Critical Currencies

Negative Views Of Rock & Pop Video Clips

published in Waves No.78, Melbourne, 1986
George Michael of Wham! (1985); Midnight Oil - Read All About It (1982)

Sometime ago in 1986... There day all were, exuding 'cool' in their upright slouches and Armani trousers. It was a press conference for Pepsi, in what has now become almost classic form: personalities flattened up against a white wall: raised above an unseen audience; camera awkwardly zoomed in too far away from an unseen location at the back. There they all were: Michael Fox, Billy Crystal, Glen Frey and Don Johnson. Pepsi was launching its new campaign for the summer of '86. Gone was the flaunted megastar image (a la Jackson and Ritchie's lascivious semiotic statements 'bubbling brown people = bubbly brown liquid'). Dark brown was out; caramel was in, from Billy Crystal's roots blend tone to Don Johnson's solarium hue.

The hype, though, was centered on why they signed the advertising contracts. The conference made a very convincing pretence at wishing to explain this 'dubious' situation. We all know that times have changed (Lux soap isn't used by movie stars anymore it's used by actresses) and that, even for those of us with the reddest necks, there is something slightly unsavoury about a famous person using a mere everyday product which we too might use. The bluff of press conferences like Pepsi's Summer '86 launch is the creation of a media spectacle to define the believability of the advertisements' mythological value. The fact that this press conference was reported on NBC's Today show indicated it was actually for us. The fusion of the press with the public is now more the norm than the exception yet another example of the vanishing space between 'the media' and 'the public'.

But this conference backfired. It was a truly unbelievable spectacle: not one of the personalities was convincing. Their explanations as to why they did the ads ("No, really, I ended up liking the stuff!") were conveyed in true you're-not goinig to believe this fashion. Propped up on stage, their limp testimonies made them appear to be on trial. They should have bullshitted and told us how great Pepsi is, but instead they tried to bluff us with a half sardonic rhetoric of honesty. This Pepsi campaign fell flat.

Sometime later in 1986... There they all were at the 4th Annual MTV Video Music Awards. Time for another image change. The previous three ceremonies were not unlike the Annual Stuntman Awards which proved that whereas actors and producers looked OK in tuxedos, Pop performers and 'stuntpersons' do not! What with hosts like Casey Kasam and huge stage sets which took 40 seconds to traverse, the MTV Awards were not unlike the Oscars flaccid events contained within cavernous settings; flat yet hollow. But for the 4th Awards, MTV bowed to pressure by the public (in this case, 'the fans') and let them make up the audience. Thus they were injected into the media spectacle, once again closing up that space between the media and the public. Combine that with satellite link up (the dominant technological mode for representing a spatio temporal event reality; of creating an event) and these 4th Annual Awards were both down to earth and all around the earth.

But there's more. There was a continual press conference 'backstage' (i.e. its 'real' location could have been anywhere, but its given place within the narrative of the spectacle was 'behind) where just like the Pepsi conference the personalities were fired questions of a similar pseudo investigative tone. And just like the Pepsi conference, the question was why: why sell, sign, advertise? In other words: why make video clips? The bluff continues, as neither Pepsi nor MTV are dumb. After 5 years of transmission (and 30 odd years of Rock'n'Roll) there is no way that MTV is actually asking the question "why are recording artists making videos just because they're part of an industry whose product potential is increased by promotion via the television medium?"

The MTV press conference is not there to investigate or interrogate; it is there to create the illusion of a dialectic space, sublimating audience fears of the product (or rather, the form of the product) with self enveloping demographic data. In other words, if the public wants a bad image for video clips, MTV can incorporate such wishes into its programme. The industry will continue in one form or another because such fears and desires by the 'public' are far removed from the cultural and economic effects of video clip production. (Any industry only ever subverts the fears and diverts the desires of its market.) In the end, we 'the public' are left checking the performance of the personalities in terms of how they qualify/justify their actions. Indeed, they are on trial, but it is a trial demanded by the public yet supplied by the media.

Sometime a little before in 1986... And so we come to the negative view(s) of video clips. Not that we have arrived anywhere, but that the two events cited above are part of an immensely crossbred network of bastard events through which one travels (directly or indirectly/implicitly or explicitly) to arrive in a current climate of antagonism and negativism toward video clips. On September 7th the Australian chapter of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (gulp! let's just call it IASPM) instigated a symposium on video clips. It was the first public event IASPM has organised, housed within the suitable environs of the Performing Arts Museum's latest exhibition: "Clips". (Note: On the north side of that humungous house of culture known as the Victorian Arts Centre is nestled an unimposing venue known as the Performing Arts Museum. Alternating with its programme of showcasing historical paraphernalia from the theatrical arts in Victoria is a contemporary programme of exhibitions connected with media and popular culture. These exhibitions have to date separately covered areas like Rock & Pop; Radio; Television & Advertising; and even Horror on stage/in film.)

