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.

I’ll begin with, perhaps, my favorite music video. The construction of space in the music video for Blood Orange’s song “Champagne Coast” incorporates a kind of arbitrary dimensionality made apparent by the scripted and guided experience of the camera’s motion. Everything about the piece screams retro aesthetics; from its music constructed of recycled short audio loops stitched together by the nostalgic picking of electric guitar, to the presentation of three-dimensional space through the collage and décollage of two-dimensional images, to the flattened, looping dancers, their bodies distorted by the retrofitted, pixelated resolution, even the occasional visual glitching of the video’s “footage,” Halley Wollens’ video for “Champagne Coast” is designed to induce a kind of nostalgia in almost every aspect of its production, including the means by which space itself becomes a vector. Nostalgia as I’m using it here is not necessarily related to individual memory, as in, “the video makes us nostalgic because we can personally REMEMBER a time when its aesthetics were the norm.” Nostalgia in the sense of “Champagne Coast” incorporates the cultural experience of shared historical past, and the means by which that past is both sonically and visually constructed. The feeling of nostalgia is reproductive, for it encourages a kind of memory beyond the limitations of the individual – who, at least for me, can only vaguely remember, if at all, the reminisced past – without necessarily being bound to that time. Nostalgia is always temporally mimetic, being induced only by the distance between the past and the present, and by something new which invokes and harkens back to past events. As genres, vaporwave and chillwave function to induce this feeling of nostalgia primarily from a fixed point of the contemporary era – while they remind us of the past, it is their presentness which makes them so meaningful; they have a certain poetics of anachronism to them. Returning to “Champagne Coast,” the audiovisual spectacle of a collapsed-albeit-deep experience invokes the past through imitating the limited graphical capabilities of 80s and 90s computers, but also through the fixed motion of the camera.[1]

Figure 1: “Champagne Coast” video by Halley Wollens

When I look at “Champagne Coast,” I remember old arcade games. Granted, I came into individual consciousness towards the end of the arcade moment, but I can still remember at bowling alleys or at game centers the rail shooter, a vestige of that limited late-20th century computing power, which constructed the player’s vantage through a set path of motion. The user does not have a fixed positionality – they are not simply looking at one particular object from varying distances – but their positionality is structured by a stable motion through space. The rail shooter is an excellent example of procedurally generated space, for all that can be known, and all that is ever possibly attainable, is directly within the viewer’s vision. What is unattainable ceases to exist, for it can never be reached or regained. “Champagne Coast” uses this primarily through its mélange of 2-D and 3-D visuals – similar to early rail shooters – as well as the means by which perspective is limited by the set motion of the camera. The dimensions of the many rooms are relatedly constructed and redone by the motion of the camera through space and its response to the changes in the song’s lyrical content, tempo and rhythm. Rail shooters became much rarer towards the end of the 1990s as first-person shooters with free mobility became more and more marketable, and the limited graphic power of arcade video game consoles were overpowered by increasingly powerful and affordable home console technologies. It’s motion however, and the cinematic quality of its almost plot-driven montage, nevertheless contribute to the spatial practice of nostalgia in “Champagne Coast,” the video itself encouraging us to think back to a distant albeit ever-present past.

Film scholar Stephen Heath would describe the representation of multidimensional space through the depiction of narrative motion in “Champagne Coast” as an example of his notion of “narrative space.” For Heath, early film space was constructed primarily through what he calls the “tableauesque,” or a fixed-camera frontal perspective similar to what we’d see when watching theatre. Early film’s replication and emulation of theatre practices is also signaled by the early screening assemblages of the silent film and accompanying live music from the pit orchestra (Heath 73). The two distinct pieces – the audio and the visual – create an asynchronous unit which ultimately places the viewer outside of the events. They are not so much as a spectator within the film’s narrative itself, but on the very fringes of detection or interaction; they are not a bystander so much as a ghost. “Champagne Coast” invokes that ghostly feeling not only through its ability to invoke memory, but because the motion of the rails and the ever-distance of the characters creates the illusion of inaction; we are in the space, but do not contribute to its construction. We are in the narrative, but cannot act upon it.

The video “Two Weeks” by FKA Twigs does similar things with motion and perspective, primarily as they relate to the construction of narrative space. Unlike “Champagne Coast” whose motion on rails helps to flesh out its depiction of a two-yet-three dimensional “home” space, creating, in the process, an enterable yet uninhabitable tableau, the fantasy elements of “Two Weeks” use the tableau to purposefully exclude the viewer. We begin close – golden vapor rising, a shivering crown, a hanging, swaying drape; the limited resolution makes it difficult, immediately, to tell if what is seen is physical or drawn. Twigs seems real, for the lighting of her skin, her motion, intimate a physicality which the background, which becomes increasingly flat as we pan out, does not. Yet, the miniscule dancing clones of Twigs, shot all at different times and stitched together, confuse our perception of depth. Is the Twigs upon the throne simply massive, Zeus seated at his temple at Olympia, a veritable goddess? Or are the golden dancers purposefully small? As the camera pans out, a collection of white-wearing women waits in the background, smaller yet than the dancers and the central figure. So what is happening?

Figure 2: “Two Weeks” video directed by Nabil Elderkin.

