January 27, 2011

Are Music Videos Homogenizing Music?

Type the name of your favorite music artist into any social media search box and you'll come across a video at some point. Not necessarily a video by the artist either. You'll find 8-bit digital renditions, the clumsy fumblings of wannabe guitarists, high-school bands warbling a tune.

In fact, one could even argue that a lot of new music today is designed more for video than anything else.

It's not that any of these are wrong per se. I found a video of some guy playing death metal on a ukulele once. Rather funny. But it does raise the question of what video does to the original piece. Or better yet, what does it do to how one perceives a musical piece?
There seems to be several layers in which art can be experienced. Think of a beautiful painting, for me Vermeer comes to mind. Now think of a picture of that painting -- say in an art history text book. Viewing Vermeer in the text book seems to leave the viewer one step removed. 

What about a drawing of the original? Or how about a picture of the drawing of the original? 

There seems to be a series -- not sure if its infinite -- of regressive steps we can take to remove ourselves from the original piece. I say this with a modicum of experience as well. My first time witnessing a Vermeer painting in person at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam felt far more meaningful than the several times I stared a photo of the same. 

Perhaps the same context can be applied to music? We have the original music composition -- be it classical, country, rock, folk (take your pick). Maybe it's Stevie Wonder's "As" on vinyl. You have the harmonies, the piano, the brilliant vocals of the back-up singers, the legend that is Mr. Wonder. 

Listening with your eyes closed, you get a sense of this new world. It conjures pictures in your mind, pulses through your body with a certain gravity. It becomes a unique experience wholly your own, and not duplicated in any other person. 

Unless you add the video. 

I'm not sure if there's an actual video for "As", but we can take any song. And this isn't even to say that music videos are bad. Radiohead's Street Spirit is pretty awesome to watch. It's more how they can wind up dictating the experience. 

You're given the images to associate with the song. You picture the band members, the strategically placed lighting, the carefully synced mouthing of words. Video upon video, pattern upon pattern. With the occasional exception they all begin to look the same. A grossly constructed mechanism to manufacture sales. 

Today most people will discover music through video. Before they even hear the sound, they'll see the initial images waiting to buffer. They'll be persuaded by an album cover. They'll be told precisely what the experience will be before it happens. This, to me, can be a step away from the actual experience of the music alone. And it's a bit of a shame at times. 

Of course, I can't really call it bad or immoral. I suppose one can argue that videos merely create a newer experience, a different one. I suppose this is true. But there's something to be said for that hiss of the record needle, those first notes that charge the air. 

A friend once told me she would never watch the Lord of the Rings movies. She didn't want to have her memories of first reading the books tainted by new images from the film. She didn't want them to mingle, or for the former to be detracted from by the latter. 

I scoffed a bit at her then. Not so much now. 


Sally said...

You will find this Summary of Walter Benjiman's work very interesting:


Essentially the reproduction of something (in this case music) through another mode of technology (music videos), the "aura" of the original will be destroyed and what is left is a tension between these two modes of art. Here lies the question of what we perceive in the aftermath.

Think about our experience of seeing Mona Lisa at the "Louvre". Our first reaction was...wow, what a small painting! After all the reproductions we've seen throughout our lives, we had a very different expectation of the original. And i have to say the aura of this great painting was very much diminished by all the cultural kitsch we grew up with.

Very interesting topic to explore...sheesh. I really miss art history!!!

Harry Tournemille said...

Awesome. Milan Kundera has similar repugnance for kitsch, and its affect on original art pieces.

I like the idea of the tension between two mediums. What's interesting now is how people are more likely -- given the accessibility of internet media -- to seek out videos before the music piece.