Call and Response: The Music Video and The Meme 

The controversy surrounding M.I.A.'s "Born Free" video is a reminder that the music video is proving to be one of the most durable popular art forms of the late 20th/early 21st centuries. In 1985, J. Hoberman wrote, "The music video is the quintessential postmodern form—this week, anyway." His skepticism wasn't misplaced, per se, but 25 years down the line, the music video still seems like the quintessential postmodern form. And M.I.A.'s "Born Free" is certainly quintessentially postmodern—a seemingly sincere conflation of hipster style and radical politics. And in postmodern fashion, the exact nature of those politics remains obscure. M.I.A. paints with a broad brush, and she uses the typical color of the postmodern palette: spectacle.

One could say the music video is still relevant after all these years, but it would be just as accurate to say that the music video seems relevant once again. For a time, it seemed to be fading away; in the late 90s and early 00s, MTV and VH1 switched most of their programming over to reality shows and compendiums of pop culture's past. The music video became something of a vanity production; like pressing a 7" vinyl, making a music video was proof that a band's publicity machine extended even into obsolete forms. As if to prove that music videos were becoming irrelevant to the culture at large, the self-consciously rarefied gatekeepers of high culture started taking music video directors seriously. Directors like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Chris Cunningham seemed, for a time, to pose some serious challenge to Experimental Cinema's monopoly on serious non-narrative tinkering; the Palm Pictures Directors Label gave all three directors high-class DVD packages, a mark that the target audience for the music video had moved from the masses to the connoisseurs.

Then the Internet became moving-image friendly and the music video once again became a lingua franca. Because of their sense of rhythm and recursive structures, music videos are at home with the logic of the meme: they lend themselves to repetition. And to parody. In contemporary culture, it's parody that feeds mainstream status. Sarah Palin moved from political disaster to cultural phenomenon in part because of Tina Fey; T-Pain was a big hip-hop act before the T-Pain iPhone app, now he's omnipresent. It's almost as if we've begun to assign cultural impact retrospectively, every event only taking on significance after it's been mocked.

One could say that the culture craves, if not actual dialogue, then a sense of dialogue, a feeling that those speaking are also being spoken back to. The music video, in its bite-sized way, provides a perfect platform for a quickly created, efficiently distributed form of call and response.

At the center of this call and response is a tension between the glamorous and the homemade. If the bizarre logic of our meme-crazy clusterfuck of a contemporary culture were made to fit into a tidily Levi-Straussian analysis, this would be our central structuring duality, our raw and cooked.

OK GO went viral with this poverty-row music video that makes magic out of four guys and some treadmills. The pleasure of the video lies in the way it brings about entertainment through ingenuity, without huge production values; in this way, it seems to be "talking back" to music video conventions.

Ultimately, our sense of dialogue relies heavily on our engagement with parody, and the ascendance of the parody music video owes a lot to the comedy troupe the Lonely Island. Clearly lovers of hip-hop, they brought craft to their shenanigans. A lot of humor pivots on incongruity, but the Lonely Island formalized a new genre of incongruous spectacle, one in which the ostentatious Cool of the music video is forced to rub up against a painfully quotidian reality. An early example is their 2005 video "Just 2 Guyz":

The three members of the Lonely Island were hired by Saturday Night Live, two as writers and one as an actor (Andy Samberg). Together they increased SNL's web presence immensely, inventing the SNL Digital Short, pre-taped videos meant for dissemination online as well as on TV. This, in turn, spawned SNL's fruitful relationship with Hulu. The first Digital Short was a virtual summation of the videos The Lonely Island had been making on their own, and brought their special brand of dissonance into mass consciousness. And, it should be noted, the parody often seen as a turning point in the history of YouTube, due to the traffic it generated and responses in spawned. (It's since been taken off of YouTube due to SNL's deal with Hulu.)

Interestingly, reality echoed the parody. Asher Roth's "I Love College" is unintentionally funny for all the reasons that "Lazy Sunday" is intentionally funny; Roth is rapping about, and thus glorifying, things that we don't feel belong to the world of rap, things that are stereotypically middle-class and white:

Other forms of music video parody have flourished on the web. The "Literal Version" became a meme. Literal versions, similarly to the Lonely Island parodies, render the stylized banal: they change the lyrics of a song to directly reflect the action of the action onscreen:

Again, the difference between parodies and the real thing can be thin. The opening to Taylor Swift's video for "You Belong With Me" has all the blunt literalism of a Literal Version:

Only slightly less popular than "The Literal Version", Internet auteur Buffalax gave birth to his own verb: to buffalax, which means to take a foreign language song and instead of translating it, phonetically transposing it with subtitles. The result is that you can't help but hearing the English words written at the bottom. Phonetic translations had been around before Buffalax, but he led the silly lark soar to new heights. While many phonetic translations veer too far into the absurd, Buffalax understands that this peculiar form of remix relies on a delicate balance between absurdity and legibility:

In addition to parody, the web's given birth to some strange vernacular forms of music videos. Remakes are everywhere, a form of digitized fan fiction. A popular genre of remake uses the computer program The Sims 2 to recreate or riff on aspects of the original video. Look at this Avril Lavigne video:

And then a Sims 2 version:

Most remakes or fan versions end up functioning similarly to the parodies in that they undercut the glitzy affectations of the original. As gentle reminders that the means and pretentions of the fans are not necessarily the same as those of the producers, these cover versions unwittingly engage in a critique of the systems, both ideological and economic, that produced the original music video. They give the lie to the very lifestyles and ways of being that they seek, seemingly in earnest, to imitate.

