The Semiotics of Music Videos: It Must Be Written in the Stars

Author: Heidi Peeters
Published: May 2004

Abstract (E): This article builds a semiotic framework for the understanding of popular music videos, arguing that the key to such understanding is the figure of the star. Far from being chaotic visualizations of a song, music videos turn out to be tight constructions, featuring the star as narrator, character and ultimately as the central instigator of a universe that is utopian in nature and poetic in structure.
Abstract (F): Cet article propose une analyse sémiotique des clips musicaux à partir de la figure de la star. Loin dêtre la visualisation chaotique dune chanson, les clips obéissent à des règles bien strictes qui tendent sans exception à mettre en valeur la vedette musicale : la star est à la fois narrateur/narratrice, personnage et, en dernière instance, intermédiaire entre le public et un univers à la fois utopique et poétique.
Keywords: Music videos, semiotics, pop stars, image, utopia

…The Semiotics of Stars: It must Be Written within Music Videos

Music videos often have been characterized as the ultimate medium of the postmodern world. Fast. Empty. Lascivious. At least that is how the majority of the academic and educated world perceives them. Using Frederic Jameson’s terms, music videos have been defined as a schizophrenic string of isolated, discontinuous signifiers, failing to link up into a coherent sequence, as a string without a center. Andrew Goodwin talked about “semiotic pornography”, “electronic wallpaper” and “neo-fascist propaganda” and Michael Shore defined the medium by its so-called “decadence”, its “surface without substance”, by its “clichéd imagery”.[1]

The critical condemnation of the music video object and the reduction of the medium to shallowness and superficiality however have in no way reduced the influence of the phenomenon, as its omniscience and penetration into capitalist society have been protruding steadily over the last few decades. The fact that MTV has become the ultimate forum on which youth culture is both expressed and constructed has transformed the music video not only into the most effective tool for promotion within the music industry, but also into a powerful ideological force. On a visually artistic level, the cult around music video directors as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham proves the medium to be transcending the stigma of dull commerciality, entering the realm of culture, if not art. Far less than being a mere training ground for feature film directors as Jonze himself, Tony and Ridley Scott or David Fincher, music videos have become a legitimate field and established photographers like Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Herb Rittz and David Lachapelle have proven all to eager to enter the new medium. Music videos are also infiltrating at film festivals all over the world and even claiming independence by the recent phenomenon of music video festivals. In short, music videos have become a center of commercial, popular and artistic interest.

Considering the artistic, commercial and ideological potential of the medium, it becomes necessary to investigate both the semiotics of the clip text and its function within society at a deeper level. For the investigation of an object of study as multidimensional as the music video, using signifiers from different sensorial domains, the field of cultural studies with its interdisciplinary approach can provide tools for interpretation. At this preliminary stage, the main concern of investigation should be the discovery of a pattern within the “hysteria” of sensorial dimensions, maybe even of a common denominator around which all the different clip elements could be centered. I claim that such a center does exist. This base, this center around which all visual, auditive, kinetic, narrative, commercial, social, communicational and artistic dimensions circle, turns out to be the star of the music video. The star is the one that lends the video world its splendor, that gives the audiovisual elements their enchanting attraction and that illuminates viewers all over the world from the Olympus of the screen. This may seem rather obvious, but one would be surprised at how the majority of theorists still consider music videos to be visualizations of a song. There is no need to say that I strongly reject the jamesonean view on music videos. While they may seem discontinuous on a syntagmatic level, the shots are highly connected through the image of the star.

Before going into the semiotic analysis of the clip text as such, a brief investigation of the technological, institutional and artistic influences that culminated in the medium as we have come to know it would be useful, although within the limits of this article, any history will have to be reduced to a crude sketch, merely an outline. More importantly, investigating the semiotics, the universals of the music video at this stage implies focusing on the most central instances of the medium. As much as I adore some ‘experimental’ videos, investigating them at this stage would be trying to run without being able to walk. Before being able to define why some music videos may strike us as alternative and experimental, we need to focus on the mechanism of videos in the center of the medium, popular videos of popular stars. The MTV Video Music Award nominations seem to be fairly representative for the popularity of both stars and music videos, so they have been the guideline in the selection of my corpus.

A new medium is born, and born again

When building a theoretical matrix into which a crude historical sketch of the music video could be drawn, we first need to position the phenomenon in the landscape of contemporary media. It would not be unthinkable to regard the music video as a sub-genre of the medium film, as a sort of commercial, as visual radio or just as television entertainment, but none of these approaches would take into account the basic purpose and specificity of the medium, namely the creation of stars. Their specificity, and the fact that music videos can reach their audience through different bearers such as television, the Internet, pellicule, video, DVD and compact disc show that they should be regarded as an independent genre or an independent medium.

