What is a music video - Media and Film Studies

What is a music video?
Peter Fraser defines a music video as:
‘a short, moving image product, shot for the express purpose of
accompanying a pre-existing music track and used to encourage of sales of
the music in another format’
Over the last three years this format has generally meant the download market of the
UK which now sells 96% of all single sales.
The ‘Godfather’ of music video analysis is Andrew Goodwin in his book about the
rise of MTV which came out in 1992. He identifies a number of key features, which
distinguish the music video as a form:
There is a relationship between the lyrics and the visuals (with visuals
illustrating, amplifying or contradicting the lyrics
There is a relationship between the music and the visuals (again with
visuals illustrating, amplifying or contradicting the music)
Particular music genres may have their own music video style and
iconography (such as live stage performance in heavy rock)
There is a demand on the part of the record company for lots of close
ups of the main artist/vocalist.
There is likely to be reference to voyeurism, particularly in the treatment
of women, but also in terms of systems of looking (screens within
screens, binoculars, cameras etc)
There are likely to be intertextual references, either to other music
videos or to films and TV texts.
Peter Fraser has updated this knowledge to also include the fact that music videos
play an important part of the construction of the band’s/singer’s image, which is then
used to ‘sell’ the products of the band/singer.
What do I need to analyse when looking
at Music Videos?
Lyrics tend to help establish a general feeling, or mood, or sense of subject matter
rather than offering a coherent meaning. Key lines may play a part in the visuals
associated with the song but very rarely will a music video simply illustrate the lyrics
A music video tends to make use of the tempo (speed) of the track to drive the
editing and may emphasise particular sounds from the track by foregrounding
instruments such as a guitar, keyboard or drum solo.
Genre/mise en scene
While some music videos transcend genres others can be more easily categorised.
Some, but not all, music channels concentrate on particular music genres. If you
watch these channels over a period of time, you will be able to identify a range of
distinct features which characterise the videos of different genres. These features
may be reflected in types of mise en scene, themes, performance, camera and
editing styles.
As with any moving image text, how the camera is used and how images are
sequenced has a significant impact on meaning. Camera movement, angle and shot
distance all need to be analysed. Camera movement may accompany movement of
performers (dancing, walking etc) but it may also be used to create a more dynamic
feel to stage performance, for instance by constantly circling the band as they
perform on stage. The close up predominates, as in most TV, partly because of the
size of the screen and partly because of the desire to create a feeling of intimacy for
the viewer. From a record company’s point of view the purpose of the music video is
to sell the band’s image and good ‘looks’ and also the ‘voice’ can be sold through the
use of close up.
The most common form of editing associated with the music promo is a fast cut
montage of images that are cut to the beat of the music. However some videos
(particularly ballads) use a slow pace and gentler shot transitions to establish a
mood of ‘love’ or contentment.
The music video is often described as being ‘post-modern.’ This is a hugely difficult
term to describe but at its heart the theory is about how music videos draw upon
existing texts in order to spark recognition from the audience. In the 1980’s
Madonna’s video for ‘Material Girl’ drew inspiration from ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best
Friend; a film from the 1950’s. The Beastie Boy’s video for ‘Sabotage’ is a direct
homage to the 1970’s cops of ‘Starsky and Hutch.’
Narrative in songs, as in poetry is rarely complete and often fragmentary. The same
is true of music promos, which tend to suggest storylines or offer complex fragments
in a non linear order, leaving the viewer with the desire to see them again. As Steve
Archer puts it:
‘Often, music videos will cut between a narrative and a performance of the
song by the band. Additionally, a carefully choreographed dance might be a
part of the artist’s performance or an extra aspect of the video designed to aid
visualisation and the ‘repeatability’ factor. Sometimes the artist (especially the
singer) will be a part of the story, acting as narrator and participant at the
same time. But it is the lip synch close up and the miming of playing
instruments that remains at the heart of music videos, as if to assure us that
the band/singer really can kick it.’
