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i see you, but it doesn't matter anymore
the rise and fall of music videos
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

Recently on a Saturday morning, I spent a couple of rare hours doing nothing but watching music videos on satellite television. As a child influenced by the 1980's MTV juggernaut, this is the adult equivalent to zoning out over cartoons.

I slipped into a programming cycle that let me see highlights from:

*80 and 90s pop/rock: ("Keep it Dark"–Genesis; "Never Tear Us Apart"–INXS; "Dear God"–XTC; "Smells Like Teen Spirit"–Nirvana)

*current country: ("Good Girl"–Carrie Underwood; "Banjo"–Rascal Flatts; "Pontoon"–Little Big Town")

*and current pop/R&B: ("The One That Got Away"–Katy Perry; "That Girl Right There"–Usher; "Titanium"–David Guetta featuring Sia)

I was mildly entertained and highly critical. "Starships" by Nicki Minaj. What hot mess is this, both as a song and video? "Payphone" by Maroon 5 ("We're Actually Just Adam Levine's Backup Band") features one long car chase for no reason, and has no relation to the song at all. Besides, who uses payphones anymore? Sophie Muller, one of the preeminent video directors for 30 years, seemed bored with her rendering of Ellie Golding's "Lights". But the ending of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" is worth waiting for if you want a chuff.

It dawned on me that perhaps music videos have lost their relevance in this touch screen age.

Many videos in the 80s, especially those from international acts, were this Michigan farm kid's gateway to the world: idyllic Caribbean beaches, the swirling sands of Morocco, bustling European city streets, faces morphing from race to race. At that time in my life, I had visited two states. Videos meant the Encyclopedia Britannia wasn't the sole source of cultural reference anymore, and neither was my English penpal. The vital combination of music and global examination had a way of capturing a teenager's attention like no other form of entertainment. In high school, groups of us stayed up late to watch WTBS's "Night Tracks". In college, study sessions were planned around premier video debuts on MTV.

Video didn't exactly kill the radio star, but it sure put it on life support.

The bands I loved sometimes didn't make a lot of effort in the beginning ("Roxanne"–The Police, a boilerplate performance video) but others embraced the concept completely ("Hungry Like the Wolf"–Duran Duran, demonstrating the full possible theatrics of the medium). The pinnacle was Michael Jackson working with film director Jon Landis on "Thriller". It's the first video to be in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant. For Jackson to go from jigging a bit with a spiraling color screen background in "Rock with You" in 1979 to something so momentous a mere four years later was the turning point for the music industry and in technology.

Videos, no matter how lame (Hall and Oates, I'm looking at you), became mandatory. Branding wasn't a key term yet, at least not for musicians, yet it was understood the greater popular exposure would be beneficial. Music television exploded far beyond "Don Kirschner's Rock Concert", "Midnight Special", "Soul Train", and "American Bandstand". Pop culture and fashion slipped out of Milan, London, New York, and L.A. into the darkened basements of Midwestern farmhouses. From Tom Petty to Missy Elliott, Lyle Lovett to Trace Atkins, The Smashing Pumpkins to Foo Fighters, Madonna to Kanye, decades of artists used visuals to further their concepts. Weird Al Yankovic singlehandedly recrafted music parodies. U2 and Paul Simon promoted humanitarian efforts. All of this messaging cleanly delivered through a handful of channels.

As a viewer, it was easy to feel part of a movement.

But our music consumption is so splintered now, the visual impact is negligible at best. The once dedicated music television channels can't make money from videos, only from reality programming. A handful of options can be found on the websites for BET, VH1, Fuse, MTV, CMT, GAC, and so on. YouTube is a terrific clearinghouse for fans to upload their favorite images, but with license restriction, often the videos are poor quality bootlegs. YouTube does offer dedicated artist channels, featuring videos, interviews, and other visual stimulation, but often it's not much different than fan-generated content or what's on an act's website or Facebook/Myspace pages. Vimeo is okay, but it's just one more resource to access. Downloading songs are fine, but few people download videos to keep. The message of the music visual medium now is that it takes three times as much effort to be noticed in a world that can be accessed with slide of a finger.

So why bother?

So many musicians tout soda, jewelry, lipstick, alcohol, toothpaste, facial cleanser, fragrances, clothing, fast food, and a host of other products through their music as well as their personal branding initiatives. To be a musician in this current multimedia fray is rarely about simple creative vision. Videos were once one of the few ways, along with a DJ's patter, to gain more insight about artists, maybe even behind-the-scene glimpses of a world beyond the initial song.

While some artists still aim for a semblance of entertainment, watching a music video now is akin to listening to AM radio: a quaint remembrance of an uncomplicated time, when the world was a much smaller place.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


ten seconds to faded ghosts
remembering the mystique of radio
by tracey l. kelley
topic: music
published: 1.27.03

turning pages in my songbook
a hornby-esque view on music
by tracey l. kelley
topic: music
published: 7.30.04


jeff miller
6.27.12 @ 8:33a

Yep. More media channel and device choices don't add up lo a better experience – for anyone. The new "movement" is Convenient and On-Demand, which is just about as vanilla as it sounds. Everyone got so excited about not having to go to bookstores, record stores, and movie theaters anymore – maybe someday it'll dawn on us that the lonely act of tapping a piece of glass ain't all it's cracked up to be.

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