The notion of cultural form by Raymond Williams enables us to situate the clip as a dynamic and flexible phenomenon, adaptable to the historical and cultural context in which it is viewed.[2] Although Williams takes the apparatus to be part of this context, the producers, the public and the experience are just as important in defining the medium. The apparatus of music videos involves both the technical means of production, with different sorts of cameras and digital postproduction devices, and those of consumption, ranging from television screens over the Internet to DVD-players. The producers are just as diverse, since the star itself, as well as directors and technicians, music mixers, make-up artists and pr-managers from both film and music companies are involved. As far as music video consumers are concerned, they could of course be anyone, but the target group op the medium is the ever renewing MTV-generation, a group of youngste
rs between fourteen and twenty-five, still in search for the right identity and willing to spend money on it. The most difficult item to define remains the clip-experience, an extremely variable concept, depending on the psychological and cultural background of the viewer and on the moment of watching, but most of all on the text itself, as one should not underestimate the level to which production teams are able to manipulate stimuli and to guide viewers into the desired affects. As a response, viewers in stead of changing the channel, should stay tuned, buy the cd or imitate dance moves, style and consumption patterns of their admired star.

Added to the notion of cultural form, Stanley Cavell’s concept of automatism can bring in the video’s specificity, namely its mechanism of star creation.[3] Cavell has defined automatism to be the basis of a medium; a structural formula that has been created within a certain oeuvre, but proves so productive that it automatically starts reproducing itself in other stances, hence creating the medium. Cavell’s medium concept could at first sight be just as easily exchanged for the more common notion of genre, but as genre usually is conceptualized to be a subgroup of a larger medium, that notion would eclipse the specificity of the music video mechanism.[4] However, before analyzing the mechanism internally, it seems useful to explore the external factors, historical, technological, social and economical, that produced the medium as we know it.

The concept of the second birth of a medium by André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion can help to structure the history of music video as a cultural practice,[5] although that history will within the scope of this article necessarily be limited to a crude sketch and the account will contain a fair amount of teleological thinking. The main idea behind the second birth is that in order to be institutionalized as a real medium, a cultural practice will have to eliminate certain aspects of itself, hence go through a partial suicide and be born again with well-defined aims and a well-structured mechanism. In the case of the music video, this means that from the wide range of short films to visualize a song or a piece of music, only those that actually were meant to create a star image for the musical performer, would remain within the scope of the medium. I propose to pinpoint this second birth of the music video, which in reality of course happened rather as a gradual process, to the 1 st of august 1981, the day that the music channel MTV started broadcasting in America with the clip “Video Killed the Radio Star”.[6] The channel would probably not have been founded if clips did not already exist in the first place, but the worldwide institutionalization of music videos as a medium of promotion, entertainment and art, and the clip mechanism as we know it today, would not have been possible unless something like music television came into being.

Before MTV saw the light, clips had already been shown on television, but the line between what were music videos and what were just filmed performances was not very clear at that time. In the process of medium reincarnation this stage would be termed the first birth. The success of TV-shows in the 1960’s such as Bandstand or The Ed Sullivan Show, where popular artists performed their new songs, have been a major impetus for the production of clips, as the most famous performers would soon not be able anymore to attend all the shows. The production of video clips seemed the most convenient solution. Clips turned out to have a broader range of artistic possibilities than the staged performances, as they were not bound to the limits of the spatial and temporal reality on stage. The Beatles’ song “Paperbackwriter” is credited for being the first music video ever broadcasted on television.

Before these first clips were shown on television, however, the sixties had already witnessed the hype of the Scopitones, “coin-operated entertainment machines featuring visual accompaniment for a musical number”.[7] The origin of these visual jukeboxes dates back to Edison’s invention of the Kinetograph, but it was only after the Second World War that the French company Cameca developed the Scopitone-machine. These peephole-devices were to entertain the public in cafés and clubs with music films of about three minutes length and proving to be highly successful, the first machines would be exported to America in 1963. The Scopitones did not necessarily have to feature famous artists singing and could just as easily show exotic tribal dances, stripteases to music or jazz band choreographies. Promotion of a musical number or creation of a star image were at that time still secondary to the attraction, to spectacular entertainment or to satisfying the peepshow desires of the club audiences. It seems to be the case that those priorities would be inversed in later music videos, where spectacular entertainment and striptease allusions would only be linked to the spectacular divinity and the glamorous sex appeal of the star.

