Narrative space in recent music videos

[A truncated version of this post was presented at the “Music Video as Form” panel for the Modernist Panel, here at my home institution of Yale University.]

Today I’m going to be talking about space and narrative in music videos. The videos I will be discussing engage space as a site of emotional discourse through the juxtaposition of audio and visual information, fixed perspective and viewerly participation. The goal is not outline trends in the construction of recent music videos, nor is it to signal the general architecture of alternative music’s relationship to the music video form – the selected pieces function nevertheless as way for understanding the narrative role of spatial representation as an element which the music video form freely manipulates in order to invoke a particular affective response in the viewer.

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on music videos

Video: “Stonemilker,” Bjork, Vulnicura

A woman in a blue jumpsuit walks into a slowly illuminating dance studio carrying a rather large, clearly anachronistic boom box. As she puts the tape on play, she takes off her jumpsuit to reveal a pink leotard and the words time goes by so slowly play over and over as a crowd of various, dancing minorities flash on the screen, interspersed between an aged Madonna’s warm-up routine. The minorities, drawn from all of the locales where they are most readily found – for the Blacks, standing idly on the street, for the Asians, cooped up in an ethnic restaurant – go about their day, bumping this sick Madonna track,        shucking and jiving in public while Madonna struggles to keep up in the security of her dated dance studio. The words Every little thing that you say or do, I’m hung up, hung up on you appear on the foreground of the song, repeated over and over. The mind almost unhears it, all of the body’s energy being poured into the eyes which hurriedly piece meaning from the strange music video.

I don’t necessarily like Madonna’s 2005 hit “Hung Up.” I especially don’t like the music video for its use

Video: “Hung Up,” Madonna, Confessions on a Dancefloor

of people of color as simple props, thrown into the bunch not as a celebration of their individualism, but as a way of showing off the focus of the video: a rich, white, and bland Madonna. Nonetheless, there is little that distinguishes the minorities in “Hung Up” from those you find in Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” or Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” Their existence is simple – to foil the white woman in the center of view, to draw attention to the sharpness of her costume design, the grace of her character, etc.

What fascinates me about “Hung Up”’s music video is the way that it seems to have little to do with the lyrics of the song. The song’s lyrics seem to tell the story of a woman growing tired of unrequited love from her lover. The constant refrain of the chorus, matched with the up-tempo melody, make the song ironically upbeat and optimistic, but it nonetheless is a story of love between two individuals. The music video does not reflect this at all. There isn’t really a love interest for Madonna, and there is no narrative to establish a connection between events, other than the very loose one which draws all the characters together at the end, for some reason, to play Dance Dance Revolution. The images we see in “Hung Up” carry with them intrinsic meaning individually, but together, the music video itself seems to make little sense. Continue reading “on music videos”