Negative Views of Rock & Pop Video Clips
published in Waves No.80, Melbourne,
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
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'.
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.
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
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?"
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.