Beyoncé’s Overwhelming Opus; or, the Past and Future of Music Video
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This article's broad aim is to demonstrate how to analyze a music video. I'll consider several videos by Beyoncé as well as a number from music video's history. I'll show how Beyoncé stands as the genre's fulcrum, both formal innovator and historical guardian. I’ll propose a working definition for the genre, and discuss music video's technological and socio-economic influences. I’ll highlight some of the genre’s specificities, as well as show how audiovisual relations have changed, and the ways analysis might attend to technology, platform, and musical style.
Why should we care about music video? Four reasons, I think. The first is its cultural centrality today. It’s one of our most popular forms of moving media. PSY’s “Gangnam Style” has 2 billion hits and Justin Bieber’s “Baby” has 1 billion, numbers approaching a mathematical sublime. It’s also the most viewed content on YouTube, with studies showing that music videos are the most common way for audiences to consume popular music, more than through cds, radio, iTunes, or blogs. Second, its aesthetics have seeped into nearly everything moving and visual, from Transformers and Hunger Games to Bollywood, and television shows like Game of Thrones. Third, it’s a genre with its own conventions, ways of carrying a narrative, eliciting emotions, deploying performers, settings and props, and conveying space and time. I’ve written that YouTube can be thought of as a whoopee cushion, and post-classical cinema as a form that puzzles and pummels the viewer. Music video’s specialty lies in conveying a brief state of bliss. It’s dependent on ephemeralities of color, movement, and sound. Like popular music, music video possesses motifs, rhythms, grain, and fine details that carry weight. It resides somewhere between advertising and art. Fourth, it’s a genre to think with. Music video, as delimited by MTV’s initial launch, is but 35 years old, but it has shape-shifted in response to dramatic technological, aesthetic, institutional, and audience pressures.
No one has sought to trace the history of music video’s influence on audiovisual style and aesthetics—especially as it has changed over those 35 years, and as it has contended with cinema, commercials, and popular music. So that we might share a common ground, I’ll propose a working definition for the genre, discuss its past, present, and future, and attend to some of the technological, social, and economic influences impinging on it. I’d like to show how one might analyze a music video with the genre’s history in mind. Turning finally to Beyoncé, I’ll suggest that we can gain a sense of the genre’s history by analyzing recent videos that engage that history. Beyoncé is not only the genre’s fulcrum at this particular moment; she’s also a formal innovator and historical guardian. Her self-titled “visual album” Beyoncé and her audiovisual film Lemonade draw on music video’s past, and suggest new possibilities for the genre’s future.
Figure 1. Beyoncé’s Lemonade
In MTV’s first 20 years, viewers seemed to need little help determining what music videos were. The clips emerged from collaborations between record companies, musicians and directors. The visual track was designed to sell the song. Several scholars noted that they seemed uncanny. Then, as now, they were short and had to accomplish many things: highlight the star, showcase performances, draw attention to the lyrics, and underscore the music. To teach listeners what’s memorable about a song, the image might emphasize the movement from verse to chorus, or highlight an unusual timbre, melodic contour, or striking rhythm. The visual track might point to one or two musical features at a time, like a tour guide. For while music envelops us, visual features more often momentarily focus our attention, especially if they’re working in the service of the song.
Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (2009) is a music video in the classic mode. Like director Francis Lawrence’s other clips, it does a lot to show off the song. The melody resides primarily in a mid- and low range, and its sonic material is heavily reverberant, and so we have a low-ceilinged space with a long sweep to the back. Historically the harpsichord has been associated with the affluent and cultivated, and there they are. The song’s minor key has a flat sixth chord, along with an open fifth that sounds antique; perhaps this harmonic language sparked the idea of the Euro female slave-auction. Gaga’s “ra-ras” and the snare-drum sound like chants for ominous swarms of trolls, and we have the crown-capped gremlins. The deedle-dweedle sound effect suggests hard surfaces, which connects with the room’s paneling. The song undertakes a sinuous, careful build toward the chorus, so the searchlights take their time checking the space out, and performers emerge slowly from their caskets. The chorus is big, and that’s when the phalanxes of dancers appear. The music video also achieves novel effects: while each chorus foregrounds the big communal hook “I want a bad romance,” it also subtly pushes forward the narrative. In a later chorus, for example, Gaga will be slipped an elixir and wrapped in a burlap sheet. Puzzles and conundrums—how much autonomy does Gaga possess? Should she have torched her buyer? —encourage repeat viewings.
Figure 2. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”: image diligently reflects music and lyrics.
Classically-styled videos continue to appear on YouTube. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” (2014) is a recent example. But now YouTube’s generic boundaries are so fluid that one might feel an urge to abandon the term altogether: cinema’s musical excerpts, corporate adverts, amateur remixes, and found footage with incongruous soundtracks all look like music videos. In “Auto-Tune the News,” newscasters’ voices processed through Auto-Tune “sing” their stories accompanied by Fruity Loops tracks. Is it a music video? Why not then include “The Llama Song” and “Haha Baby?” Today, indicators of production, reception, and intent often go missing. New forms both of musicality and audiovisuality emerge in many contexts. Perhaps all we can say about music video is it’s a relationship between music and image we recognize as such.
Figure 3. Music video as simply a relation between music and image we recognize as such: “Autotune the News,” “The Llama Song,” and “Haha Baby.”
Music Video’s Liminal Status
Experiencing music video today, fans and makers seem to possess a sense of rupture and perplexity. It’s not clear whether we’re ready to evaluate the genre’s present and past, or gauge where it might go. Its history is poorly chronicled. Does the genre deserve or possess a canon? Beyoncé’s Beyoncé “visual album” (2013) calls the videos “mini-films,” rather than music videos, even though the clips are more reflective of music-video history than nearly anything else circulating recently. Bands like Pomplamoose opt for new terms, like “video song,” and Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) is marketed as a “visual album.” Why erase the past? In order to discuss Beyoncé’s recent long-play multimedia works, it’s important to consider music video’s past, present, and future. This is partly because younger fans don’t know what she’s talking about. Through attending to a clip from each decade, I’d like to provide a quick historical overview. While moving through them, I’ll highlight some of the genre’s specificities, including its peculiar ways of forging audiovisual relations and handling performers.
Music Video’s History: a Rewind and Fast Forward
Many know the first music video aired on MTV’s first broadcast, “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979) by the Buggles, but almost every subsequent clip has been forgotten. The second, PhD’s “Little Susie’s on the Up,” (1981) is stronger than the first, and better addresses issues facing that era’s relation to audiovisual sync. Pop music had recently changed—the 70s featured lush, highly detailed arrangements with real musicians: think Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, P Funk. The 80s were taken up by British bands like Flock of Seagulls, Human League, Duran Duran, and arrangements built up with synths and drum machines. The turn may have also been driven by a backlash against African American music, gay subcultures, urban settings, dance; some have suggested it also embraced an expanding neoliberalism. Perhaps also the new fashions and sounds were just so novel that everyone paid attention. (It’s been suggested that African American musicians were excluded from the now visually whiter aesthetics, because the bigger, gelled, teased, and blow-dried hairstyles couldn’t be well replicated by them.) 80s drum-machines and synths nested nicely with music video’s fledgling style; the visual track was assembled cheaply and quickly, and was often produced in vacant TV studio late night shoots with musicians who didn’t know how to move with playback singing. The performers often seemed shot up with elephant tranquilizer.
