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The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Video Analysis

PDF The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Video Analysis Bloomsbury Academic 2019

Book author
  1. Lori Burns
  2. Stan Hawkins



Music videos promote popular artists in cultural forms that circulate widely across social media networks. With the advent of YouTube in 2005 and the proliferation of handheld technologies and social networking sites, the music video has become available to millions worldwide, and continues to serve as a fertile platform for the debate of issues and themes in popular culture. This volume of essays serves as a foundational handbook for the study and interpretation of the popular music video, with the specific aim of examining the industry contexts, cultural concepts, and aesthetic materials that videos rely upon in order to be both intelligible and meaningful. Easily accessible to viewers in everyday life, music videos offer profound cultural interventions and negotiations while traversing a range of media forms. From a variety of unique perspectives, the contributors to this volume undertake discussions that open up new avenues for exploring the creative changes and developments in music video production. With chapters that address music video authorship, distribution, cultural representations, mediations, aesthetics, and discourses, this study signals a major initiative to provide a deeper understanding of the intersecting and interdisciplinary approaches that are invoked in the analysis of this popular and influential musical form.


As editors, all we can claim is to have pieced together a rich tapestry of ideas and perspectives from a group of inspiring scholars at different stages in their careers. It is first and foremost our authors that we thank, for their dedication and commitment to this collection from the word go. Their work makes and defines this collection.

As two editors working at different music institutions on two different continents, our thanks go to our respective departments: Burns’s School of Music at the University of Ottawa and Hawkins’s Musicology Department at the University of Oslo and Popular Music Section at the University of Agder. It is their support of our work that has made this project and the research allocations required for any such venture possible. We also want to thank friends and colleagues for their efforts and support, as well as the cohorts of students we have both had the privilege of working with throughout the decades that we have been engaged as academics. In particular, thanks go to Kjetil Hallaråker, research assistant to Stan Hawkins, who assisted with a number of the tasks. We would like to thank Leah Babb-Rosenfeld and Amy Martin at Bloomsbury, who have shown tremendous support in the production of the volume.

As the reader will quickly discover upon entering the chapters of this volume, our authors have been inspired by the work of a vast range of artists, producers, directors, and genres. We have all entered into this project for the love of music video—a cultural form that offers artistic creativity, technological innovation, as well as social, cultural, and political commentary.

Introduction: Undertaking Music Video Analysis

As a ubiquitous cultural form, popular music videos permeate our lives and are experienced in many contexts through a vast array of technologies. Over the past several decades, they have emerged as one of the most powerful sources for mediating music and musician, contributing to new social, political, and cultural patterns. While the first videos arguably can be traced back to the beginning of the last century, they really came into their own during the 1980s due to the launch of MTV—an American cable and satellite channel—with its headquarters in New York City. From the outset, MTV’s mission was to broadcast music videos selected by video jockeys (VJs) and target primarily teenagers and young adults. MTV was conceived in 1977 when Warner Cable started its interactive two-way cable-television system, QUBE. This included a variety of channels, such as Sight on Sound, a music outlet that featured music-oriented television shows and live-concert footage. The interactive nature of QUBE meant that viewers could vote for their favorite artists and the music they loved. At 12:01 a.m. (Eastern Time) on Saturday, August 1, 1981, John Lack uttered the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” launching MTV, with footage of the first Space Shuttle launch countdown of Columbia earlier that year and a montage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Symbolically, it was the clip “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles (produced by Trevor Horn) that ushered in MTV, followed by “You Better Run” by Pat Benatar. Marking the beginning of twenty-four-hours-a-day music television viewing, MTV’s slogan, in Mark Goodman’s words—one of the first five MTV VJs—would be: “Starting right now, you’ll never look at music the same way again ... We’ll be doing for TV what FM did for radio.”

From that moment on, the music video developed in exciting directions, with the spectacle of performance reaching new heights. Pop and rock artists became more glamorized due to technological innovation, while editing equipment and video recorders became more accessible—a new generation of high-profile color recorders and cameras now enabled pop artists to churn out their promotional material at increasingly faster rates. The term “promo” (for promotional video) was coined in the United Kingdom to describe videos or concert clips that record companies commissioned. Among the first artists and groups to be played on MTV were Adam Ant, Blondie, Eurythmics, Culture Club, Mötley Crüe, Duran Duran, Ultravox, Van Halen, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, The Cars, and The Police. In addition to the coverage of numerous rock, pop, new wave, and heavy metal acts, mainstream dance trends gained high levels of audiovisual exposure. It was not long before dance would dominate mainstream popular music, evident in the performances of the1980s megastars Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince, all of whom drew on lavish choreography. MTV would now broadcast musical acts on a global scale never witnessed before, featuring the legendary coverage of live global benefit concerts, including the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia in July 1985, organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure (fundraising for famine relief in Ethiopia), and, in 2005, together with VH1, the Live 8 concerts from the G8 countries and South Africa.

The advent and subsequent growth of the internet as a vibrant, global, and user-generated arena would later have a tumultuous impact on the dissemination of music videos. In particular, the internet ushered in the viral video, which could be dispatched through an email from a friend or colleague, posted on a Facebook timeline, or shared through a blog. Today, viral videos—often containing music—traverse social media at lightning speed, closing the gap between radio, television, and the internet. Michael Gregory, a Brooklyn musician, released his first viral music video in 2008. Entitled “Debate Highlights,” it included footage from the first US presidential debate during that same year, featuring Barack Obama and John McCain. Notably, Gregory formed a band, “The Gregory Brothers,” that made videos using Auto-Tune (an audio processor that adjusts and rectifies vocal and instrumental pitch). Subsequently, the band began to create its “Auto-Tune the News” series of YouTube videos, now known as “Songify the News,” which were distributed through their website and YouTube channel, “Schmoyoho.” Here the viral video demonstrates the convergence of a networked society, offset by fragmentation, sharing, and digitization.

