The Audience You Want

The Audience In Rock & Pop Video Clips

published in Freeze-Frame Vol.1 No.3, Melbourne, 1987
Mamma Cass at Woodstock; Bruce Springsteen - Dancin' In The Dark (1984)

Flashback : Woodstock, 1969. Not the event, the film. The film that 'spread the image' of a countercultural audience spectacle, telling the world that here was a mass that proved a solidarity of views, ideals and tastes. There's Janis Joplin in one of her earliest visual recordings. And there it was : a quick flash of Cass Elliot of the Mamas & The Papas, overwhelmed by Janis' performance of White Woman Bourbon Blues.

Eisenstein called it montage ; Pudovkin recognized it as sleight of hand - the trickery of joining two images together to effect a truthful continuum of time and space. Was Cass Elliot really watching Joplin at that exact point in time? Or to move from the specific to the general - how is WOODSTOCK the movie construed as a truthful depiction of Woodstock the event? So we have photographic evidence of a mass of moving people in the one place at the one time (one of whom we believe was Cass Elliot) but what exactly do those images of the audience tell us?

Such rockumentaries throw back to rock culture all the thin empiricism it so often craves, that whole shtick of truth, reality and no bullshit. Rockumentaries don't document an event or spectacle as much as they prove that an interaction between performer and audience took place. The state of that interaction has advertising copy built into it, in that the actual phenomenon of 'popularity' is presented in the most effective way - photographically. Throughout the 70s they aided in promoting the popularity of an act - a height being reached in 1979 with Wings' ROCKSHOW tour-film (taken from a 1976 Seattle concert and in a way linked to the triple live album release of 1977 WINGS ACROSS AMERICA). The length of that tour-film extended the actual tour by three years, making McCartney and company realize that a touring film could boost sales just as effectively as a live tour - minus all the live tour's costs. By 1981, MTV would turn that realization into an industry.

The video clip boom of the 80s ushered in an added problematic in the drive for product novelty : the songs not only had to sound new, they had to look new. The most obvious way to look new was to reject the previous decade's rockumentary format and style. Out went the stage, the audience and sometimes even the performer as the bulk of video clip imagery from 1981 to 1983 centered on a visual 'alienation' of the performer : transporting and placing him/her/it into a plethora of settings, the last of which would be (ugh) a live stage.

But by 1984, the whole emphasis on 'image' in Rock & Pop was starting to be critically frowned upon by critics, performers and (trailing along) record companies. Critics cited Mulchayesque panoramas as getting two far away (Sri Lanka ain't no Memphis) from the essence and guts of Rock'N'Roll, while performers bemoaned that they were musicians, man, not actors (which is probably why The Long Ryders landed the Miller beer contract). But it was record and management companies who were perhaps most important in terms of diverting the hyper-image trend, because all those 'alien' video clips left out the most important element : the consumer. Many of the fundamental tenets of advertising acknowledge the importance of showing a consumer in relation the product. In terms of product identification, too many video clips painted an alien landscape with not a consumer in sight.

This whole 'return to roots' trend in Rock of the latter 80s (revivalism, authenticity, specialization, historicism, etc.) can thus be viewed in connection to a 'return to consumerism' in terms of the image presented of an audience mass or member. A perfect example : Bruce Springsteen's DANCIN' IN THE DARK. There he is : the voice of authenticity, naturalism, realism and unpretentiousness - not only personified but also 'musclified' (his throbbing thighs symbolize the Pounding Beat while the expanding biceps symbolize the Urgent Lyrics). And, hey, Bruce don't need no alien landscapes, man. Just let him loose in front of an AUDIENCE. And there in the audience : the lucky girl in the front row (it could be YOU) invited up to dance with The Boss.

But there's something strange about that clip. By rights it should have totally destroyed the Bruce phenomenon because it comes off as the most pathetic and contrived display of audience arousal and contact ever commited to television. Instead, it only intensified Bruce's status as the most desirable being on the planet - because it presents the most fantastic yet most desirable image of a consumer, one who could make that contact, a contact born by those dreams and wishes that fuel product identification. The point is that it is the girl in DANCIN' IN THE DARK onto whom the fantasy is displaced : not just the dream that you could touch Bruce, but more precisely that you could be that girl.