You can see this in “Little Susie’s on the Up.” The video underscores musically the simplest of things, the four on the floor drums, the pounding booms of the synth, and the tail-end upsweep of the melody’s contour. “On the up” the singer intones and performers look up. A waltz is suggested, so we have some swaying against the blockier pumping. Already we can see one of the oddest features of the genre: the background figures (follow that man with the eyepatch). Pop songs often relay utopian hopes, but only one singer articulates them, except perhaps for some confirmation by the backing vocalists. To depict these communal desires, the video needs to be populated by figures. They lack text, however, so we often see interstitial, mute stand-ins, like service workers, 2D dancers, models, dolls. Oddly, these figures provide musical gains. The background figures, along with a frisky star, help express a range of rhythmic strata, from stillness to intense activity, thereby drawing attention to a song’s heterogeneous, layered arrangement. In what follows, I’ll demonstrate the ways the background characters become more nuanced over time.
Figure 4. The background figure in PhD's “Little Susie’s on the Up”: music video’s grammar develops early.
In the 90s, budgets rose to over several million, videos were shot on 35 mm, and director’s names appeared underneath song titles. With this, as Roger Beebe has noted, came auteurism. Many fans recognized the directorial styles of Hype Williams, Dave Meyers, Matt Mahurin, and Mark Romanek. These names alone could be counted on to encourage viewing and drive CD sales. BET, VH1, and other stations provided a wide range of programming, with specialized shows like Alternative Nation, Midnight Love, MTV Raps and 120 Minutes. Two genres—alternative and hip hop—seemed to emerge as oppositional modes, almost always raced as white against black. Each possessed its own iconography with distinct depictions of props, color, settings, and space.
One wouldn’t swap the images from these two alternative and hip hop clips. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991) exhibits textural details that might be called both coarse- and more finely grained. The raucous guitar and bruised voice, and the stripped-down chords, reiterate unchangingly across the verse and the chorus. This approach works nicely against the malevolent, smoky, overexposed image. Butch Vig, Nirvana’s producer, expertly collaged many of the band’s raw takes in protools and then added much processing and ambient sound. Director Samuel Bayer deployed much smoke, as well as rougher textures. Sweaty high school kids, invited to a free late-night performance, were encouraged to trash the gym. The video has a lot of grain but in its delirium, it seems to create a new amalgam of sound and image. We might imagine a transmutation, with the elements mimicking the properties of water. The guitar’s brief, isolated, ringing motif sounds like a poison arrow, that, as it drops into a pond, expands ringlets outward that could tip the kids off their bleachers; an increasing growl might destabilize things, and force an added pump by those anarchist cheerleaders; the chorus’s “I feel stupid and contagious” builds to a tsunami that could wash away the ground locked, dunce-capped janitor. Here’s another of music video’s oddities: best is to have a set of inscrutable characters and props placed in relation without clear causes. In such a fragile ecosystem, the music might become the primary agent and suddenly push everything in a new direction. Or, just as likely, a shamanistic janitor might appear to be the primary cause.
Figure 5. Dreamlike music/image relations in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: multiple indeterminate causes return us to the music.
The antipode of “Teen Spirit” would be Notorious B.I.G.’s video “Big Poppa” (1995). Like many hip hop videos it is weighted low in the arrangement and in the frame: the dancers drop to their knees, the camera sits near the car’s hubcaps. Cuts fall unpredictably, yet the editing maintains a relaxed feel. Desire is figured differently than in the other clips we’ve seen. Languid attractions wink in and out amidst a golden-tinted, mellow communality. We might or might not like to follow that thin, bobbing synth in the high register. At the time of this video African American director Hype Williams was celebrated for his sensitivity to people and places, and New York-based Notorious B.I.G. was appreciated for his loose, easy flow.
Figure 6. Notorious B.I.G.’s relaxed and communal ““Big Poppa”: the image attends to the upper-register synth melody.
Then, in the early 2000s, downloading hit, the record industry lost revenue, and music-video budgets were slashed. MTV found it cheaper to program its own teen-reality sitcoms, which advertisers preferred. It’s not necessarily what viewers wanted. There was a dearth of high-quality clips on the internet, and finding them wasn’t easy. OK Go’s “Here it Goes Again,” (2006) with band members doing choreographed routines on treadmills, was one of the first to assert music video’s regained cultural relevance. With its single concept and stripped-down means, it celebrated the new austerity.
Figure 7. OK Go’s “Here it Goes Again,”: music video in the age of austerity.
Today, several factors contribute to music video’s centrality. In 2009, three of the major record labels banded together and launched Vevo, a music-video website. In 2013, Billboard started including YouTube views in their pop charts, which gave corporations measures by which to judge music video’s currency. Pre-roll ads and product placement within clips generate revenue. Budgets often remain low, however, because with an enormous pool of cheap talent, companies can depress wages. Even though budgets have dropped, directors and production houses can sometimes still afford to make clips, because production costs like cameras, tape, and software packages have also dropped. Media agencies also want to hire music video directors, because their clips, posted on a company’s website, attract clients. Performers who appear in commercials like working with music-video directors, because these directors have sophisticated and up-to-date pop-culture sensibilities.
Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Do” (2013) bears traces of today’s economic, social, and technological constraints. It’s shot on green-screen, which is faster, cheaper, and easier to work with than location shooting. The wan colors seem like a product of the economic downturn. “This Is How We Do” sounds a bit like an older generation’s pop music, and the video acknowledges this with desultory old-school costumes. But there’s a twist. The Swedish pop songwriters Martin and Ahlund structured this song according to “the soar.” “The soar” famously relies on a simple structure: a tiered chorus, which draws on principles of layering and textural “builds,” long a staple of electronic dance music. The song begins with a relatively sparse texture, then repeats a second time with added layers, along with a propulsive dance beat. A two-part chorus drives to a rapidly building textural crescendo. The verse scales back before the beginning of the pre-chorus, so it can make the buildup of the chorus even more dramatic. Many musicologists don’t like “the soar.” They feel listeners are hectored into the chorus’ ecstatic high. But in a music video this songwriting technique offers new possibilities. Against the song’s regimented structure, color can adopt a contrapuntal voice; visual motifs like Perry’s watermelon can also separate from others and skate with and apart from the music.
Figure 8. Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Do”: objects create contrapuntal lines against the music.
Music Video and Media Genres
So now we might zoom out and ask some broader questions. Do music videos follow other genres’ arcs, like, for example, that of the western in American cinema? With the western, formal devices shift through time: first there’s a schematic beginning with a few prescient outliers, then a drive toward stylistic crystallization, a colonization by competing genres, and finally a highly self-critical stance. With music video, signs point in so many directions I honestly can’t answer this. Perhaps a more manageable question is, which era, the 80s, 90s or today seems most experimental, vibrant, rich? And how do a period’s technologies and production practices both enable and limit possibilities? In the 80s, videos were often shot on 1-inch tape, and edited on U-matic decks that slipped frames. Fine sync was unachievable. The technology was cheap but cumbersome. If you pressed the wrong button, your control track broke. Your work-tapes dropped generations, through both the editing process and post-production graphic effects. Your image’s color scheme could only be changed globally: you might highlight some orangey-red from a fireplace and a cigarette tip, and then wash the image teal blue, but red was a difficult color anyway.