Music videos in all their forms remain powerful cultural artifacts that circulate widely across social media platforms to promote music and musicians. Undergoing a seismic shift in the twenty-first century, the music industry has witnessed the mushrooming of new communication networks, such as the portals of Myspace (founded in 2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), and Instagram (2010), and the evolving assemblages of music technology such as mp3 sound files, mp3 players, smartphones, and tablets. The proliferation of social networking sites and handheld technologies has changed the course and format of the video and its modes of screening music. In stark contrast to MTV’s global twenty-four-hour music video era with a “dual functionality” to listen and to watch, social media sites would facilitate twenty-four-hour multi-functionality: to listen, to watch, to read, to blog, and to actively or passively interact.

Over the course of this volume, we seek to analyze the intriguing artistic, cultural, social, and political synergies that emerge in and through the remarkable audiovisual form that is the music video. More specifically, we set out to lay the groundwork for new approaches to analyzing music videos by linking the performances that characterize them to the power relations that pervade music production on and off the stage. Since audiovisual performance representations typically glamorize structures of social subordination, they consequently relay elaborate forms of social and cultural values and ideologies. As music videos animate our social and cultural spaces, they shape significant representations of gendered, sexualized, raced, and classed identities. One of our aims is to explore the connections between these representations of cultural identity and the musical genres from which they arise. In this regard, we understand the musical contexts of genre and style to comprise a driving force in the shaping of cultural identities.

That music videos are predicated upon advances in digital media means that human performance is not only influenced but also altered by an extraordinary range of aesthetic manipulations. The sight of the performing body invites intensified reflexivity on the part of the viewer, characterized by embodiment, simulation, cognition, and agency. By identifying the materiality of the music video, the video spectator engages in a process of distinguishing the expressive parameters that negotiate significant social and cultural issues. When bodies function musically, they provide recourse for understanding how cultures function, especially in relation to the agency of subjectivities. Significantly, the digitized body on display is an intricate compound of gendered, sexual, racial, and ethnic embodiment, the specific configurations of which discipline the materiality of the body. Simultaneously, videos are outlets for creativity, entertainment, and contemplation. In this way, they call for an investigation of musical composition itself, which leads, in turn, to the critical appraisal of cultural practices and the processes of mediation.

As multimodal forms, music videos reside at the crossroads of musical genres and styles, visual genres and styles, lyrical narratives and messages, artistic subjectivities and cultural representations, new media technologies, as well as participatory culture and social media. In an attempt to understand the workings of the music video, scholars grapple with interpretive approaches, issues of transmediality, and theoretical principles. These writings emanate from the fields of popular music studies, media studies, film theory, cultural studies, gender studies, critical discourse analysis, and sociology. The formulation of an appropriate analytic and interpretive method is dependent upon, and arises from, the selected object of inquiry, hence the diversity of approaches exemplified in this collection and the broad spectrum of music discussed. While a musical artist or band is often presented as the primary object of inquiry, we also recognize the collaborative process of production that exists behind every video— involving performers, writers, producers, directors, and technicians—and the fact that each of these participants has a profound impact upon the content and expression of the music video is never in doubt.

The field of music video analysis owes a major debt to E. Ann Kaplan’s seminal work, Rocking Around the Clock (1987). Kaplan was the first scholar to adopt a postmodern approach for the analysis of MTV video types and styles. On the heels of her work, the study of music and image has burgeoned, with methods and theories devised for analyzing audiovisuality, where both audio and visual properties are scrutinized.
Scholars from the fields of music, languages and literatures, media and communication, digital humanities, gender studies, and sociology, to name just a few, draw upon the contents of the popular music video in order to illustrate not only musical and artistic expressions, but also social, political, and cultural concerns and ideologies. Lisa Lewis, following in E. Ann Kaplan’s footsteps, explored gendered address in her Gender Politics and MTV (1990), while Andrew Goodwin proposed a blend of musicological and sociological perspectives in his Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture (1992).2 In this groundbreaking study, Goodwin outlined a taxonomy of music video narrative structures, offering a critical reflection on how the dynamics of stardom and the social variables of fandom relate to video reception. His work ushered in the next generation of scholars, who continued to provide valuable insights into how specific musical and visual codes are used in specific musical genres. The first collection published on music videos, Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader (1993), edited by Frith, Goodwin, and Grossberg, presented a set of essays that continued the scholarly reflection on postmodernism and MTV, with a clear motivation to examine the implications of the music video for the communication of genre values and gendered subjectivities.3 On a broader scale, the scholarly writings on audiovisuality took a theoretical turn with Nicholas Cook’s Analysing Musical Multimedia (1998), which pinpointed the intersections between and among the individual multimedia layers of music video, as well as other musical media (opera on film, Disney animation of classical music, and so on).4 At the dawn of the new millennium, Carol Vernallis’s book Experiencing Music Video (2004) established new directions for the analysis of the music video form, which she later expounded upon in Unruly Media (2013). Film theorist Michel Chion’s work on audiovisual aesthetics would be one of many incentives for Vernallis to explore visual processes in relation to sonic processes, ranging from the deliberate coordination of musical and visual events to the communication of a gesture both in the images and in the sounds.5 Simultaneously, a great number of edited collections and books on audiovisuality have been forthcoming that have directly influenced the shape of this collection.6 And while the field of music video studies has established itself as a serious scholarly discipline, there is also clear evidence of an increasing interest in music videos in the public domain.
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