Hi all! This week’s newsletter is going ~back in time~ to discuss the origins of ‘80s music video style – namely, ‘50s Hollywood musicals – with one particularly famous case study, Michael Jackson. As always, this week’s video news and best videos are included after the write-up.
Also, some personal news: I’m currently freelancing and looking for work. If you’re an editor who needs someone to cover music, moving images, and visual online culture, or you know someone who’s looking for such a writer, you can reach me at email@example.com.
Episode 4: That’s Entertainment
Let’s talk about gesture. Gesture unfurls in early 1980s music videos like an actor perfecting his blocking. As the medium evolved from filming a band playing their songs onstage into more complex theatrical endeavors, gesture (which includes dance) was gradually amplified to fit that heightened fantasy. Just as gesture often had to fill in for dialogue during the silent film era, gesture in music video may serve the same purpose.
But let’s consider for a moment that a music video’s “script” is its music. Not a perfect one-to-one comparison, of course, since music videos may come with story treatments and even dialogue-filled scripts with narrative-driven plots. But even when the “plot” or conceit of a video does not strictly follow the narrative expressed in the song’s lyrics, the musical composition will inevitably guide along the video’s performances, production design, and editing. That leaves gesture to function stylistically rather than narratively, informing the video and song’s story rather than existing as the story itself. If done properly, as in the case of Bowie’s early videos, gesture may parse out the structure, melody, tone, and message of the song in a way that expands its meaning for the viewer. Synced-up gesture is also, at its core, pleasurable: Just as it can be satisfying to watch a good dancer groove to a rhythm, there’s a certain joy in watching someone in a video clap on a downbeat, or flip their hair on a certain inflection, or otherwise perform a gesture that both responds to and works in harmony with aspects of the song itself. It conveys instinctual understanding of the music in a way that is riveting to see.
As it so happens, good musical films are not dissimilar, and it’s no surprise that many early music videos drew inspiration from the works of Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley. Unlike the majority of films, in which post-production sound is edited to match pre-existing footage, musical numbers, like music videos, aim for the inverse: lip syncing, dancing, gestures, and other motion motifs (e.g. light flashes, falling objects) are meant to match a prerecorded track that will be overlaid in post. Of course, what appeared on MTV in the ‘80s was a far cry and many thousands of dollars away from a studio musical. But one can comfortably trace a line from the luminous, dreamlike extended dance sequences in films like The Band Wagon (1953, dir. Minnelli) to the crudely shimmering pop videos of the 1980s.
Take “Billie Jean,” for instance. There’s so much (easily too much) that can be said about this five-minute-long cultural artifact: that it was one of the first videos by a black artist aired on television; that it inspired a fervid fashion and dance craze among teenagers; that it propelled the already-famous Jackson into an unheard-of echelon of celebrity. But as innovative and, at that time, shockingly radical as the “Billie Jean” video was, it owed much of its appeal to one conservative star of the Hollywood Golden Age: Fred Astaire. Cultural critics, biographers, and film/music historians have long stressed Astaire’s influence on Jackson’s dancing: the precision, the fast footwork, the showmanship, and the slight uncanniness in the ability to flow, effortlessly, from one rigid tableau to another, bringing stiff, lanky postures to life like possessed wooden dolls and holding teetering positions with the balance of a gymnast. That last quality made both Astaire and Jackson especially suitable for film, where a freeze-frame of their gestures could carry as much weight as their dancing in motion. “Billie Jean” makes impressive use of this asset, which is why the middle section of the video – where MJ is dancing on the tiles – is what everyone remembers. (MTV’s concerns over the depiction of a black man running from the law potentially turning away viewership were, in the end, unfounded.) Jackson struts down the sidewalk, confronting the camera with intertwined charm and desperation, while his Astaire-esque loafers illuminate each tile he steps on. As he dances, he’s splintered across the screen in blinking quadrants and rectangles, allowing for a fractured depiction that highlights and syncs Jackson’s movements to the song’s rhythm. His twists, stomps, and kicks are slowed-down, replayed twice or thrice in a row, freeze-framed, made to move again. At key moments the video sections off his eyes, his mouth, his thumbs pointing at himself. Behind him, bits of trash fly past an ethereal, purple-and-pink-tinted landscape of hilltops and skyscrapers.
Along with Jackson himself, it’s that background color, shot through a diffusing light filter, that evokes a famous staged dance sequence from The Band Wagon known as the “Girl Hunt,” where Astaire plays a winking version of a suited-up, hard-boiled private eye, opposite the appropriately sly Cyd Charisse as his femme fatale. In spite of its premise, the dance number is the exact opposite of a cynical, black-and-white film noir. Astaire, in his hunt for a shadowy killer, parades through a candy-coated menagerie of theatrical sets: a navy street corner doused in fog and flanked by plywood buildings; a marigold-accented subway station, its tunnel stretching out endlessly thanks to a double-mirror trick; a deep, royal purple lounge space adorned with gaudy neo-Classical sculptures, a glitzy predecessor to the surreal milk bar from A Clockwork Orange. Eventually, Astaire and Charisse wind up in a Pepto-colored speakeasy and, in the ballet’s most well known section, perform an exquisite partners’ duet, before Astaire must take part in an absurdly choreographed gangster shootout.
