The Artistry of Music Videos: Instruments of Introspection

Sairaa Bains identifies the components that make up memorable music videos, and how they support the songs themselves

Image(s): vimeo.com


Music videos cinematographically present their protagonists entangled in moments of intimacy, violence and serenity. They can also serve as agents of social change which make the audience think twice about what they are seeing. Writing a song becomes much like a journey where allusions to past events or moments in time help solidify certain ideas and perceptions. Instead of alienating the audience, some artists strive to absorb the viewers into their songs before making them question its contents. Some songs are representative of an artist's own idiosyncratic qualities and personal histories. Listening to their music can be compared to reading a page from their personal diaries. Most artists blend pre-existing artwork into their songs allowing them to make subtle references, which in turn, amplify their message. Others connect one historical moment in time with another by transforming these events through their own artistry - crystallizing certain moments and allowing others to maintain some degree of fluidity. Besides the visual spectacle of cinematic videos, music itself is used to redefine and permeate boundaries transcending matters of culture and race.


A song can be placed in an entirely different context through the setting in which it is staged and shot. In their song “Apeshit”, Jay- Z and Beyonce allow the Louvre to partake in the statement they are trying to make - the physical space becomes as meaningful as the lyrics of the song itself. Surrounded by paintings and sculptures that are representative of power, wealth and colonialism, both artists try to establish their own stance by actively highlighting their own race and culture. Mimicking the sculpture of the Greek goddesses of Victory and Aphrodite, Beyonce tries to create a narrative of inclusivity while redefining these artworks through her interaction with them. This is done through her intense dance movements that appear fluently charged and almost disruptive as opposed to stillness of the landscape that she is occupying. This could be understood as her desire to break the mold that defines women of colour.


Similarly, Jacques Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon is a painting that looms large in the background, highlighting a moment of power and prestige. This emphasis on authority is mirrored by Jay-Z and Beyonce's desire to own their cultural narrative and present it in a reflective manner. “Apeshit” becomes a celebration of Black culture and power as Beyonce occupies the center of the frame surrounded by paintings that present people of colour as mere afterthoughts or blemishes. Several moments of silence in the song are punctuated by the presence of paintings that showcase the Virgin and Child amidst other figures. The lyrics of the song use the paintings to elaborate and extend the message that “Apeshit” is trying to convey. The music video ends with the Portrait of a Negress that is one of the few paintings to represent a black woman in the entire museum. Shown as a glimpse at the end of the video, this painting is not reworked or reinterpreted through the movement of the camera or that of the dancers. Juxtaposing this with a majority of white portraits such as the Mona Lisa, Beyonce and Jay-Z hint at a much larger history of black discrimination and racism. This painting is also symbolically used to highlight the white supremacy that museums are guilty of endorsing whilst also reiterating the idea of black liberation and beauty.



Image(s): Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s "Portrait of a Negress"


Jay- Z's song, “The Story of OJ”, also uses its visuals to raise questions about black slavery and oppression. Even though this song does not use artistic elements in an explicit manner, it makes references to previous historical events giving it an artistic touch of its own. The music video consists of animated visuals that confront the notion of being a black individual in a world that does not wholly accept them. In one part of the video, the Ku Klux Klan is shown burning crosses alongside images of black slaves working in a cotton plantation. There is great irony in this imagery as the KKK's white hooded clothes are indirectly produced by the sweat and labour of the black community. Throughout the song, the words “my skin is black” are repeated alongside sketches of black individuals from various professions. Jay - Z also uses OJ Simpson's statement "I'm not black, I'm OJ'' to illustrate the problematic viewpoint being propagated here. The idea of running away from one's cultural roots instead of embracing them is frequently addressed throughout the song.


Another example of artworks and their everlasting influence can be seen in Coldplay's song “Viva La Vida”. This is Spanish for 'long live life' and was one of the few paintings made by Frida Kahlo before her death. It's a still life painting of sliced watermelons highlighting the duality and fleeting nature of life - once the fruit is savored, the lifeless remains are left. On the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Mexico, watermelons were treated as symbols of connection, linking together the dead and the living. Frida Kahlo's famous last words are said to be ‘Viva La Vida’, which she inscribed on one of the watermelons in her painting. The title of Coldplay's song was inspired by this painting even though their album's cover art was influenced by another artwork known as Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. This painting serves as the background for Viva La Vida's music video where Chris Martin and his band perform as if they are a part of the painting itself. The aesthetic representation of the video appears much like a canvas with a few cracks on the surface that are supposed to be indicative of the eroding layers of oil paint. In sticking with this kind of realism, Coldplay successfully articulates a story about the French revolution from Louis XVI's perspective. As the story goes, Louis XVI's final speech was left unheard as his head was guillotined before he could utter his last few words. Coldplay tries to recapture and put forth a narrative fueled by Louis XVI's ideology - had he lived a few moments longer, what would his final words have been? Using the medium of music, Louis XVI’s thoughts are brought to light as he’s almost resurrected through this song’s lyrics. In giving a voice to the dead, Coldplay also reaffirms and stands by the title of their song.


The fusion of music and artistry in creating a visual spectacle magnifies the impact being felt by the audience. Connecting two disparate moments in time together, music becomes at once liberating and introspective. Physical spaces become as expressive as song lyrics themselves. Ultimately, blending music with art puts forth an entirely new reflection of society - not only in its lacquered glory but also in its tarnished failures.