The music had similar resistances. The sounds were crude and bulky. But something aesthetically interesting emerged from these intransigencies. Music video may first be about the song’s and image’s relation, and what that meeting point conveys. Perhaps these function as an emblem of human relations. In George Michaels’s “Father Figure,” (1988) a taxi driver haunts an elusive fashion model, and their struggles seem class-based. A haze coating the image heightens the distance the characters must breach. Today this is all too easy. Compare Michaels’s “Father Figure” with Beyoncé’s “1 + 1.” (2011) Beyoncé’s face seems impossibly malleable; colors and textures ripple off of it. The music is equally subject to manipulation, as are the relations between music and image. But that lack of friction may suggest nothing counts. Why not change it all up again? Could I go back and capture some of that 80s aesthetics by shooting on videotape and fooling around with antiquated synthesizers and drum machines? No. Ways of knowing and feeling have changed too.
Figure 9. George Michaels’s “Father Figure” and Beyoncé’s “1 + 1.”: audiovisual relations offer a metaphor for human relations.
Animation may provide some account of stylistic shifts apart from technological changes. In the last 30 years approaches to 2D effects may have remained more constant than has live action. INXS’s (1985) “What You Need” is very sophisticated, but Rihanna’s (2009) “Rude Boy” is more so. Comparing these illustrates one of music video’s contributions to today’s visual language: a freeing up of the frame. Unlike “What You Need’s,” “Rude Boy’s” figures and objects reside on the angle. Planes of activity are more richly developed. In the background upper quadrant, a black stain seeps down while much unfolds in the foreground. The black stain is where the action is.
Figure 10. INXS’s “What You Need” (1985) and Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” (2009): over time, music videos develop new techniques for reflecting the music.
But by pulling select examples, I may not be providing a fair picture of the genre. To understand music video we’d have to look at a vast quantity of clips, year by year. If we considered dispositions of characters and props, and their audiovisual kinospheres, we might also glean a bit of what it felt like to be a person in each era. In our process of discovery, we’d also likely find clips’ datedness amusing. Kim Carnes’s (1981) “Bette Davis Eyes” offers a compendium of the era’s tropes. It looks low budget, as if it were shot on a sound-stage after hours. Cut outs over the lights help direct Venetian slashes on the walls; these complement projected silhouettes. A wind machine blows hair and gauzy fabric. The large blocks probably belonged to the studio’s everyday prop collection. What’s the video all about? Beats me. Surely clips with short expiry dates are produced as often today (perhaps Katy Perry’s “This Is How We Do” will seem equally goofy in the future?). Twenty years from now we’ll know which of today’s videos dated most quickly. These videos will tell us what means to be embedded within a time.
Figure 11. Kim Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes”: sense remains locked in the past.
Music Video’s Present and Future
Because there are more streaming venues, less censorship and fewer constraints on product-placement or length, new forms and genres of music videos are emerging. I’d like to describe these new configurations through four categories: corporate, independent, interactive, and formal.
Taylor Swift’s recent “Blank Space” is a corporate product as glossy and richly budgeted as those of the 90s. Back then, when directors were as famous as court painters, stars would collect them as if they were commissioning artists for their estate portraits (I want a Mahurin; I must have my Romanek). Perhaps we’re again seeing these directors’ clips because sentimental young rock stars remember them as tweens. Or probably more likely, with the returning budgets comes a conservatism (David Bordwell has noted that today’s Hollywood cinema remains formally static due to high production costs). Funding for these pricier clips often comes from product placement - cell phones, designer glasses, and liquor. In the past, MTV didn’t allow advertising in clips. Shakira’s “La La La” (2014) in partnership with Activia Yogurt works as a music video, a fundraiser, and an ad. Viewed half a billion times, the end of the clip encourages viewers to click through to donate to alleviate world hunger. Dannon, the corporate head, has carefully tracked the clip’s effectiveness for increasing yogurt sales.
Which directors to hire, how to meet pop music’s and music videos’ quick release dates, where to place ads, where to post clips, and how much support to throw behind these, are all concerns for corporations now. Companies are investing in invasive technologies like EEG, facial recognition, fMRI, eye tracking, galvanic skin response, and large surveys crunched by algorithms to help answer these questions. They’ve lost revenue as they’ve watched their clientele migrate from film and television to online content, and they feel adrift and anxious. Is there some magic formula to predict whether a clip will go viral? In the future, directors will surely be pressured to conform their big budget videos to perceived experiential schemas.
Another new genre is comprised of interactive clips, some of which feel akin to video games while others resemble video performance art. Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” (2013) lets you “dance” with your cellphone and computer monitor. A quick-loading clip of Bob Dylan’s reissue of “Like a Rolling Stone” (2013) lets the viewer, as if wielding a television remote, access and edit footage with a mouse click. With Bjork’s “Stonemilker,” (2015) a viewer can pan the image 360 degrees in all directions, its framing led by the mouse’s trace. In the future, immersive, interactive approaches may reduce the need for moving media to carry a narrative, allowing the sensual intensities of sound and image to take over.
Figure 12. Bjork’s “Stonemilker,”: interactive technologies facilitate immersive experiences.
There are also indie artists’ low-budget videos, and clips for bigger artists who’ve lost their label’s support. These clips often foreground technological gimmicks and devices, like kaleidoscopes. They’re attentive to music video history and frequently sardonic. Once, these low- budget clips might have aired on MTV’s midnight programming; now music video and pop music connoisseurs scour the web searching for blogs that post them. Close audiovisual relations may not be as important in these clips (concert tickets, or a logo-ed T-shirt might be a video’s end goal, rather than mp3 sales). My students, especially, seek out these 1000-hit videos as a way of showing off their indie cred.
There’s also what I’d like to call the new, unfunded creative class. It’s now possible for a band, with no manager, no record contract, and no tangible media, to at least partially make a living through YouTube and iTunes streaming revenue. The band Pomplamoose bought their house this way. They hope a patronage system will support talented artists and musicians in the future.
Finally, there are new formal configurations. Music videos can now showcase long intros and endings, breaks in the middle of songs, and song medleys, devices MTV and other satellite services previously disallowed. Depictions of violence and sexuality are more graphic. These, among many other devices and trends, make possible novel forms like The Weeknd’s “In the Night,” (2015) Kanye’s Runaway (2010), Frank Ocean’s Endless (2016), and Beyoncé’s Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016).
A Detour: Music Video’s Place in Media History
Before I turn to the final section of this paper, on Beyoncé’s self-titled “visual album,” and Lemonade, let me describe the ways music video may have contributed to contemporary media. This description will also help articulate the ways Beyoncé’s album departs from others before it; and the video album, may well, I’d claim, shape the possible futures for much moving media. To make this case, I’ll need to quickly shuttle back and forth through music video history again, this time with a focus on digital technologies. I’ll start with today, return to the genre’s beginning, and head out toward the future.
Today, we’re in a period of what I’d like to call intensified audiovisuality. In cinema, both sound and image have been dramatically reconfigured. The soundtrack has become “musicalized”: sound effects and dialogue are now shaped alongside composed music into musical phrases. Sound effects and other sonic features can also adopt leading roles, driving the film forward; or sound can mediate, enabling individual film parameters to come forward. The image too acquires a sense of speed and flexibility: its contents can seem as if they had been poured from one shot into the next. Cutting, too, can bestow an almost percussive rhythmic drive. The image in the new digital cinema often avoids a ground, because the sound wafts it along. Only by being so soundcentric can the image detach itself from a codified, shotbound format; images released by sound can be filled in by it.