The video thus allows the audience more varied access to the performer than a
stage performance can. The close up allows the viewer eye contact with their idol
and the close observation of facial gestures and role play within a narrative
framework presents the artist in a number of ways which is not possible in a live
Star Image/The Brand
Music videos allow the record company to position ‘their’ property in a crowded
market place. The ‘look’ of the music video and the ‘look’ of the band allow the
viewer to determine if they like what they see. Fans will also have certain
expectations of what they see in the music video so record companies have to be
careful to give the fans what they want as well appeal to the widest possible
Voyeurism is the simple idea that humans gain erotic pleasure by looking at a sexual
object (preferably when the object is unaware of being watched).
When applied to music videos/films it has been argued that this theory can be used
to describe the relationship between what we see and why we watch so many
films/music videos etc. The theory has developed so the range of pleasures we take
are not exclusively sexual.
Laura Mulvey proposed the idea that because most directors are male (a fact that
remains true today as it did in 1975 when Mulvey wrote her theory) the presence of
women in film , and by extension music videos is often solely one of the purpose of
display for amale audience. The woman is presented as being passive and is often
sexualised with the fragmenting use of close ups to make her an object of desire
rather than a fully realised human. (breast, legs,bum etc) If we take for example the
many rap videos of 50 Cent we can easily suggest the role of women in these videos
are to be seen as sexual objects who writhe round the male star to suggest his huge
ego (and probably small penis.)
However in the 1990’s and today this idea becomes more complex because with the
rise of boy bands the male body is sexualised for not only a female audience but
also a gay audience as well (take a look at Take That’s early videos for proof of the
Whatever the implications of this theory the desire to be a voyeur is a crucial part of
the music video; whether the pleasures are to be aspirational (to live a lifestyle that is
is similar to the band/singer) or quite simply to be in lust with the star. (The Jonas
Britney Spears – Toxic
The lyrics for the song Toxic establish the point that Britney Spears is now ready to
move into a more ‘adult’ persona. The words are full of sexual and quite possibly
drug allusions/desires and mirror the fact that for Britney, as a 21 year old young
woman at the time, she is ready for the adult world. Britney’s fan base would also be
moving into their teen years as well, so the lyrics also become a metaphor for their
own explorations. Here are a few examples of the lyrics to illustrate this:
There's no escape, I can't wait
I need a hit, baby give me it
You're dangerous, I'm lovin' it
With a taste of your lips, I'm on a ride
You're toxic, I'm slippin' under
taste of a poison paradise
I'm addicted to you
Don't you know that you're toxic?
And I love what you do
Don't you know that you're toxic?
It's getting late to give you up
I took a sip from my devil's cup
slowly, It's taking over me
(I think I'm ready now)
Intoxicate me now
With your lovin' now
Toxic is an example of a high tempo dance track which Britney is famous for. This
drives the fast paced editing of the video.
Genre/mise en scene
Being a pop video there is an emphasis on movement and dance choreography in
the video. The dance routines are for the most part simple, the only elaborate
movement coming when Britney pretends to escape from a laser trap by doing some
flexible moves which show off her famous dance moves. The target audience of
young girls and early teenagers would expect some kind of dancing in Britney’s
videos so this emphasis on movement is there to satisfy the desire of the fans. We
get a sense however that the dance moves in this video highlight Britney’s growing
desire to express her sexuality. She regularly ‘bumps and grinds’ with older men in
this video and the perfect red nails and near nude outfit that she wears for the
‘performative’ aspect of the video are indications of a more mature nature. (This
controversy has never been far from Britney, consider the sexualised school uniform
of the Baby... video.)