The Rolling Stones - Undercover (1983); Hunters & Collectors - Talking To A Stranger (1982)

Perhaps not as encompassing as the "Beat" exhibition of 1984, "Clips" proved popular enough to warrant an extension through to September. The attendance for IASPM's symposium was equally surprising, what with people filling every nook and cranny of the space, straining to take in a fairly eclectic set of presentations. Now, the concept of something like IASPM might repel many of those interested in Rock and Pop as entertainment/lifestyle/art/whatever. For sure, the image of the 'cultural analyst' has always suffered from bad PR, and it was up to IASPM to deliver the goods i.e. to make debative yet relative sense of the production and flow of cultural meanings so pertinent to Rock and Pop. Unfortunately and for a variety of reasons the goods weren't delivered on that night.

First up was a proxy presentation by a Swedish journalist, Fia Persson, who analysed Julien Temple's VC for the Rolling Stones' "Undercover Of The Night". Translation problems aside, her paper was strictly high school stuff. 90% straight description and 10% inconsequential opinion. No insight to the clip was offered at all, which probably left most of the audience wondering whether they missed the point of her paper. There wasn't one. Then came her 're edited' version, of the clip. This method of 'counter text reconstruction' (as derived from strategic models in film theory/practice) has despite its critical potential generally only been useful in illustrating how little the makers know about the object of their analysis.

Persson's re edit was worse still. I was expecting a politicized reconstruction of the VC's terrorist imagery, putting forward a commentary on both the hipness of the image of political content and the pumped up controversy disguised as radicalism, because of the clip being banned in various countries. Predictable but worth the attention. Instead, she simply edited together (and rather clumsily at that) all the shots of the 'story within the story' (Jagger the character as witness to the hostage shooting, etc.) and then put together all the shots of the kids watching the Stones performing on television. (And she didn't even make mention of the father trying to turn it off when the MTV logo cunningly appears on the set.) To put it another way: she converted the narrative of ABABABAB into AAAABBBB.

I was in shock. An analysis is meant to propose a critical view derived from conjuring the unapparent from the apparent. Perhaps this paper might have conveyed something to a meeting of lecturers in English Literature, but to a bunch of kids who've already seen a thousand and one VCs, it said nothing. Perhaps IASPM misjudged the audience they would pull? Heaven forbid that IASPM is made up of ... lecturers in English Literature! Suffice to say that that paper was a bad choice with which to start the evening.

Next was Marcus Breen's report on the internationally co ordinated "Warm Kiss" project which is attempting to survey "what young people prefer in film clips and why". Now these surveys I find suspect, to say the least, in their combination of Marxism, anthropology and market research. The real problem is to be found in the desire that motivates these projects, because if you ever believe that there is an essential reason, some mysterious essence as to why something is "popular", you have already pre-empted and predetermined the information that arises from overdetermining criteria and methodologies for solving your problematic quest. Society is too often erroneously viewed as mass (groups, sectors, layers) when it is better defined by movement (flows, fluxes, fusions).

Surveys are great for ascertaining mass (by amount) but inadequate for gauging movement (by degree). In terms of the "Warm Kiss" project (and note the circumscribed connotations of that title), once you let kids watch Hunters and Collectors' "Betty's Worry" or The Slab" with Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" you have already set up a dichotomic framework of references which will encapsulate any data the participants contribute to the survey. At its worst, such data satiates an almost neurotic need for empirical information to help propel an argument laboured in orthodoxy. It works in advertising: subtleties, tonalities and modalities of product preference simply aid in the formal construction and presentation of products for a market which already exists but simply needs redefining. It doesn't work well in cultural analysis: percentages and ratios are phantom representations of an abstracted space wherein lie the more far reaching yet less tangible effects of the objects' historical form and cultural shape. But perhaps Breen may have conceded some of this as the tabulated results were interesting, but like weather reports didn't actually tell us much at all. The fault of the questions? Selection of clips? The survey's internationalist format? I don't think such surveys lead us anywhere. Like weather reports, they are there to be replaced.

My presentation was next. Sensing that the broad intention of the IASPM symposium was to in some way interrogate VC production (the evening was titled "Cutting The Clips") I attempted to divert a collective 'bad vibe' against VCs by analyzing why the negative image of VCs is so persistent. This image appears to have developed from two distinct areas: MYTH: Video imagery in the form of an advertisement is against the mythological grain (not the ideological grain) of Rock 'N' Roll. NATURE: VCs are by nature ineffective and incapable of conveying any of the music's emotional intensity.