Assuredly, European art cinema, Hong Kong action films, American experimental filmmaking, Hollywood musicals, and horror film soundtracks have also had a strong impact on this audiovisual style. So to have iPod culture and the musicalization of public space, and technologies like Dolby, 10.1 surround sound, light digital cameras, and Avid editing systems. This is work for media historians. What is music video’s role in this shift? I’d claim it’s central. Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, published 5 years ago, features excerpts from over 400 interviews with bands and industry personnel about MTV’s first decade. It gives a sense of each brief zeitgeist. Says Chuck D of Public Enemy: “These days, everybody has a hi-def camcorder, “Okay, so what?” But back then, it was a main event,” and Nancy Wilson of Heart: “Everybody wanted their MTV so bad. I remember craving it like crazy,” and Lenny Kravitz, “I was watching music video 24/7. On vacation, holed up in a hotel room, my parents asked “what’s the matter with you?” My gut sense about music video’s relevance also derives from my youthful experiences. In the seventies and eighties, young filmmakers and I watched foreign cinema through film schools, late-night repertory theaters, and VHS rental houses. But how formative were these encounters? Unfortunately, they tended to occur relatively infrequently. Repertory theaters like the Hollywood’s Nuart screened a narrow, often middle-brow playlist—King of Hearts and Harold and Maude. Most VHS rental houses’ foreign film collections were limited. In the 80s, you’d see music video programming at all kinds of places: friends’ houses, in beauty salons, hotels, gyms, and bars. A common party icebreaker was to share wonder over a new clip or the anticipation of an upcoming storied release.
Beginning filmmakers found music videos attractive because the genre provided one of the most direct ways to break into the industry—one could build a show-reel and land a gig for a feature. Making music video was also a training ground in its own right: a director could be responsible for all phases of production, including conception, props, and editing. You could pitch an odd treatment, head out to an obscure location, shoot a ton of footage—and no one would know what you were doing. With commercials, the treatment was usually written by an ad-agency, and shooting and editing were supervised by industry reps.
In the eighties music video was the laboratory: a music video editor might try anything (turn the image on its head and stain it blue). Music video used cheap, reusable technology in the service of quick deadlines (make it fast and creatively). In the nineties music video-directors streamed into cinema, helping drive the new, audiovisually intensified, post-classical film. A second wave then emigrated as funding dried up in the 00s. Music-video directors like Michael Bay, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Francis Lawrence, and Mark Romanek have flourished because they’re attuned to new technologies and new audiovisual relations.
So one might have sped up Godard and placed pop music against it, or taken a Hollywood musical and intensified both the film’s soundtrack and its images, but this would never have gotten us to the audiovisual aesthetics we have today. It has a peculiar configuration based on historical events. And something’s at stake.
If schools, museums, and libraries paid more attention to “minor arts” like pop music and music video, we might interpret our contemporary mediascape differently, and we might be more attuned to the ways audiovisual ideas flow through today’s media swirl. I’m troubled by the recent documentary “Side By Side,” narrated by Keanu Reeves, with interviews from directors David Lynch to Danny Boyle. The film describes the digital turn as a silent one – lighter cameras, postproduction techniques like color timing. We need to keep the audio in.
Figure 13. The documentary Side by Side treats digital media’s history as solely visual.
Or we might put aside our desire to grasp history and just say intensified audiovisual aesthetics are often music-video aesthetics. Multitracked, heavily worked popular music and music video provided the model for what is today a mixing-board approach. Imagine it this way: new digital technologies allow a filmmaker to redraw an image of a house every time it occurs in a film. She can change its color in each iteration, and modify other parameters, like the texture of the forest behind it, or the sounds of crows sitting on its roof. The soundtrack can be modulated to work with the scape of the image, and then the image can be modulated once again. This is different from working on one of the first Star Wars films and having to send your assistant to the vault to locate two reels of film to splice together. I’ve worked with audiotape and interviewed sound designers about their professional experiences. We agree, sound editing against picture editing in the analog period was like banging rocks together.
Beyoncé’s Beyoncé and Lemonade
On December 13, 2013, Beyoncé surprise-dropped an entire album of 17 videos on iTunes. The media immediately blissed out. The New York Times called it, “perhaps one of the most important pop events of all time.” Katy Perry tweeted, “Don’t talk to me about anything but Beyoncé today.” The iTunes servers crashed. Within this media onslaught, Beyoncé and her team magisterially shaped the flow of information. The press release’s opening line was, “Music is now seen.” The album, released all at once and only purchasable through iTunes, could only be experienced as a whole. Fans felt compelled to buy the collection, and many went into a binge mode of viewing/listening as they tried to assimilate the album’s sweep. Every few weeks, individual videos and mini documentaries were released on YouTube, keeping fans engaged for much longer than is the typical case today with an album’s release. Such a coup would be impossible without Beyoncé’s financial and staffing resources, and her artistic vision. The project would also be unimaginable without the new audiovisual digital technologies.
Figure 14. Beyoncé as auteur.
It’s hard to describe quickly how the works form a whole. The album is remarkable, partly because it’s heavily rooted in her life experiences, from having parents who fought racial injustice in the South, and became successful businesspeople in Houston, to her childhood training in pageants and pop groups. This autobiographical dimension makes her work different from that of other divas, like Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna. The varieties of a woman’s experience help bind the Beyoncé album’s clips. The first half explores heterosexual monogamy, and then the album heads elsewhere. High-water marks are three fanfare-like songs, at the beginning, middle, and end. Clips dovetail, either through continuities of time, color-palette, visual references, or story. Though the videos might at first seem unrelated, cohesion is provided by the many characters close to Beyoncé—family, including her husband and daughter, friends and dancers make recurring appearances. Places—the roller rinks and streets of Houston, the palaces of Vienna, the apartments of New York, the beach—also return. Color and textural schemes—black and white, pop pastels or deeply saturated more earth-like hues, grain or static—also recur, providing continuity. The collection showcases sound’s ephemerality, the way sounds attack and diminish through time. It’s a work without true precursors.
Let me return to my story about the crows, trees, and house: Beyoncé’s album would be impossible without the new audiovisual technologies. The singer recorded over 300 fully arranged songs before winnowing down the album to seventeen. The computational resources to keep track of the materials must have been significant. The singer filmed the music videos while she was on tour in over eight cities and four continents including São Paulo, Houston, Miami, New York and Paris. One of the main production hubs was Australia. The soundtrack and visuals are lush. But the clips could be realized within a day’s shooting, partly because they emphasize site-specific settings. The project’s codename was Lily, and almost no one knew, including the video directors, about the album’s release date or scope. Keeping files secure and directing an international workflow must have been daunting. Beyoncé is an auteur—performer, songwriter, director, businesswoman—and her team are the most talented in the field. The album draws on directors Beyoncé has collaborated with for over the last fifteen years—Jonas Åkerlund, Jake Nava, Hype Williams, as well as up and coming ones. Through these choices, the album as a whole can look backwards and forwards. Several of the clips pay homage to videos by Madonna and Janet Jackson; others are influenced by YouTube and new media. This mix of materials, both historical and forward-looking, makes for gripping work. This album jumpstarts the process of analyzing music video’s history and argues for its place in the future. “Haunted” clearly gestures toward Madonna’s 1993’s “Justify My Love.” Hype Williams’s “Drunk in Love” surely signifies on Herb Ritts’s video for Madonna’s 1989 “Cherish.” Melina Matsoukas’s “Pretty Hurts” stylistically draws on Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (1988). Hype Williams “Blow” echoes Klymaxx’s 1984’s “The Men All Pause,” and so on. In this section, I’ll describe five contrasting clips, “Blow,” “Pretty Hurts,” “Jealous,” “Haunted,” and “Flawless.” To acquaint readers with Beyoncé’s Beyoncé, let me provide brief readings of five of its seventeen clips.
