Audience You Want:
The Audience In Rock & Pop Video Clips
originally published as "Staged On
Stage" in Freeze Frame Vol.1 No.4, Melbourne, 1987
: 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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.