of a super-ripped ideal self that’s probably what he actually sees every time he looks int he mirror, I think we can all agree that it does really suck to have your project ripped apart online before you were totally happy with it and ready to give it to the world.

He was def. not pleased:

That unfinished version, with its shaky video-game graphics and upsetting, not-quite-rendered shifts, was actually pretty memorable! Certainly kind of inexplicable and disturbing. Given the promise that a final version will go online in the next week, the final cut probably won’t be too drastically different. But given the truly memorable side-of-the-world’s-buildings marketing campaign, and that furious Saturday Night Live appearance, his record is already associated with a couple of defining images. Mission accomplished. As a self-described “nucleus” of modern culture, Ye instinctively gets that viral videos and late night TV appearances that turn into viral videos the next morning are way more important to culture than traditional music videos in 2013. Music videos aren’t very important at all.

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Even in its best form, making any video into an iconic cultural moment now comes with a very high degree of difficulty. With MTV officially dead and buried as guide for mass culture, there’s no home but the perpetually scattered Internet for music videos, and their potential impact is greatly diminished as a result. I doubt there are more than a handful of starry eyed college seniors hoping to make it as big-budget music video directors right now as opposed to the billion there were at the end of the 90s. I mean, a brief advertisement loop became the lasting image for Daft Punk’s smash “Get Lucky” earlier this year. And they were right. Why even bother to even make the whole thing?

Off the top of my head I can only think of a very few videos from the past 5 years or so that are really seared into my brain as definitive.

Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” was old-fashioned in a way (and not just for conjuring Bob Fosse-ish choreography). It’s a video so strong and so basic that when you hear it, even now, the first thing you picture in your mind’s eye is its visual. This sort of top-down big star vehicle is a truly rare exception. Not many people have the wattage to lift even superlative short film making to wide recognition. How many videos could demand an SNL parody, and have everyone watching just instantly know what it was about? Just this one?

Well, I take that back. “Gangam Style” certainly did. Lately, if a video has any pop-culture currency at all it comes through mass social network sharing. This goes well beyond music, clearly, but music is in no way immune. Psy represents the sort of random, out of nowhere clip that gets passed around along with any number of cats wandering on to trampolines, or whatever people send each other for some reason. The fact that it’s a traditional music video at its core is pretty beside the point.

Though not a real mainstream smash on the level of the other two, Azealia Banks “212” probably deserves to be mentioned in their company. It’s really a hybrid of the previous two. It had the out of nowhere new artist novelty of a viral video and the simple star power of a Beyonce clip. That Mickey Mouse sweater and silly dance even got Karl Lagerfeld’s attention. Azealia’s goofy grin reciting those filthy lines is a surprise she can’t pull again after all the inexplicable record delays and weird Twitter beefs. Going dystopian techno weird is a pretty shrewd move on her part in reaction, but she’ll be hard-pressed to do anything as memorable again.

But what can you do? It’s a tough culture out there for music videos!