The Scopitones that did feature artists, however, already constructed these artists as the central element of the clip with both filmic and pro-filmic devices. The mise-en-cadre was so designed as to guide the viewers’ attention towards the star, making him/her the center of the world within the frame. Also the costumes, the lightning and choreographies were intended to put the artist in the spotlight, with contrast as the key notion, making it advisable for the star to wear different outfits than the backing vocalists, to perform different dance moves and to be the only one to address the camera. Anyhow, the audience was likely to link the voice they heard to the person whose lips were moving, whereas instrumental music would more easily be taken for granted as an indication of the appropriate emotional effect. In this way, the artist in Scopitones could not only be identified as the visual, but also as the auditive center of interest in the clips.

Some cultural practices introduced elements that, even though important for the development of the clip mechanism, did not emerge from protoclips themselves. These practices could be grouped together to form the phase before the first birth of the medium, a so-called prenatal phase.[8] Of course, almost everything could a posteriori be said to have influenced the birth of the medium and of course the different birth stages cannot be separated as strictly as one would have it. Still, music television would not have been developed if it were not for the influence of youth culture, a phenomenon popping up during the fifties by which music became the basis of peer group identity. Films as The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando or the various Elvis films helped to spread the early youth culture and lifestyle of Rock’n’roll.

Also within the world of film, the flamboyant musicals of dance director Busby Berkeley with their swooping aerial photography, their kaleidoscopic lenses, the highly expressive camera movement and the sophisticated montage techniques were influential for the music videos to come, as they turned dance sequences into “experimental cinema of abstract impressionism” rather than resembling “traditional narrative film.”[9] Also the micke
y-mousing process
of frame-by-frame synchronization, by which early Disney films achieved to combine “sound and image in an expressive manner impossible (…) in live-action narrative cinema”,[10] is echoed by the structuring role music seems to have in music videos of today. Even the editing practice of directors of Russian Constructivism for whom expressiveness and symbolism were far more important than just telling a story, seems to have been more influential within the music video mechanism than it has been within narrative film. Trough the fast succession of spectacular visual stimuli and a manipulative “montage of attraction”,[11] Sergei Eisenstein wished to develop a symbolic, metaphoric and poetic Filmgestalt in the mind op the beholder. This Gestalt was to build an ideal image of the struggle of the collective or individual Soviet hero (the Proletariat, Lenin), a fictitious image that would picture the real essence of communism. Music videos could rightly be argued to do pretty much the same thing, that is, build an ideal and fictitious image of the pop hero in order represent his true essence through means of a manipulative and nonnarrative montage of attraction. In some ways, music videos also seem to be a return to the cinema of attractions, a term introduced by Tom Gunning and André Gaudreault to topically describe the early cinema.[12] This sort of cinema aimed at showing itself exhibitionistically as a spectacular and stunning curiosum, rather than at telling a story and absorb the voyeuristic audience into it, as would be the case in the later practice of narrative cinema. The nec plus ultra of today’s exhibitionistic medium practices seems to be exactly the music video, where it is not so much the medium itself that arouses excitement anymore, but the eye-catching appearances of the star as visual spectacle. Even though the fast clip editing seems miles ahead of the often static tableaus in early cinema, narrativity remains inferior to the importance of showing the divine capacities of the star.

It must be written in the stars

Stars seem to have always been around in one way or another during western history. Ancient Greece had its Olympus, the Middle Ages their saints and later kings were introduced as loci of divinity. They all functioned as incarnations of the ideals of their time, of braveness and power, devotedness and abstinence or bienséance and courtoisie and hence served as role models for identification. The star system that developed in the twentieth century would not be very different. Film and pop stars were taken to be typical of the average citizen and at the same time superior and special, raised above the masses. They would serve as role models to identify with, but also as sites of escapist dreams about glamour and success. Both types of star phenomena, that of the music star and that of the film star, would in a certain measure come together in the medium of music video, a medium that would not only be a result of the star phenomenon, but that would also become an important mechanism in its creation.