Figure 15. Beyoncé draws on music-video history: Klymaxx’s “The Men All Pause,” (1984).
“Blow” (track five)
“Blow” homages high-class roller-disco hits like Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.” Many late ‘70s through ‘80s songwriting styles receive gentle nods: a bit of Prince in the guitar playing; the close vocal overdubbing of Chaka Khan; the rapping over panting by the girl-group Klymaxx; some of Sheila E’s percussion playing. The syndrum sound (a little swoop) and the “four-on-the-floor” rhythm are also disco signifiers. The setting is a roller rink Beyoncé knew as a kid growing up in Houston. A Bootsy Collins lookalike takes us back too.
Hype Williams draws attention to the song’s fine touches, including its close vocal harmonies, interesting drum fills, and quiet beatboxing. Williams’s models rap their knuckles on the roller rink’s lockers to match the snare; musicians appear when catchy licks come forward in the mix; and Beyoncé is shown in close-up as she performs vocal melismas.
The video seems inspired by the literal meaning of the lyrics, rather than their sexual implications: “Can you lick my skittles,” is taken as a color cue, not a provocation. The video is coated with a haze of rainbow-like candy hues. The skaters adopt various poses—freezing, twirling, pumping, and gliding—helping us think of the ways sound attacks, grows, and diminishes, “That sugar babe, it melts away.” In the clip’s opening, Beyoncé’s close-ups are followed with blinking lights and rotating disco balls, as if to extend the resonance of her voice before the sweetness fades. The video, like the song, seems to want to “keep us going, keep us humming...”
For this kind of close-reading, Michel Chion’s and Nicholas Cook’s approaches to audiovisual analysis are especially helpful. Chion’s concept of synchresis, for example, the irrevocable meld that happens when image and sound are placed in relation, and Cook’s models of conformance, complement and contest as well as gap making, provide ways of describing sync. Cook also draws attention to new metaphorical relations that can emerge from the meeting of sound and image, and that many types of relation can occur on different hierarchical levels simultaneously. Like Chion, Cook, and Philip Tagg, I practice analysis through various modes, for example, listening to the music and watching the image alone, attempting to hear, view or experience in a purely material, non-culturally influenced way, and then the obverse. As I’ve worked with music video, I’ve come to more and more appreciate the specificity of the genre, if I’m willing to give myself over to it. Music/image relations can seem quite fantastical, as if sound and image might express the desire to influence one another, or to overcome, assist, or repress what the other hopes to bring forward. In “Blow” males seem more vulnerable than the women—they’re covered with lipstick kisses and cower in the back of the frame. While music videos have traditionally over-sexualized African-American women, here white women are the most objectified. Cross-cut against Beyoncé twerking is a companion image of Beyoncé, her sister Solange, and another woman, patrolling on their mini, low-rider, post-tricycle bikes, while wearing giant capes of fur. Cross-cut also are images of Beyoncé phallically playing an imaginary electric guitar, slung from the hips, with audiovisual echoes of ‘80s videos like Klymaxx’s “The Men All Pause.” Here Beyoncé takes over all roles. The car is also a magic car that seems at her beckoning—like something out of The Powerpuff Girls: it exudes steam rather than smoke, as if to ride off into the sky (the video’s theme of locomotion is jacked-up here).
This setting also underscores the music’s arrangement. The bassline is now bigger, and the arrangement fills out into a denser texture. It’s good to go outside and find a new location away from the rink. Beyoncé’s crimped hair suggests one character among many, and she claims her sexual expectations: “I can’t wait until I get home and you can turn that cherry out.” The males’ cat-calling responses don’t faze her. Her Chaka Khan-like overdubbing recalls Khan’s authority, as in “I’m every woman.” And the clip contains a subliminal homosocial or lesbian element. The ways Beyoncé gyrates with the women in her band suggests that that’s what’s most satisfying. A viewer senses Hype Williams’s and Beyoncé’s bid for preeminence within a long history of audiovisual and musical production.
Figure 16. “Blow”: responsiveness to the musical arrangement.
“Pretty Hurts” (track one)
Melina Matsoukas’s “Pretty Hurts” shares techniques with the best of 80s and 90s videos, including Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and “Like a Prayer.” A common technique of music videos is to begin with close sync between music and image as a means to suture the viewer into the clip. As an opening of the whole album, “Pretty Hurts” foregrounds tight audiovisual relations: it carefully guides the viewer through the clips process from images of failure to success.
To establish a sense of flow, music videos employ more match cuts—where two unrelated images are juxtaposed to show their graphical similarities—than narrative films. Blue trophy ribbons are arrayed in Beyoncé’s apartment in the same pattern as the pageant’s curtains. Repetition of objects like wigs, help create a sense of continuity, as do the colors: Beyoncé standing tall, with a yellow streak in her hair, against the glittering blue curtain; the blue gloves entering the frame in the bridge; Beyoncé’s lipstick and hair matching the woman who wins the trophy. The teardrop lampshade (weeping) and the porcelain tchotchkes help tell the story. Beyoncé is tied to a decorative crouched cat and the winner is identified with a tiger figure (peeking out from behind a sofa in one of the last shots). A subtle matchcut: Beyoncé’s streak of blonde hair is prepared for by her porcelain cat that perches above her head on a television set. The high points of the chorus are set with her standing tall, arms spread, or brandishing trophies.
A lot of empty space shadows the vocals; the multi-tracked vocals provide a sense of haltingness, they make you wait. But Beyoncé is almost always in multiples: harmonizing with herself or doubling her lead vocals. Marvin Gaye often surrounded his lead vocal with closely overdubbed vocal tracks, especially when he was speaking about community. (Here Beyoncé is singing for and about a community of women.) The rhythm tracks are super-saturated. Every single sixteenth-note is articulated. The music and image also work together to convey the story. The lilting melody seems to offer the characters some comfort, even as the rhythm arrangement encourages them on.
In pop songs, the verse’s lyrics often narrate the story, while the chorus crystallizes the theme. The same goes for their videos, especially “Pretty Hurts.” In the first verse, Matsoukas shows the models preparing for the pageant. She takes us to the stage by drawing attention to musical landmarks. As the prechorus begins, Beyoncé steps onto the scale, and dancers toward the back of the rehearsal space reach tall, twirl, and step forward to help carry her along to the chorus. The song’s chorus is grand and so are the visuals: the stage has Greek columns, rows of beautiful women, and blue sparkling curtains. (Beyoncé marks the pumping-heartbeat rhythm with her forearms.) The second verse’s arrangement thickens, with the voice more multi-tracked. The section becomes more active: Beyoncé bicycles and presses weights, and the camera pans more. The song stops, as if recoiling from the lyrics “fall down, down, down.” As Beyoncé searches to answer the MC’s question of what she seeks most in life, she plunges into water. The song’s bridge offers the most scathing critique of the fashion industry. Most often in music videos and pop songs, the bridge suggests possibility, an alternate reality. In “Pretty Hurts”’s bridge, Matsoukas and Beyoncé tie us more firmly to the fashion industry’s exploitation of women. Choruses, too, become more punitive. By the outchorus, Beyoncé finds an escape; “Pretty Hurts” closes with the message that happiness comes not from winning beauty pageants, but from seeking ways to be at home with oneself.