These areas can be redefined thus: MYTH : Rock 'N' Roll as an art/entertainment form has always had to sell itself in one way or another. Prior to VC production, the names of artists, their song titles and their album covers functioned along a similar duality creating an accumulative image for the artist as well as providing something which could be utilized in sales strategies.Surely VCs prompt imagery no more than album covers by Roger Dean, names like Iggy Pop And The Stooges, and titles like "Innagaddadavida". NATURE: Whereas a song as a whole can convey a particular emotional experience (via the effects of musical 'language') the nature of VCs is such that they generally work in a series or set of fragments that continually plug into and disconnect from the song's narrative. VCs aren't full and total cinematic constructs (even some films aren't!) let alone are they "art", as some people say. It is therefore easy for the cynic in most of us to condemn the cliches of many clips. However most condemnations of VCs tell more about how people misread them. One shouldn't expect the world from VCs but profit is to be found by being alert to the interesting fragments when and how they happen. Most importantly, these fragments angle out toward other areas: art, cinema, advertising, theatre and television. The song may communicate a total experience due to the homogenizing effect of fused musical elements, but the VC is a fractured and fragmented image implosion.

OK we're half way through the evening's proceedings.Had there been question time then, there might have been some discussion on these critical issues, opening out the three papers. I'm sure IASPM was sounding around to gauge reactions to the "Warm Kiss" project and Persson's method of analysis. But the second half of the evening took a turn for the worst for a variety of reasons, yet again.

Sometime shortly thereafter in 1986 ... There they all were: Richard Lowenstein (RML Productions), Evan English (Rich Kids), and Ray Argall (Musical Films). And it seemed as though everyone fell for the greatest fallacy of all that the maker of something knows most about it. All three directors/producers fleshed out the panel with anecdotal tales of production, giving 'the public' what they often are most starved for: something behind 'the media'. Such information like Fox's views on drinking Pepsi or The Pet Shop Boys' views on making videos is, essentially, illusory. Perhaps these makers were a bit peeved with the analysts preceeding them. Fair enough. Collectively we weren't that hot, though I am pretty tired of knee jerk reactions against any form of intellectualism. But overall these clipmakers presented a consolidated front which did little to allow people to start to come to terms with the specific communicative effects of VCs from an audience point of view.

The issues of film and advertising once again reared their pock marked heads: all three valued filmmaking above VC production, and all three displayed the appropriate signs (scratches and sighs) of being uncomfortable with the reality of the clips as ads. (Pass the Pepsi.) Admittedly, Lowenstein and Argall have made individual dents in the Australian Film and Television Industry (with Strikebound and Pop Movie respectively) but these clipmakers spoke like filmmakers. This prevented much discussion about their contribution to the historical development of the medium and all three production houses are definitely of some importance in this respect. At least the notion of editing was raised when Lowenstein described his style very appropriately as "percussive" (with which Argall identified) which is well evidenced in VCs like INXS' "Listen Like Thieves" and Midnight Oil's "The Dead Heart". On the other hand, English's mock Quinten Crisp condemnation of the audience for their interest in VCs was weak and irritating especially, I'm sure, to the audience! Just because you make a few turkey VCs doesn't mean you have to be a turkey in this kind of forum.

Question time finally came and WHAM! the greater percentage of the audience were bloody aspiring clipmakers! How much should I charge? How do I advertise? Film or video? Clipmakers' copyright? Somehow I'm certain this isn't exactly what IASPM had in mind. Not one critical question was raised. It was like being at a Builders and Labourers conference and I mean that negatively. I immediately envisaged a future deja vu: three new clipmakers on a forum panel, still stating stale altruisms about the cinema, advertising and television; still unable to view the cultural effect of their work; still entrenched in short circuiting notions of Art (aesthetics/intentions) and Industry (finance/product).

IASPM has the potential to begin to articulate some space around 'the workplace' that dead earth where people dream of combining bucks and brains; of becoming professionals in a buddy-buddy industry. The voice of experience (like Lowenstein, Argall and English) is highly valuable, but only when made to reverberate within a critical arena. IASPM should be equally aware of the fruitfullness of clearly constructing that arena. As to all the budding clipmakers, Lowenstein, Argall and English each developed their craft/careers/strategies in a fairly ad hoc fashion during the blossoming of a new industry. No wonder their most interesting moments were born from chances, gambles and experiments and no one should need 'advice' in those areas. Don't look to the industry for cues: look at the world which VCs both emanate from and reflect in their own unique way. Therein lies the inspiration and the innovation. It's all there ... sometime now in 1986.

Text © Philip Brophy 1986. Images © respective copyright holders