Singers have always had a superior status to both their orchestra and their public, since on an auditive level, they were the anthropomorphic, most prominent element in the musical ensemble. This prominence would be visualized by their positioning towards the group of musicians, who would either sit behind them, or from the nineteenth century on simply be hidden in the orchestral pit. Compared to the public, the singer’s superiority was even more prominent, since the artist was either elevated above the masses, singing on a stage, or placed in the middle of the audience group. Besides that, the singer was the most active person; the only one with a voice, while the role of the audience was reduced to listening and admiring. With the introduction of the phonograph it would soon become possible to detach the human voice from the physical body of the singer, which was at least something remarkable, if not miraculous, and would thus enlarge the singer’s aura of divinity even more. The fact that listeners could invite the voice to “speak” to them in the familiar surroundings of their homes turned the voice into a “house god”, a divinity that could heal through music. Evoking at the same times an attitude of idolatry and intimacy, but being too ephemeral to serve as the only site of adoration, pictures, posters and fanzines had to satisfy the public’s demand of contact with the idol. In order to live up to the expectations of the public, an “iconological” photography became the norm, detaching the photographic world from its surroundings and centering it around the star. On the other hand, pictures were indexical proof for the real-life existence of the star.[13]

The emergence of the film star phenomenon is similar to the development as outlined above, but also complementary to it. The first actors were not real stars, just characters; even bare material, at least to directors and producers.[14] The silent but expressive creatures on the screen, glamorous bodies without materiality or voice enchanted the public and since these larger-than-life images on the screen pointed towards the existence of real larger-than-life creatures, the public was desperate to meet them. The story – or myth – of Carl Laemlle’s stunt to “nail a lie” and reveal the true identity of the stars, was the first step towards the strange mix of realism – the stars were not their characters but existed in real life – and idolatry – the stars were raised above the sum of their characters.[15] Opposed to the enclosed atmosphere where the phonograph “house gods” could be heard, the film gods were attended in the ceremonial temple of the movie theatre. Since the stars were in reality not physically larger than life they had to make up for it in their life-styles. The introduction of sound met with the public’s urge to know the totality of their idol, but maybe the audience got more reality than they asked for, as vulgar speech or a strange voice could easily bring the superb screen creatures back to their normal, all too human proportions. The classical Hollywood style (1930-1945) managed to recuperate some divinity through glamorous lightning, extravagant costumes and centralizing techniques of mise-en-scène and mise-en-cadre. Off-screen space was treated as dead so that only the star and her/his immediate surroundings would seem to exist, just as the iconic billposter pictures created a transcendental space around the star as center of interest. Film stars, however, would never be able to recuperate their original status of screen gods and kept growing more human, often evoking in their former fans a melancholy longing for a past in which “stars were really stars”.[16]

The process of the visualization of music stars and the auditivization of film stars converged in the medium of the music video, were both voice and image merged in what seems to be the ultimate mechanism not only for displaying stars, but also for creating them.

If stars are taken to be reflexions of the hopes and dreams of society in a certain period or as anthropological models,[17]
this cannot eliminate the need for a thorough analysis into the mechanisms that created those needs. To rely on notions as the collective unconsciousness seems rather suspicious when there are economical and political interests at play. It is obvious that the emergence of the star system was not only the result of the public’s demand, but also of economic strategies from film and music companies. At a socio-political level, the stars as “powerless elite” served to embody ideologies of the establishment, although polysemy in star images and notions of resistance show that causes cannot always determine their effects in a straightforward manner.[18] But even as stars would be able to drastically transcend the dominant norms and establish new models, besides just consolidating them or displaying seductive transgressions without really offering alternatives,[19] and even if audiences would interpret consolidating representations in a resisting manner, the question remains whether the so-called transgressive readings could not be recuperated by the system as cathartic lightning rods, leading to consolidation anyway.

The fact that movie characters could be effective ideological tools can be explained by the phenomenon of identification, a process by which viewers become attached to a star, ranging from emotional affinity limited to the context of the movie theater to projection, by which fans try to become their idols through imitating speech, movements and consumer patterns.[20] It is obvious that when the object of projection appears to be the owner of fancy cars, expensive clothes and luxurious houses, a capitalist establishment can only welcome the attitude of identification. Identification with stars does not necessarily have to be based on appearance or sex, as especially for pop stars, it can also rely on the musical style and the subcultural group to which the singer refers. Sometimes identification is not so much a question of the male-female opposition as it is a question of us versus them, young versus old, rebels versus establishment. The opposite mechanism of identification would be the process of objectification, a process usually applied towards the other sex (and it is known that the “other sex” most of the time turns out to be female, as rightly revealed in Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure.)[21] In music videos the amount of fetishisation, and thus objectification can be said to be much higher than in most narrative films, reducing narrative in favor of spectacle, to remain within Mulvey’s paradigm. Still, objectification in music videos does not necessarily have to exclude simultaneous identification. [22]