Figure 17. “Pretty Hurts”: a video to open the album.
“Jealous” (track nine)
In “Jealous,” both song and image work to convey the song title’s emotion. Audiovisual sync loosens, and patterns are delayed or staggered, as if to convey that the unhappy star’s desires remain tantalizingly beyond her reach. The song’s title appears red, scribbled on a wall at a distance from Beyoncé, as she walks regally (if sullenly) down the stairs. Objects in the frame—falling grapes, burning candles, broken crystal, a painting of thorns—further underscore Beyoncé’s darkened mood. When she sings “Just one shot left of this drink, in this glass. Don’t make me break it,” the world either goes too fast or too slow: clouds stream too quickly, cars barrel down streets. Now slow, Beyoncé wears a black lace collar and dress with a train, as she grimly paces and dissolutely strokes marble heads. She switches from this outfit into a deeper red lipstick and a reddish purple film-noir trenchcoat as she heads for the streets. The one respite promised in the bridge—Beyoncé’s imagined night on the town with another man—feels unachievable, part of another era. The camera moves slowly and heavily. Beyoncé sings in the low register, with some grit. The rock guitar carries its traditional feeling of angry intensity. I hear her opening screams as sonic darts. The reverberant echoes that peel off from the voice and guitar seem to project Beyoncé’s uncomfortable feelings outward, even as chorused voices counsel restraint (“If you’re keeping your promises, I’m keeping mine”).
Figure 18. “Jealous”: music and image illustrate the song’s theme of jealousy.
“Haunted” (track three)
Jonas Åkerlund’s “Haunted” works more elliptically, asking us to puzzle out its audiovisual relations. This approach makes sense for a video that draws on the horror film: find that ghost or curse, the thing that taunts us from the periphery. What is that weird long-toothed monster on the TV screen? Why does the fire surge in front of three chairs and a glass speculum? How could Beyoncé’s reflection appear in a painting before she arrives before it? And what does Madonna’s famously censored “Justify My Love” have to do with any of this? Fine audiovisual details suggest answers: a “slap” coupled with a man unfurling wing-like devices, which later seems taken up by Beyoncé when she says “Slap me” while the camera rapidly cross-cuts among her dancers. Sounds of gears shifting suggest rotating hips but also larger clusters of flagrantly posed bodies. Cries and moans might belong to the elderly or the young, the possessed, or those simply seeking succor. What generates these sounds is ambiguous—the fan man, Beyoncé’s commands (“Slap me”), the music, or Madonna’s ghost? Our location and the functions of the premises remain uncertain: perhaps we’re inside an asylum, where patients seek sexual healing through non-normative means. More visual details encourage us to keep sleuthing for an explanation: dots and splotches of red blood, bathtub handles that resemble miniature skulls. Two metal heating pad lids placed on a bed seem to pay homage to Hitchcock. “Haunted”’s heating pad lids seem ominous—because they’re accompanied by nearby bells.
Figure 19. “Haunted” blends music video, horror films, and sexual healing.
“Flawless” (track thirteen)
“Flawless” takes place in what looks like an abandoned warehouse. Beyoncé’s dancers mosh. Her costume—a Pendleton plaid shirt, bulky metal jewelry, and thick eyeliner—suggests alliances outside of heteronormativity. She jumps up and punches the air like a competitive boxer, and then falls into a spastic, trance-like dance as if she were plucked out of Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie.
Strange and ambitious, the video opens with a sped-up sample, “I’m from H-town, coming down.” Beyoncé’s main vocal melody is flowing and lyrical and sits in strong contrast to a rhythm arrangement emphasizing brittle percussion sounds. A synth sound becomes the vehicle for an edgy eight-bit melodic hook with a sinister lowered second. This percussion-heavy texture, with the snare on every beat and sped-up rattling drum-fills, situates the song as electronic dance music. The keyboard pad provides some harmonic support, but the surprisingly lyrical melody is mostly on its own—especially because the lyrics conflict with it (“Don’t say I’m just his little wife”). Then, suddenly, a disembodied, heavily reverbed, classically-operatic voice enters along with someone speaking, and a harpsichord-like synthesizer sound. Then all the elements return together! And a subsidiary hook (“I’m flawless, my rock”) begins. The dance gestures show off what’s really hard to embody in the music, like the swoops for “My dia-mond, my rock.”
Stomping boots and moshing dancers articulate the song’s fast tempo of 140 beats per minute, while the slow-motion footage of Beyoncé’s leaps above the crowd projects a more leisurely 70 beats per minute. (The song can be heard either fast or slow.) The closing trancelike dancing, vocal swoops, and general revving-up seems to drive toward a new rhythm, and the hope of transcendence.
Figure 20. “Flawless”: a strange and ambitious song and video suggest alliances beyond heteronormativity.
New Subjectivities, Post-Fordist Economies, and Beyoncé’s Beyoncé Album
The magisterial achievements of Beyoncé’s Beyoncé’ come partly from the album’s responsiveness to our cultural moment. The video album speaks to anxieties about fluid capital, neoliberalism, work speedup, the demand for affective labor and flexible skills and identities. Steve Shaviro’s Digital Music Videos convincingly shows how today’s music videos capture affective states (like anxiety and uncertainty) we’re unable to access, because to do so would risk paralysis. Shaviro’s clips, like those in Beyoncé’s Beyoncé, tap into these affective states through exploiting properties basic to music video.
I’ve described five of Beyoncé’s seventeen videos, each one projecting a different persona in possession both of a unique role and state of mind. As with the other twelve, these five clips cover an enormous range: Beyoncé adopts personae of the loyal, sexual, married partner; the faithful, doting mother; the businesswoman; and many others that reside outside of traditional heteronormativity. As we come to know the album, we might wonder about the star. What’s driving her? Is it true there are problems within the confines of marriage (she’s jealous), or work (that trail of broken trophies), and these push her to seek new territory? Or maybe marriage and children are the most pleasurable and satisfying (“Rocket” or “Blue), and the rest is about play? We can’t tell. That’s what’s remarkable about music video (and this album, comprised of interlaced clips, might be thought of as one long-play music video). When we watch and listen, we’re asked to attend to all elements—music, image, and lyrics. Even still the work will shimmer, suggesting multiple possibilities. Music video works differently than does classic Hollywood film. In Hollywood film possibilities tend to be limited and hierarchized, with few options remaining at the end. But in a music video, strings of images can attach to various musical materials that come to the fore and recede, with none being annihilated.