The eye, upon looking at the video’s slow withdrawal, attempts to do the work of making sense of the content as a spatial project. However, as the space of the film is continually distorted by the gradual reveal of its visual information, the eye ceases to be able to construct a meaningful spatial picture. The women in the back seem shrunken – their smallness does not signify their distance from the viewer, nor does their juxtaposition besides backgrounded special markers tell us anything about their relative size. The golden dancers at times intersect with the goddesss-figure in ways which do not intimate depth, but flatness. Watching this video the first few times, I began to notice these things, and immediately assumed it was due to Nabil’s botched editing, but the video is purposefully flattened in order to mess with the passive functions of the eye and the ocular production of spatial information. Lyrical cues point us in the right direction. The song attempts to persuade a lover of the narrator’s sexual and physical prowess, particularly in relation to the addressee’s current lover: Lines like “I can treat you better than her” and “Mouth open you’re high” ooze a kind of sexual and romantic confidence, equating her love to that of a drug. The various permutations of Twigs, each having their own choreography and set motion, each similar yet distinct from the other, intimates the feeling of grandeur and power that the central goddess-figure symbolizes. Slowly panning out, each figure writhing to the music, the tableau highlights a multifoliate, multidimensional figure to be differentiated from the addressee’s lover. Yet, as the camera pans out, more and more information is added, which confuses and disorients the eye, primarily because the cues to which the mind turns to construct an idea of three-dimensional space are overwritten by the impossibilities of the film’s construction. This disorientation is the result of the collapsing of the narrative images – Twigs is able to be multiple entities independently, to be both the nurturing goddess figure and the nourished dancer, but the flattening of our fixed perspective, the video’s not-rightness, intimates the possibility for a contained multivariance. The three-yet-two dimensionality of “Two Weeks” speaks to the lyrics’ own invocation of confidence and grandeur, the narrator saying that she can do all the things her competitor cannot, that she can be multiple entities at once.

Finally, this brings us to “Stonemilker.” The video, shot by Andrew Thomas Huang, is unlike most music videos, not only because of its simplicity – a woman at a Icelandic beach at dusk – but also because of the means by which the viewing experience functions as part of the video’s drama. “Stonemilker” is shot using 360 virtual reality camera technology, and therefore the viewer must actively follow Björk as she moves around their fixed position lest they lose her. The video opens at one position, but if the viewer tarries, they lose her as she darts to the right edge of the camera. To keep up with her, they must either move their head in the virtual reality headset, or drag the camera across to follow. With each movement of the song, Björk moves to a different cardinal direction. After the first verse, she splits in two. Following her becomes difficult, for now you must oscillate between ignoring one of her copies in order to watch the other. Their choreography is not duplicated, and to engage with the film, to focus on a particular image, we must actively choose which Björk we will choose. The refrain “A juxtapositioning fate / Find our mutual coordinate” signal the structuredness of this narrative choice to focus on one to the spite of the others, or to oscillate ineffectually between all of them; the impossibility and the unfairness of this choice echoes the rupture Vulnicura as an album attempts to mediate and understand.

Figure 3: “Stonemilker” video by Andrew Thomas Huang

A simple piece in terms of its outward composition, the narrative architecture of “Stonemilker” is markedly complex. As a piece of art, it forces us to participate through moving the camera and shifting our gaze. While the camera remains fixed in place, and the space itself relatively background, it is our narrative interaction with space as a character in the video’s drama that ultimately signals Heath’s notion of “narrative space” as “space becoming place,” as place (or, as Marc Augé would call it, lieu) as a site for narrative exchange and subjectivity through the viewing experience. There are endless viewing experiences for the film based on what we choose to watch. One can watch the beach and the stones for the seven minutes, or watch one Björk, switch to another; turn up and watch the sky, or attempt to count the copies through looking at their feet, and all permutations of these actions. The spectacular aspect of the film is overwritten by our interpellation to act within it. This creates a unique narrative experience for the viewer, for the viewer now interacts with the film, and constructs their own narrative experience based on what has been seen, remembered and, through this, what remains unseen and unknown. As Björk moves, splits into two, drifts into nothingness, or appears from nowhere, our drive to continue watching at one standard perspective can lead to her annihilation from the image. As the song discusses the intransigence of a lover’s unwillingness to open himself up, to yield the tides of time which crash in the background, we feel the very tensions which make “Stonemilker” as a song and Vulnicura as an album so powerful; the bidirectional growth of two lovers, the mutability of the one and the intransigence of the other.

I have chosen the three videos because I think they engage with a narrative spatial production distinct from some of the more cinematic standards of the music video. Each film plays with space in ways which force us to think about its construction and implementation as part and partial to viewing experience. The fixity or motion of the video influence the mean by which affective and lyrical content are received and understood – the “juxtapositioning fate” of audio music and visual motion can create nostalgia, grandeur or sympathy beyond the possibilities of the one or the other. They make us feel, remember and desire through mobilizing space and its construction as a site of emotional discourse.

[1] Notes on time: the exact temporality of the film is difficult to place, and the means by which the video “reminisces” distorts our ability to determine its temporality. Some of the furniture fixtures are quite ornate – rococo fixtures in frames directly preceding ones with lava lamps. Covergirl campaigns with Rihanna point us to the 2000’s. The collage of images are not supposed to intimate time-boundedness, but their overall intention is to produce an awareness of presentness through the arrangement of a juxtaposed, seemingly equidistant past. A rococo bed has a MacBook on top of it in one room, while another room contains an entertainment system designed in the midcenturary modern style beside an ornate, unmatching vanity decked with crystal accoutrements.