The utopian clip

The main purpose of music videos has been defined to be the creation of a star, a mixture or human familiarity and divine glamour and in order to achieve the desired star effect, production teams have a whole range of filmic devices at their disposal. It could be rightly claimed that music videos try to create a utopian world of which the star seems to be the instigator. Richard Dyer’s Entertainment and Utopia hands over some very useful tools to explain the utopian mechanism in musicals and with some adjustments, these tools could be rightfully applied to the mechanism of the music video. First of all, Dyer argues how in musicals, the development of the narrative is postponed in order for a utopian dance act to break through. When for example Maria in the Sound of Music starts singing about confidence, lonely goaters and other favourite things of hers, utopia seems to emerge. The song is a marker for the opposition between narrative and utopian act, between the normal world and something of a different order. Dyer indicates that the notion of utopia in musicals rather indicates a feeling, an effect of utopia than an ontologically or theoretically sketched out world with rules and laws. In both the character in the film and the viewer in the audience, entertainment will achieve imaginary escapism rather than real changes and Dyer makes clear that escapist needs and their proper fulfillments are to a large extend created by the dominant system in which the entertainment operates.

As characteristics of utopia Dyer mentions the transformation of lack into abundance, of exhaustion into energy, vagueness into intensity, obscurity into transparency and fragmentation into solidarity. These characteristics are carried across by two categories of signs that are intermingled within the musical, namely representational and the nonrepresentational signs. Representational signs such as the plot, the props, the characters and the costumes are the ones that represent something and that function on the level of comprehension. The nonrepresentational signs on the other hand, such as colours, lightning, camera-angles, editing, special effects and to a large extent even the musical “score”, do not represent anything concrete and depend on the context in which they occur. Although all these signs to a large extent determine the attribution of meaning to the clip, they are often not recognized as such as they seem to be mere side effects or even the bare material out of which the representational signs are constructed. These non-representational signs nevertheless have the largest potential for creating an effect of utopia, as they do not create references to existing objects, but on the contrary generate cognitive, even emotional responses that will be interpreted as an effect of the representational signs and thus determine the way the star and her reality will be experienced. Since they are not recognized as signs, the nonrepresentational signs can operate more easily.[23]

Although music videos do show familiarities with Dyers musical utopias, describing them as acts that temporarily stop the narrative would not be fully accurate, as, although frame stories may occur, most of the time there is no “outside”, no narrative in which the videos should be imbedded. Most often, a narrative is integrated within and throughout the music video act itself, although narrativity does not seem to be an absolute necessity within the medium. Because act is their dominant throughout – they consist of nothing but act, at least in Dyer’s sense – videos constitute their own universe, a universe of utopia. The utopia in this case turns out to be more than just an effect of utopia as it evolves from escapist act sequences in musicals; it is ontologically part of the visual universe and there is no return to a normative world outside of the act. The music video policy does not seem to fully recognize its own utopian characteristics though, as the videos are not explicitly expected to representutopian fantasies, but on the contrary still generate the belief, although half-heartedly, that they somehow present reality.

In order to clarify the utopian video mechanism, a concrete illustration might be useful. Although there are many videos available that are openly utopian, I chose to focus on a less overtly utopian clip, since in this way, the more interesting and hidden parts of the mechanism could be revealed. The Jennifer Lopez’ and Ja Rule’s video with
the – at least in this context – somewhat ironic title “I’m Real” seems to fit the profile, as it is a successful video of two extremely successful stars, directed by David Meyers, a successful director of typical music videos.[24] In this video, the stars simply hang around in their neighbourhood, having fun. The main purpose of the clip seems to be to show how real they are.

As for the global structure, the video starts with Lopez standing in front of her shabby cabin, looking happily and relaxed into the camera. A medium en full shot shows Rule, rapping down the streets with his basketbal, rapping in front of a graffiti wall and rapping in a red room with Lopez behind him. Later in the video, the stars appear in an indoor basketball field together, wearing different outfits, addressing each other and the camera . We see a park with people, the couple having fun in the sun and at a party at night. In the end sequences, a new location is being introduced, namely a red convertible. Throughout, the sequences are intermingled with atmospheric shots of guys working out and girls watching them, with images of girls in bikini, men playing baskettball and children on a play ground.