Besides mirroring today’s demand for fluid, malleable identities, Beyoncé’s Beyoncé speaks to our sense of spatiotemporal compression, multitemporality, and especially accelerating, evaporating time. Moving media that attend closely to soundtracks often reflect the fleeting qualities of sound—the ways that, as Chion has amphasized, there’s first an attack, and then decay. Drawing on music-video aesthetics, Beyoncé’s responsive visuals begin to catch the mercurial, affect-rich, supersaturated environment we live in. Beyoncé and her supporting performers adopt multiple, shifting roles, and the objects and settings around her participate in time’s passing: much is already in the past tense, and other materials mark the ways things fade—while others emerge. Notice the performers’ transformation into zombie figures in “Flawless” and “Haunted,” or freedom fighters or beauty-pageant winners in “Superpower” and “Pretty Hurts.” There’s also a preponderance of elements from nature, both breaking apart and re-forming: water, mist, smoke, fire. Multitemporality is also caught through sped-up and slowed-down footage, flickering, glowing and glimmering electric lights, as well as footage that’s distressed (mottled with television grain or other distortion). The collection of clips catches, musically and visually, the new landscape’s multitemporality—the ways things run fast, slow, medium paced, all simultaneously veering off in different directions. The ultra-slow tempo of “Superpower” feels as if someone were dragging the tone arm against an LP turning even more sluggishly at near zero rpm; “Ghost”‘s crisp rhythms are fast enough to sprint against a day-temp programmer meeting a startup’s deadline. Jagged, layered, cross-cut rhythms run across clips such as “Jealous” and “Flawless.” Beyoncé’s prescient opus wows because it taps into themes and sensations from our moment, particularly our anxious relationship with time.
Beyoncé’s spatial locations are compressed and collaged. She and her performers move fluidly across locations (the clips themselves resemble sections of music videos). Many sites are open to people from all economic strata, but a few are the privilege of the 1%, a class to which Beyoncé obviously belongs. Again, because a music-centered soundtrack can support multiple perspectives and places without a clear hierarchy, the album holds together despite its brusque spatiotemporal juxtapositions. In “Haunted,” Beyoncé can visit a seaside mansion where she can dream about practicing other sexualities, as she herself gets older; in “Flawless” and “Superpower,” she can participate in militant subcultures—in “Flawless” the burned-out parts of the city, and in “Superpower” an abandoned shopping mall. “Yoncé” and “Partition” show her as hypersexualized in a limo, on the street, and on the catwalk. In “Heaven” and “XO” she can hang out with a friend or mingle among crowds, in the first experiencing great loss, and in the latter being ordinary while enjoying amusement-park rides. She can be with her husband and daughter, relatively alone on a separate continent (“Blue”), or muse about her childhood, or shepherd a bevy of children (“Grown Woman”). She can even take a distanced gaze on it all in places outside of any location (“Mine,” “Ghost”). The album closes with her being apotheosized, as if she might be an Egyptian goddess with several children on her knee.
We might feel critical toward Beyoncé’s social mobility, especially since she nods so frequently to experiences that remain available to the rest of us. But we might instead adopt Stanley Cavell’s argument about the wealthy young couples of the 1930s screwball comedies, who, not having to worry about money, can more fully explore the possibilities of romantic and professional relationships. As with Lemonade, Beyoncé’s range of movement allows for contemplation of extremes: she can criticize the sexual dependency of heterosexual monogamy and the pressures of marriage, even as she also valorizes marriage. (In “Jealous,” Beyoncé provides an angry recital of acts: “I cooked for you naked,” but also says “all I’m really asking for is you.”) Beyoncé’s performances are multivalent. Does she twerk for her own pleasure, or to hold Jay-Z’s (and our) interest?
Though criticized by scholars as reactionary, Beyoncé stretches equally towards progressive ends. By including the sampled quote by Ngozi Adichie in “Flawless,” Beyoncé can ask, “Why do we teach boys to be sexual but not girls?” “Ghost” targets late-modern capital. Beyoncé wonders, “All the people on the planet, working 9-5—how come?” Her running in place as she tries to keep up with the electronic dance track captures the desperation of trying to gain a ballast in uncertain economic, familial, romantic, and work worlds. Modern anonymity is captured in “Mine.” As hooded couples blindly embrace, Beyoncé sings “All I need is to call someone my own,” but as much as the video celebrates relationships, the video’s anonymity also suggests a partner is someone chosen blindly from a range of goods: capitalism penetrates to the most private spaces. The album’s musical materials draw sophisticatedly from traditionally African American genres like R&B, gospel, and soul, but “Mine,” a video that includes much electronic dance music, begins early in the clips’ rotation. Is it there because of Beyoncé’s engagements or to cultivate young, white audiences? Or perhaps the choice of EDM, as a register of post-Fordist neoliberalism, as Robin James has argued, immediately hails us all.
Figure 21. “Mine” speaks the most directly to neoliberalism.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade is, like Beyoncé, worthy of close analysis. Her achievements most likely derive from a range of skills honed over three decades. At a young age, Beyoncé’s father coached her in singing, performance, and dance (he dreamed of being the next Barry Gordy, president of Motown). Her mother designed her costumes, and Beyoncé also competed in beauty pageants. Later in her career, Beyoncé cultivated skills in songwriting, music production, acting, film directing and business management. From when she was very young, both parents shared with her their commitment to social activism (Beyoncé’s father attended one of the first integrated Southern high schools and colleges, and then earned a degree at a historically black college). All these experiences, as well as an army of supporting artisans, most likely contributed to Lemonade. Press suggests Beyoncé directed on the Lemonade shoot. Most striking is the way Lemonade’s soundtrack lacks the strong profile of almost all successful pop songs, including those on Beyoncé’s Beyoncé. Most surely a deliberate choice, the recessive soundtrack supports a strongly integrated audiovisual work. Only Beyoncé has directed such a unified, extended work, one comprised almost entirely of music video-like clips.
Many scholars believe influential aesthetic innovations are triggered by multiple influences—cultural, technical, socioeconomic. Today’s long-play music videos like Beyoncé’s last two albums (and Kanye’s Famous and Frank Ocean’s Endless) may be emergent now because of new economic structures. With the aim of luring new subscribers to their sites, online streaming music services like Apple and Tidal may have fronted the money for these audiovisually-intensified films. Tie-ins from other services like HBO provided additional venues and revenue streams. But surely some of the reasons for these new forms are idiosyncratic. Megastars like Kanye and Beyoncé, drawing on their long experience in the entertainment business, create new forms partly simply for artistic self-realization. Additionally, much as today’s mega-directors (Michael Bay, Baz Luhrmann, Francis Lawrence et al) adopt multiple roles, including producers for film and television, and content-makers for multiple formats, just to keep their stable of their favored artisans employed and sharp, Beyoncé and other musicians most likely produce long-play music videos to maintain relations with long-term director-collaborators, as well as to embark on new ones.
Figure 22. Beyoncé’s Lemonade
I’ve expressed an interest in this chronology because I wonder about Beyoncé’s role in relation to what I’m boldly calling the fourth phase of film history. The first (as identified by Tom Gunning) was a cinema of attractions, the second (as detailed by David Bordwell) was Hollywood’s classical period, and the third (as described by Thomas Elsaesser and Warren Buckland) was the post-classical era, with films like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which foregrounded busy surfaces with fast editing and convoluted narratives. The present, fourth phase might be called a post-post-classical moment. Directors have figured out ways to unify disparate cinematic techniques and smooth out discontinuities. A dense, fast-changing audiovisual surface can coexist with more traditional storytelling. As in a music video, multiple, even contradictory subjectivities can be presented relatively seamlessly. Individual moments can come forward and recede, counterbalancing larger sections, without any gaining primacy. The serial or multiverse blockbuster has taken over most of the cultural space, but we can still see the emergent trend. Partly through a very densely worked soundtrack, in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Daisy’s all-over emotionality suddenly shifts to a cold evaluation of Tom Buchanan as the best provider and it’s game over for Jay; but her affective modes are never put in relation. In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire spaces and environments are collaged without hierarchy: a train suited up in nineteenth-century décor barrels through a barren landscape and a futuristic city. Architecture drawn from Auschwitz, Italian fascism and sci-fi dovetail together, and it all works fairly well.