Run DMC - Walk This Way (1986); Billy Joel - A Matter Of Trust (1986)

DANCIN' IN THE DARK is a distillation of the two central spheres of product-consumer bonding : the stage and the audience. Each are defined by their own energy, uniting in different ways to produce an interaction. For the purposes of this article, let's move on and look at how some other video clips have constructed images of the audience.

Russell Mulchay went from the dandy to the perverse when he did Duran Duran's REFLEX. Responding to all the hip criticism of how 'distant' the New Romantics were from real Rock, this clip (one of two to coincide with a U.S. tour in 1985) is a full-on spectacle of band-on-stage with audience-down-front. The alien landscape was simply transformed by a different visual texture - that of people's bodies screaming and waving. The Looma crane hovers over them just as it did over tropical rainforests in other clips : same manipulation and execution, different landscape. And you want some sweat? Take this : a waterfall onto the audience, drenching them in the erotic substance of arousal and contact. REFLEX would be totally laughable if it didn't demonstrate how contrived all images of an audience are in video clips in the 80s.

This aspect of contrivance is unconsciously and unintentionally evident in some clips - especially many Heavy Metal spectacles with their outrageous dislays of posturing and fawning. Typical of the trend is Quiet Riot's CUM ON FEEL THE NOIZE, which verges on destroying itself by showing its audience as a dumb mass. In the first half they are depicted as repressed individuals (straight jackets, masks, strapped in front of a large screen) and in the second half the screen is smashed and everyone is let loose to freak out to Quiet Riot - as if there is something inherently liberating in headbanging. But if Quiet Riot are deluded, groups like Spandau Ballet and Glass Tiger are decrepit.

In Spandau Ballet's FIGHT FOR YOURSELF a comic-strip scenario straight out of Brit teen mags like Oh Boy! features two girls trying to get into a Spandau Ballet concert. And golly-gee-whizz-etc. they end up on stage with the boys and even get to steal a kiss. DANCIN' IN THE DARK at least is a fantasy (accented by the notion of darkness, of closing one's eyes and wishing) but FIGHT FOR YOURSELF attempts to form a message out of cheap fantasies. Glass Tiger are even worse - if that's possible. Scrutinize their one-hit-wonder clip and you'll discover every manipulative trick of audience identification. It reads like an A&R manual : girls in front row lip-synching lyrics (market identification) ; singer's shirt removed in second chorus in a double-edit (eroticism for consumer) ; slo-mo replays of vivacious body movements of band (sexual suggestion of product) ; individual cameo-portraits of each band member (product preference) ; freeze-frames of singer's smiling face (product authenticity and viability) ; long shots of girls waving arms as band performs on stage (proven reception of product by market) ; etc. By the way, the song for this clip is also the most important aim for all product advertising - DON'T FORGET ME.

The problem of marketing becomes gag material in Run DMC's WALK THIS WAY. This song was the cross-over hit that signposted the subgenre of Hardcore Rap which has opened the gates for a flood of Black Rock'N'Roll to drown out White Soul. Check out the split stage : Run DMC with their mixer Jam Master in a small room scratching Aerosmith's mid-70s heavy rocker, refracting its Jaggered lyrics into a huffy rap ; their room adjoining a stage where Aerosmith is performing the song in its original form, frilly and bloated with a typical latter-Stones tawdry excessiveness. Eventually the wall between the two is broken down and out burst Run DMC onto Aerosmith's stage to rock the scarves off the honky audience. And that's exactly how the charts reported the incident.