Utopia and story completely overlap in this music video, one could rightly claim that there is not even a story being told, only the utopian world of Lopez and Rule is being presented to the viewers by Lopez and Rule themselves. The world that is being presented is that of a predominantly black American community, living in bungalows and playing basketball. The community is far from being extremely wealthy, as Lopez’s cabin, the graffiti walls and the street life sequences prove, but nevertheless the neighbourhood seems to be transformed into a continuous festival. There is abundance in the many different outfits and the expensive jewellery of the stars and also the convertible seems to be a sign of luxurious abundance. There is plenty of sunshine and happiness, even if people live in shabby cabins. Colours are abundant as well, although there appears to be a predominance of red, white and blue in this video, not fortuitously the colours of America. Energy can be found in the basketball players and in the cheering or dancing crowd, while slow motion brings in a languid effect of relaxedness. The utopian category of intensity can be found within the intense happiness everyone seems to be experiencing and the cool attitude that is displayed by especially the male characters. Transparency is closely connected with this last category, as tough behaviour, happiness, support and admiration for Lopez are expressed in an uncomplicated, straightforward fashion. Last but not least, there is the feeling of solidarity, which appears to be very strong in the neighbourhood that J.Lo and Ja Rule live in. In the video, it appears to be holiday for everybody all the time, without frustrations or conflicts between the community members. Within the Hiphop scene there is a certain way of dressing, moving, dancing and speaking that connect the community. Hiphop in America is a way of life, in which basketball, graffiti, hanging around in the neighbourhood and home parties are important, but jewellery and a convertible will not hurt either.

Within this clip, following Dyer, a distinction could be made between representational signs and nonrepresentational signs, narrative versus non-narrative elements. Although the concepts are not fully compatible, there seems to be a similarity between this opposition and Tom Gunning’s opposition between telling and showing, representationality and presentationality in connection with the cinema of attractions.[25] Utopian music videos seem to be presentational rather than representational and in this sense they are a reminder of the early cinema. Important in this prospect seems to be the fact that the star addresses the audience in addressing the camera. Although the addressing of the audience stems from the tradition of performing at concerts, it becomes highly functional in videos as they turn the star into the “narrator” of their own video universe, establishing them as the link person between the utopian world and the public. The star sings and through this singing creates a poetic world of colour and light, of energy, intensity, abundance, transparency and solidarity. She/he induces the world to take shape, after which it becomes independent so that even the star can live in it. While at the start of the clip the stars often lipsync, as intradiegetic narrators, their voice after a while becomes an omniscient voice-over, an element of meganarration in the clip, also present in the atmospheric shots. By looking at the viewers, the star invites them into the utopian world while the utopia itself, under the form of music, already seems to infiltrate into the viewer’s world. The music, as the key to entering utopia can be bought easily of disc, but to transform reality into the real utopia, fans need to obey to the other community rules as well. Only by dressing, driving and partying as the stars and their subjects do, a real utopia could be reconstructed. Music videos in this way turn out not only to be visual poems; they are commercial poems as well.

At the level of telling, we find the plot, the lyrics, the role of the narrator, the characterization and setting. More important in clips, however, is the dimension of showing. In this category, the non-representational signs are of major importance as colour, lightning, lenses and camera-angles will all help to constitute the utopian world and will turn the star into its center and the instigator.

Within shots, high key or low key lightning will either put the star in the spotlights or create an effect of romance, while costumes and colour will emphasize their beauty. Telephoto lenses or low camera angles can stress both their centrality and their elevated status, hence their importance within the video world. Not only the shots themselves, but also the relation between shots can be used to develop a poetic status for the star and this is where editing comes in. Editing has been the privileged object of discussion when music videos are concerned; and it is on this point that the postmodernist discontinuity of music videos seems to manifest itself. Nothing is less true. The fact that the editing is discontinuous does not mean that it is disconnected; on the contrary, there is a very strong connection between the shots and sequences in music videos, a connection which often has gone unnoticed, but which is extremely important in the creation of the star as star. The star itself is the connection, and in this way will be stressed even more as the center of the utopian universe.