I can’t predict where we’re going, but doesn’t this seem to fit our moment? Beyoncé’s Beyoncé and Lemonade are remarkable and innovative works. Beyoncé demonstrates this new style: seventeen pieces, all different, all revealing multiple temperaments and modes of address, but, probably impossibly, reflecting one person. This is not Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Lemonade is the first fifty minute music video-film, with minimal interstitial text. It has no precursors. Technique, technology, finances, and the moment have coalesced. Beyoncé arrives just in time for our post-fordist society. And who knows? We may once again turn to music video as the driver of it all.
Carol Vernallis teaches at Stanford. Her books include Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (Columbia University Press), and Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (Oxford University Press), as well as two co-edited Oxford handbooks on contemporary audiovisual aesthetics. She’s currently working on a monograph entitled Musical Spectacles in the Digital Age, and a collected volume entitled Transmedia Directors: Sound, Image, and the Digital Swirl.
“The Duck Song,” music by Bryant Oden, animation by Forrest Whaley (2009): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtN1YnoL46Q (last access 10.3.2010). “The Badger Song,” a musical cartoon by British animator Jonti Picking, released in September 2003: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPvRVK9YbZM (last access 10.3.2010). Carol Vernallis, Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video and the New Digital Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 147, 148.
The first wave of music video scholars in the late eighties and early nineties included Andrew Goodwin, Ann Kaplan, and Susan McClary. All emphasized the need for a theoretical account of music video. See Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music, Television and Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992); Kaplan, Rocking Around the Clock: MTV Postmodernism and Consumer Culture (New York: Methuen, 1987); and McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991). Carol Vernallis’s Experiencing Music Video provided a theory of how music, lyrics and image can be placed in relation, and detailed analyses of individual videos. Carol Vernallis, Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
A second wave of writers in the 2010’s include Lori Burns, Stan Hawkins, Henry Keazor, Matthias Korsgaard, Diane Railton, John Richardson, Steve Shaviro, Joachim Strand, and Paul Watson. See Henry Keazor and Thorsten Wübbena, Rewind, Play, Fast Forward: The Past, Present and Future of the Music Video (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2010). Diane Railton and Paul Watson, Music Video and the Politics of Representation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011). Joachim Strand, The Cinesthetic Montage of Music-Video: Hearing the Image and Seeing the Sound (Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008). John Richardson, An Eye for Music: Popular Music and the Audiovisual Surreal (The Oxford Music/Media) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman, and Carol Vernallis, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
See Carol Vernallis, “Storytelling on the Ledge: Lady Gaga and Jonas Akerlund’s ‘Telephone’ and ‘Paparazzi,’” Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture (Routledge Studies in Popular Music) Martin Iddon and Melanie L. Marshall, eds., Routledge, (November, 2013), pp. 157-177.
Autotune the News is a series of clips, available on YouTube, where the Brooklyn musician Michael Gregory has taken a number of evening news broadcast snippets which he comments upon by turning them into R&B pieces. His own voice as well as the voices of the people appearing in the news clips (such as news presenters, politicians etc.) are electronically altered with the help of the software program “Autotune” which normally is used in order to help singers’ voices to achieve “perfect pitch.” See as an example “Autotune the News #2: pirates. drugs. gay marriage”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBb4cjjj1gI (last access 10.3.2010).
As Toby Litt claims, “One of the main messages of 80s Hollywood was "you can change your life". Often, this was done in some astonishingly vile ways.” (The pop soundtracks supported this message.) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jul/29/80s-culture-a-team-karate-kid The 80s were known for consumerism and materialism, including pop music. http://www.history.com/topics/1980s
Roger Beebe, “Paradox of Pastiche: Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, and the Race of Postmodern Auteur,” Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones, eds. Roger Beebe, Jason Middleton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007) 316-319.
At the 2007 MTV awards show, Justin Timberlake proclaimed, “Play more damn videos. We don’t want to see the Simpsons on reality television.” http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/mtv-loses-another-music-show-fails-to-renew-alexa-chung-20091211
Robin James claims that EDM directly registers “neoliberal ideology.” The prototypical EDM track, much like a Goldman-Sachs trader, amps up its cutting-edge technology to the point of flirting with overload, “pushing the edge of burnout and exhaustion.” But in the end, this transgressive drive beyond all limits is recuperated as a new source of accumulated value; neoliberalism works through “a sort of transformation of Nietzsche’s ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ into a universalizable maxim.” EDM’s soar is a “sweeping, upward/forward-moving intensificatory gesture.” In contrast, the drop is a movement of “deintensification”: it “rapidly shifts down to bass and sub-bass frequencies and bottoms the song out.” The soar/drop structure mimics something like capital accumulation and depletion in the realm of finance. Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2015), 21, 29, 36, 78, 79.
Some of this paragraph derives from my “Beyoncé’s Lemonade: She Dreams in Both Worlds” Film International, June 2 2016, and “Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Avant-Garde Aesthetics, and Music Video: ‘The Past and the Future Merge to Meet Us Here’” Film Criticism, Volume 40, Issue 3, 2016.
Carol Vernallis and Eleftheria Thanouli mark the shift to post-classical film aesthetics with films from the last two decades. Both consider films like Moulin Rouge (2001), Chungking Express (1994), Europa (1991), Fight Club (1999), Ame´lie (2001), Arizona Dream (1991), Lola Rennt (1998), Magnolia (1999), Million Dollar Hotel (2000), Natural Born Killers (1994), Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Trainspotting (1996). Other scholars, including Fredric Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Jim Collins and Christopher Sharrett, make the demarcation earlier. They point to films like Blue Velvet (1986), Blade Runner (1982), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Terrorizer (1986) and Hitler, A Film from Germany (1977).
Eleftheria Thanouli, Post-Classical Cinema: An International Poetics of Film Narration (New York: Wallflower Press, 2009), 96, 173–182. Vernallis, Unruly Media. See also Warren Buckland, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). See also Elsaesser on database films, Shaviro on post-intensified continuity.
As Alain Lipietz notes “Fordism was Taylorism plus mechanization.” Taylorism signified a separation between the organization of the production process (which was the task of technical offices), and the execution of standardized, prescribed tasks. Fordism implied a long-term contractualization of the wage relationship, with a monitored increase in salaries indexed to prices and general productivity. In the 1980s, policies of ‘liberal flexibility’ were put in place by the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States, eventually followed by most OECD countries. Workers were encouraged to practice ‘responsible autonomy,’ particularly when putting new technologies into operation, and to practice ‘just-in-time’ labor to assist corporations in managing the production cycle. Alain Lipietz (1997) “The Post-Fordist World: Labour Relations, International Hierarchy and Global Ecology,” Review of International Political Economy, 4:1, 1-41, DOI:10.1080/096922997347841.
This turn to ‘flexible specialization’ maximizes profits and reduces government and corporate responsibility. Not surprisingly, a Pew study released on November 4th, 2015 found American working families stressed, tired, and rushed. http://nyti.ms/2mjxIUi
http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/11/04/raising-kids-and-running-a-household-how-working-parents-share-the-load/ Beyoncé’s album acknowledges this work speedup in clips like “Blow” and “Ghost.” Her changing personas suggest a way to be responsibly autonomous and ready to practice ‘just-in-time’ labor.