The dodo award has to go to Billy Joel's A MATTER OF TRUST. Every clip mentioned above in some way faces the falsity of manufacturing images of their audience (in line with the fact that records make audiences in the common reversal of supply and demand). Joel - the man who bought us the reactionary Reganite down-home sloganeering of (IT'S) STILL ROCK'N'ROLL TO ME - continues his 'Brucer than thou' sentiments by firing up the band in a downtown setting and directly communicating with 'the people' by letting the music blast out onto the street. This is a fantasy beyond Speilberg's wildest dreams : street-level Rock'N'Roll. Sure, it's all desirable, but how in hell can such directness live within coporate mechanisms that pay the bills for the crane shots in this clip? Save it for 'the little people' of ALLENTOWN.

Devo - The Girl You Want (1980); David Bowie - Fashion (1980)

This dream of the street-level spawned a number of clips which locate themselves in the club : that mythical site of rawness which, history tells us, formed the sparks that ignited the explosive British Invasion of the U.S. charts in 1964. Spandau Ballet's first video clip CHANT NO.1 was set in Le Beat Route, the club that along with Blitz and Le Kilt got the whole New Romantic scene dressed up with somewhere to go. Perhaps the sweat they drip in that clip is a bit more substantial than their later 'stage' clips. Phil Collins' SICCOURIO is a fairly tongue-in-cheek (read : predictable 'jolly ole piss-take') version of everything Billy Joel sweats for in A MATTER OF TRUST. Here the fantasy is not of the audience, but of the band : to totally win over the audience by the end of the first song. But perhaps the best 'club' imagery lies in Bowie's FASHION as he perfunctorily babbles the words scratching his nose, while the band slams out a postmodern-style dance beat to a totally motionless scattering of bored people.

Bowie's latest clip DAY AFTER DAY is another interesting comment on the singer's relationship to the audience - a state of estrangement mega-star Bowie should be very familiar with. As angels with video portapaks hover above 'a social reality' (in this case : a working-class ethnic minority nuclear family squatting out in a junk-cultured America), Bowie glides through the scenes with a guitar, presenting the image of some sort of mythical social balladeer. Through such stylizd symbolism DAY AFTER DAY acknowledges the fleeting distance the performer maintains from the audience.

Minus the perversion and with too much 'engst' (English angst) for its own good, The The's GRADUATION DAY isolates performer Matt Johson as if to crucify him on a wall of images beamed out to the world by a mega-screen reminiscent of THINGS TO COME. The lyrics are naive ("This is the 53rd state of the U.S.A.") but are at least the visual impact of relating the performer by scale to media imagery in front of an empty stadium allows them to resonate more effective. However one suspects Johnson needs his audience more for martyristic effect than anything else.

Devo are one of the extremely few groups who have successfully tackled the double-edged problematic of sounding new and looking new with verve, wit and panache. The clip for their cover version of Hendrix's ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? shows them as a physical and material manifestation of audience desire : rising up and floating above the stage in demi-godlike fashion, playing their instruments with effortless ease and massaging the audience with their message. Cut to some kids at home watching the broadcast of this 'concert' on television and magically their perception is transformed. Who needs LSD when the media does it so much better?

The best clip which provides a commentary on audience construction and manipulation has to be Devo's GIRL YOU WANT. Firstly, note the linguistic ambiguity of the title - not unlike the current Westpac buildboards which depict desirable consumerables (cars, boats, etc.) framed by the words WANT IT with the question mark deliberately left out. GIRL YOU WANT is similarly both a directive (to girls) and a fantasy (for boys). The clip shows Devo playing in front of a televsion studio audience of girls, all hysterically mimicing the hysteria of the original Beatles' screaming swarms. Electrical cords lead from Devo's instruments into a strange on-stage mixing device which then sends out two wires to two 'average teenagers' wearing headphones. Like experimental animals, they perform jilted robotic movements in synch with the rhythms. All the while the audience is watching them and Devo up on the stage, their screams cued by each change from verse to chorus. There you have it : an ideal audience interaction, historically flowing back to WOODSTOCK's trick of interacting Joplin with Elliot. Devo sharply transform it all into the ideal behavioural environment, with its proven feedback-loop of cause and effect, supply and demand, trigger and response - the "X" you want. And whose fantasy is this? Guess.

Text © Philip Brophy 1987. Images © respective copyright holders