The editing mechanism in music videos is not primarily linear and does not have to follow the principles of continuity editing that are traditionally used to create a believable diegetic world in narrative films, where the 180-degree system and visual and auditive continuity makes sure that the filmic space and time appear as realistic and coherent as possible. [26] To say it differently; narrative montage works mainly through syntagmatic links. Not so in music videos, which do not have to constitute a realistic or coherent visual universe, but often create a world that is both impossible and eternal, reduced to the here and now of the screen. The star is perceived from many different angles by a ubiquitous viewer and appears within different scenes “at the same time” through parallel editing. The various jump cuts and the strange syntagmatic linkage prove that narrativity is not the main priorit
y in music videos. Whereas the link between shots in narrative films is syntagmatically defined, in music videos the main editing principle turns out to be paradigmatic, as all shots in some way show or point at the star who in this way becomes more than just an actor in the narrative of the clip, [27] but is revealed to be the true poetic center of it. The music itself remains important as a syntagmatic linking devise, but also imbues the voice of the star and its emotional effect into every image, thus fortifying the paradigmatic link of the shots with their poetic center. The opposition between syntagm and paradigm has been most usefully applied within the literary field by Roman Jakobson, who stated that syntagmatic linking was typical of narrative, while paradigmatic linking was typical of poetry. [28] The fact that music videos in this sense are primarily poetic does not mean that clips never contain narrativity, as I have already stated before. Most music videos do develop a storyline, embedded within its poetic structure and some clips even contain introductory story sequences or non-musical narrative sequences inserted within the video number but “outside” its musical score. These sequences are rather infrequent though, but nevertheless stress the capability of the utopian act to infiltrate into the ‘real’ world of narrativity. Narratives in clips thus becomes a devise to structure the poetic clip world and make it more accessible and recognizable to the viewer.

Music videos thus turn out to be anything but shallow postmodern strings without connection or center, but on the contrary consist of an intricate pattern of representational and nonrepresentational signs. They are not sloppy incoherent narratives, but poetical constructs, turning like planets around the star whose radiance lends them their entire splendor. The star turns out to be the paradigmatic link, a narrator and a character, the center and the instigator of the utopian video universe. Nevertheless, without the poetic particles of sound and vision reflecting her grandeur, the star would not only remain unperceivable, but her very existence would become threatened. Just like electrons and nuclei need each other to constitute an atom, so do the video elements need the star to tie them together into a music video, while the music star herself depends on the very poetic video constructs to shine her into existence.



Francesco ALBERONI (1963) L’élite senza potere. Milan: Vita e Pensiero.

Jeremy G. BUTLER (1991) “Star Texts: Image and Performance in Film and Television”. In Contemporary Film and Television Series, Wayne State University Press Detroit, Detroit, pp. 49-66.

Stanley CAVELL (1979) The World Viewed. Enlarged Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

David COOK (1995) A History of Narrative Film, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London.

Richard DYER (1979) Stars, BFI Publishing, British Film Institute, London.

(1992) Only Entertainment, Routledge, New York, London.

André GAUDREAULT & Philippe MARION (2000) “ Un média naît toujours en deux fois…”in Sociétés et représentation (‘La croisée des médias’), n°. 9, pp.21-36.

Andrew GOODWIN (1993) Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture, Routledge, London.

Tom GUNNING (1991) D.W. Griffith and the Origin of Narrative Cinema, University Press of Illinois, Urbana.

Stuart HALL (1980) Encoding/ decoding in Hall, Stuart, Hobson, Dorothy, Lowe, Andrew and Willis (ed.), Culture, Media, Language, Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

Roman JACOBSON (1964) Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics in Style and Language, 2 nd edition, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok, The Mit Press, Cambridge/Mass1964, pp.350-377.

Suzanne K LANGER (1953) Feeling and Form, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

John LANGFORD (1999) “Concealing the Hunger”. In Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky, Routledge, London.

Laura MULVEY, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 1988. (first appeared in Screen, 1974)

Michael SHORE(1984) The Rolling Stone Book of Music Video, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, London.

Jacky STACEY (1998) Stargazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, Routledge, London, New York

Andrew TUDOR (l974), Image and Influence: Studies in Sociology of Film, London.

Raymond WILLIAMS (1990) Television. Technology and Cultural Form, Routledge, London, (1st edition,1975).


[1] Andrew GOODWIN (1993) Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture, Routledge, London; Michael SHORE (1984) The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video, Sedgwick & Jackson Ltd, London. Frederic JAM ESON (1991) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham

[2] In Raymond WILLIAMS (1990) Television. Technology and Cultural Form, Routledge, London, (1st edition,1975).

[3] Stanley CAVELL (1979) The World Viewed. Enlarged Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

[4] The common-sense notion of that “larger medium” would either just be the bearer, or otherwise the ensemble of sign, content and bearer. Since music video is not a genre of the bearer television as still life is a genre in canvas paining and music video is not a genre of the medium film as the film noir is, both common-sense notions of genre are not able to do justice to the specificity of music videos.

[5] GAUDREAULT, André & MARION, Philippe (2000) Un média naît toujours en deux fois in Sociétés et représentation (‘La croisée des médias’), n°. 9, p.21-36.

[6] Andrew Goodwin sketches out the first decade of Music Television in GOODWIN (1993) Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture, Routledge, London, p.123-129.