“Girl Hunt” is a steadfast product of its time that is also an inadvertent pioneer: the softly diffused light, fanciful yet obviously constructed sets, and formally elastic sense of reality would all be appropriated thirty years later for the MTV generation. Because so many ‘80s videos were done on soundstages, and sought to replicate the glittery exuberance of ‘80s dance-pop, it’s no wonder that the unironic theatricality of classic Hollywood musicals made it into the format. The similarities are most starkly revealed by contrast: put any classic ‘80s video side-by-side with a Spike Jonze on-location shoot during the ‘90s, and you can easily spot which video most closely resembles Singin’ in the Rain (or, in some cases, the films of Bob Fosse).
But for Jackson, it’s the Astaire persona – the man who could get out of any trouble by tapping his feet – that he especially set out to replicate. Flickers of the “Girl Hunt” choreography appear in the videos for “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “Bad” (also clearly inspired by West Side Story) and particularly “Smooth Criminal,” which features Jackson in a white suit and wide-brimmed hat nearly identical to Astaire’s outfit, acting out a warehouse brawl that bears more than a passing resemblance to the speakeasy fight. Portions of the Astaire-Charisse duet, where the two virtuosos dance in unison alongside each other, are echoed beat-for-beat by Jackson and his sister Janet in 1995’s “Scream” video. The very idea of a recognizable triple-threat such as Astaire or Jackson moving through fragmented spaces, strung loosely together by an abstract narrative and directionally determined by its musical score, is the same basic structure that holds most of Jackson’s videos – if not most iconic videos of the ‘80s – in place.
Blood Orange, “Charcoal Baby” (dir. Crack Stevens)
Stevens uses splitscreen to show the similarites and differences between two family gatherings, and the result is just as beautiful as the music.
Young the Giant, “Simplify” (dir. Kyle Sauer)
This looks like one of those minimalist, pastel subway ads brought to life. Not sure if I love it or hate it, but it’s certainly notable in that regard.
DJ Khaled, “No Brainer ft. Justin Bieber, Quavo, Chance the Rapper” (dir. Colin Tilley)
I haven’t been able to come up with a cohesive theory of Tilley’s directorial style, besides him being pretty damn great at making pop videos. It’s just so smooth. And meta! Seriously, I shouldn’t be having this much fun with yet another DJ Khaled group video and yet here we are.
Rosalía, “Pienso en Tu Mirá” (dir. Canada)
This artist-director duo has already done amazing work before, and their new video continues the tradition with violent, enigmatic imagery to go along with an equally enigmatic song.
Minuit, “Paris Tropical” (dir. Cloé Bailly)
FINALLY, a video that captures what a miserable sweaty time summer can be.
Miles Kane, “Cry On My Guitar” (dir. Brook Linder)
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Alt-J ft. Pusha T, “In Cold Blood (Twin Shadow Version)” (dir. Osean)
I’m convinced this only exists to be played on multiple giant screens in a club somewhere. Pusha T is in that goddamn Prada button-up. A true window into our era.
(NSFW) Neko Case, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor ft. Mark Lanegan” (dir. Xan Aranda)
This is really a one-minute teaser for the (excellent) album and not a full video for the (also excellent) 7-minute song. But this video….well. See it for yourself.
Years & Years, “Sanctify” and “Palo Santo” (dir. Fred Rowson)
The first video is one that came out in February, the second is a short film expanding on the first video that came out at the beginning of July. I’m not gonna write too much about these because, ahem, I may want to write about them somewhere else. BUT, I will say that if you’re a Dirty Computer fan, or if you wanted to like Dirty Computer but found it lacking in sci-fi android melodrama, these two videos (I recommend watching both, in order) are right up your alley.
Tory Lanez featured 6ix9ine in his video for “Talk To Me ft. Rich the Kid” (dir. Zac Facts). People need to stop featuring this pedophile gremlin in their videos!!! He’s not even in the song!!!
Jennifer Lopez went on TRL to be announced as this year’s Video Vanguard winner, and she had a sweet moment revisiting her earlier videos.
The iHeartRadio Much Music Video Award nominees have been announced. I care far less about them than the VMAs, which is saying a lot.
Please direct all feedback, questions, comments, tips, etc. to ClaireShafferVevo at gmail dot com. And feel free to forward this email, share on social media, and encourage your friends to subscribe. We’ll be back next week with more vids. •