Indeed the costumes are typical of a young female star. Britney is not known for her
singing voice (in the same way that a Leona Lewis is) and thus relies on sex appeal
and body movement to remain in the public eye. Britney wears various costumes in
the video which conform to Mulvey’s study of the male gaze. The air hostess outfit is
very short (you can see her pink pants!) for example and the ‘superhero’ disguise
that is worn at the end of the video is slashed to reveal Britney’s midriff. The mixture
of blonde, black and red hair gives the video variety and makes sure the viewer does
not get bored
Britney Spears’ usual theme for her videos is one of freedom and escape and this is
the same here. The opening shot of a plane and two birds are symbolic of Britney’s
desire to be free from the image she has created. From a young age Britney has had
a media career (first at Disney and through her solo career, a career started at the
age of 17) and as her breakdown confirmed the pressures of fame became too much
for her. The videos that Britney appears in appear to mirror her desire to escape;
either through costumes and design or just the basic desire to be an individual. In
her first video for ‘Baby hit...’ the mise en scene of a ticking clock and claustrophobic
classroom highlighted this theme which Toxic carries on. The different disguises that
Britney wears; the props of a motorbike and plane all give the sense that Spears
wants to escape her manufactured image. In terms of the audience young adults,
especially teenagers, also want to escape from school or like to play ‘dress up’ so
Britney’s mise en scene of escape is one shared with her target audience. This
desire to escape is taken to the extreme in the video for ‘Everytime’ where Britney
attempts suicide; again a very public cry for help which foreshadows the breakdown
which came a few years later.
Britney is the focus of the music video. Through close ups and mid shots the camera
is always centred on the star attraction of the show. Any long shots that are used are
usually shown to illustrate some kind of triumph for the star (the pleasure she gets
from riding the motor cycle) or to show off her body (the midriff of the superhero at
the end, the shortness of the air hostess outfit.) Long shots are also used to show
her dancing skills. Any other performers in the video (the other air hostesses for
example) are kept to a minimum and in the background, so the viewer can clearly
see the ‘product’ that is being displayed (Britney Spears.)
Editing mirrors the fast beat of the song so that the style is rapid and consistent.
Most music videos that are pop in variety employ this technique and Toxic is very
conventional in this manner. For an interesting comparison view the video for
‘Everytim’e which is a lot different because of the nature of the speed of the song.
The Holly Valence video for ‘Kiss Kiss’ could be an inspiration for the near
nude suit that Britney wears for the dance elements of the song.
The TV programme Alias was very popular in 2003. It stars a young woman
who is an international spy and likes to dress up in different disguises to fulfil
her job. The cover of the first season dvd has a look that is very similar to the
‘red haired’ Britney that is in the video and this could be an influence.
A female heroine from any number of manga comic strips could be an
influence for the black haired Britney at the end of the video. It could also be a
homage to the comic strip ‘Witch Blade’ which centre on female superheroes.
Britney would return to manga for the video for ‘Break the Ice.’
The narrative for Toxic adheres very closely to Steve Archer’s definition of a music
video. There are performative elements to the piece so that Britney can display her
skills as a dancer (one of her main selling points) where as the main narrative of a
female spy who will go to any lengths (using her sexuality for instance) to reach the
object of the quest marks Britney’s own desire to escape the confines of the music
industry. This ‘dressing up’ element of the video is also shared by her target
audience who after four years of watching Britney grow older and more mature are
eager to do the same. The close up and lip synching of the main star is also the main
performance of the video as well; again very common in pop videos as well as rock
videos as well.
Star Image/Brand
I have already written extensively on the image that Britney is putting across.
Britney’s selling points are her body, connection to young people and her ‘hidden’
desire to escape ( a trait which she shares with her target audience) The video Toxic
clearly demonstrates all of these points about the persona of Britney.
The video obviously conforms to the male gaze of Mulvey’s teaching. Britney is
sexualised as an object to be looked at and appraised. The fact she wears a near
nude suit and the camera focuses on her legs and bum at the start of the video
highlight pop music’s desire to sell sexuality to a young audience. What complicates
this though is the fact that Britney controls the narrative completely. She is definitely
not passive in the traditional sense and in many ways she manipulates men for her
own desires. She is the one who is a superhero and the wink at the end is the proof
needed for this complication. Is it a wink to suggest sexuality? Is it a wink to suggest
power and control? The answer lies within the reader because as we know different
audiences will read the video in different ways.