[7] As goes David Cook’s description of the Kinetograph; David COOK (1995) A History of Narrative Film, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London, p. 5.

[8] Marion and Gaudreault do not explicitly work with this concept, although it can be thought within their theory.

[9] David COOK (1995), p.274

[10] David COOK (1995), p.276

[11] David COOK (1995), p.143; Sergei EISENSTEIN, “The Cinematographic Principle and The Ideogram.” rpt as “The Collision of Ideas” in
Film: a Montage of Theories, edited by McCann, pp. 34-37.

[12] The “cinema of attractions” is a term, used by Tom Gunning and André Gauldreault to topically describe the early cinema. In Tom GUNNING (1991) D.W. Griffith and the Origin of Narrative Cinema, University Press of Illinois, Urbana.

[13] Iconic is used here in two senses of the word, both religiously and semiotically, since stars are pictured in a static, central and divine manner, reminiscent of Byzantine portrait icons and since the photos mirror the star’s outer appearance. Of course the very process of photography makes the starpictures indexical as well, as it is proof of the existence of the star, of its having appeared in front of the photo camera. It is striking that the real icons, although their name would indicate differently were also believed to prove the existence of ‘the real thing’ and that it took a bunch of iconoclasts to crush this believe. With the introduction of digital, hence manipulative photography and the first virtual stars (think of Lara Croft, but Barbie could be an older example) iconoclast, mostly feminist objections have already been raised.

[14] That is how Kuleshov saw his actors, according to Jeremy G. BUTLER (1991) Star Texts: Image and Performance in Film and Television in Contemporary Film and Television Series, Wayne State University Press Detroit, Detroit, pp. 49-66.

[15] David COOK (1995), p. 40, The Rise of the Star System.

[16] In Jacky STACEY in (1998) Stargazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, Routledge, London, New York, p.263.

[17] As pointed out by Richard DYER (1979) Stars, BFI Publishing, British Film Institute, London.

[18] The “Powerless elite” is a term by Francesco ALBERONI in L’élite senza potere. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1963 while the notion of “resistance” was introduced in Stuart HALL (1980) Encoding/ decoding in Hall, Stuart, Hobson, Dorothy, Lowe, Andrew and Willis (ed.), Culture, Media, Language, Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

[19] These three relations of the star towards dominant ideologies are explained by Richard DYER’s (1979) Stars, BFI Publishing, British Film Institute, London.

[20] Andrew TUDOR (l974), Image and Influence, Studies in Sociology of Film, London.

[21] Laura MULVEY, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 1988. (first appeared in Screen, 1974)

[22] Objectification is not necessarily limited to stars with the same gender, as pointed out in Jackey Stacey (1998), Richard Dyer (1979) and Eric De Kuyper (1993) De verbeelding van het mannelijk lichaam, Sun, Nijmegen. None of these critics allude to whether cross-gender identification is possible as well, but in the light of their theories, it seems very plausible.

[23] An investigation into non-representational musical structures can be found in Suzanne K. LANGER (1953) Feeling and Form, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

[24] Meyers’ videos for award winners No Doubts “Hey Baby”, Britney Spears “Lucky” and “Boys” and Missy Elliot’s “No minute Man” prove him to be central to the medium. Still, the awards do not seem to fully back my centrality claim, as some award-winning directors, as Spike Jonze, when investigating the average clip on MTV, do not at all appear to be central to the medium at all. Exceptionally the award appeal of a video seems to depend on its originality and deviation from the mechanism.

[25] It would be fair enough to link the pairs representational-nonrepresentational and representational-presentational, but both oppositions do not really overlap. The term “presentational” points towards a mechanism of visualizing, towards a macro-strategy in media, whereas “nonrepresentational” designates a type of signs at a micro level. Representational strategies will also contain non-representational signs and vice versa, but in predominantly presentational media as the music video, the importance of nonrepresentational signs will be higher than in representational media. The increasing use of digital techniques and poetic editing in narrative films can be seen as a return to the aesthetics of the cinema of attractions.

[26] I say “traditionally,” because more recent films often seem to depart from the 180-degree system, mostly in epic action scenes, in order to suggest the ubiquity of the viewer. It may very well be possible that the music video medium has had an influence on this tendency.

[27] A shot in which the star is not shown can metaphorically or metonymically still refer to the star.

[28] Roman JACOBSON (1964) Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics in Style and Language, 2 nd edition, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok, The Mit Press, Cambridge/Mass1964, pp.350-377.

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