In part because of music videos' close relationship with fan and remix cultures, the 00s also saw denizens of the art world become attracted to the form. With the exception of only a few experimental filmmakers, like Jem Cohen, and fewer video makers, like Michael Smith, art-world types had previously steered clear of music videos, perhaps out of resentment of the fact that early music videos functioned by raiding and vulgarizing every available art-world trope. Take, for instance, David Bowie and Queen's video for their collaboration "Under Pressure." The video takes the rhetoric of found-footage cinema and uses it to illustrate, in a painstakingly obvious fashion, how the modern world puts us "under pressure." It could be seen as a "literal version" of a Bruce Connor movie:

In a sense, the way that the video co-opts avant-garde forms for brazenly commercial purposes is merely a foreshadowing of the way that all culture was inevitably to be leveled, reduced to mere styles and pieces of information, in the age of the Remix. In a constant dialogue with remix culture, artist Oliver Laric has created a wide array of work that consistently speaks to and about music videos. In 2008 he edited everything but Mariah Carey out of a Mariah Carey video and replaced it with a green-screen. He then uploaded it for users to create their own versions of the video. The whole experiment produced some revelatory results. This video, for example, amusingly, and bluntly, embodies the gaze that Carey is inviting:

Another artist concerned with the music video as form, Michael Bell-Smith has produced work that, similar to the Lonely Island videos, introduces intriguing incongruities into music video tropes. Whereas the jokes in the Lonely Island videos are populist to the core, Bell-Smith's humor tends to be more oblique. In Battleship Potemkin Dance Edit (120 BPM), he pits the postmodern logic of the techno-beat against the modernist logic of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin; the result is a war of styles that never fully resolves itself.

Bell-Smith's experiment was presaged by Guy Maddin's music video The Heart of the World, which, like the Battleship Potemkin Dance Edit, seems to imagine some alternate history in which the language of silent cinema has crashed directly into the language of the MTV blitzkrieg montage, the intervening years of cinematic history receding into the background.

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In a more overtly comic vein, artists John Michael Boling and Javier Morales have made some dazzling music videos. Their "Body Magic" takes as its subject an essential facet of music video grammar: the sync event, the moment at which the rhythm of the music matches up perfectly with the rhythm of the action on screen. "Body Magic" pushes this to its reductio ad absurdum; by taking an old children's program from the 80s and writing baffling new music for it, their mash-up suggests that modern life is powerfully animated, or partly determined, by the technologies which make such a mash-up possible.

If the art-world seems to be cannibalizing the remains of the mainstream (as it always does), the mainstream continues to cannibalize the art-world (ditto), and no figure exemplifies the latter as well as Lady Gaga, a shrewd and knowing post-Warhol huckster. Gaga has a large claim in the continued relevance of the music video, and the reasons for this say a lot about her place within contemporary culture.

Music videos, as they exist in the most popular areas of popular culture, are essentially vehicles for image management. They allow the musician to project their style, refine it, tweak it. The decline of the popularity of music videos in the late 90s and early 00s, coincided with a decline in our interest in a star's self-selected style; we became interested, contrariwise, in the details of their daily lives. When Madonna made "Like A Virgin," it was an occasion to discuss what gloss she was putting on the Madonna Image, not to mention debate the finer points of third-wave feminism. When Britney Spears made the video for "Circus," nobody much cared about her vaudeville-cabaret twist, the video was simply an excuse to peer more deeply into the mess she was making of her life.

But through calculated ridiculousness, Lady Gaga has reignited our interest in image management, in the elements of the star persona that are pure persona, not tabloid gossip. Even her fashion choices seem meant to go viral. Gaga is a walking meme factory, a jumble of unrelated attention-grabbing gestures flailing about in every direction. And as a result, her fans are actually interested in the pageantry of her music videos.

It helps that, at their best, her music videos are strange. Not too strange, or not as strange as one would like—and then her lyrics and the actual music are disappointingly generic—but her music videos pack a certain punch. She seeks to threaten with her sexuality and sometimes succeeds; it's no accident that in two of her video she murders an implied potential romantic partner.

The video for "Paparazzi" contains Gaga's most startling moment: after her character is crippled, and dons a getup reminiscent of the femme fatale from Metropolis (which simultaneously nods to Lang and the Madonna video which riffed on the same), she gets up from her wheelchair and does a bizarre gimp-dance, limping around in time with the music.

But it's Gaga's sometime-collaborator Beyonce who has created what's probably the most iconic music video of the last decade. Her "Single Ladies" video intersects complexly with some of the other videos discussed above. It mainly forgoes excessive production values, and, like some parodies and fan videos, seems to insist that music video magic can be created with the barest ingredients. (If this spirit seems to echo some qualities of old Hollywood musicals, that's no accident; the dance in "Single Ladies" was based on a routine created by Bob Fosse, a masterful choreographer who got his start, in part, in old Hollywood.) The piece also, like Morales and Boling's "Body Magic," gets a joyously effervescent energy out of counterpoising the organic quality of bodily movement with the rigid structures of contemporary music. And like "Body Magic," it has strange overtones of a technological take-over, Beyonce's robotic hand offering intimations that the figures we are watching are some sort of new hybridized cyborgs.

As befits our cultural moment, the iconic quality of Beyonce's video was consecrated through the two major contemporary status-conferring rituals.


And parody.


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