Monday, August 28, 2006

Off the music video main drag (OkGo and Gnarles Barkley offer alternatives)

The music video is a universally abused form... directors throw visual gimmicks, old tropes, and intense special effects together and shake them, and if they have enough studio backing, they throw the resulting masturbatory vomit onto MTV, where that sort of thing belongs. The ubiquitous tendency of music videos to supernova has overshadowed a little-known fact: music videos can be beautiful and delicate, just like any other developed art form. It's left up to a few thoughtful bands, like Gnarles Barkley and OkGo, to keep proving this by offering alternatives to the overwhelming onslaught of hyperproduced MTV tripe.

Barkley's video, Crazy, and OkGo's music video for Here We Go Again are very different, but I contend that they're both aiming at the same target. By way of very different paths, both videos are stepping off the freight train of music video excess and showcasing a sort of visual minimalism, mobilizing simplicity, symmetry, and continuity to emphasize the strengths of the respective songs.

I mentioned the sweeping differences between these two videos, and I'll examine them from that direction first. The primary difference is production value... Crazy's brilliant, elaborate Rorschach inkblots must have taken hundreds of hours (at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars) to tweak and rotoscope on a high-end graphics machine. This kind of work is painfully detailed and time-consuming... I've tried it. I could hardly make the computer spell my damn name. Whatever the time investment, this production value adds up to a smooth, meditative visual effect with a subliminal edge, something that unfolds the same way Cee-Lo's voice unfolds from Danger Mouse's bassy beats.

OkGo's production value, on the other hand, is basement-dwelling. It looks like the guys spent a few hours messing around with treadmills and a video camera, and that their bizarre, choreographed stroke of genius was the child of their meagerly-funded free time. Note the contrast in the music, and how it reflects in the contrast in production quality... Gnarles Barkley's music is smooth and polished, so the video is the result of a marathon of tinkering and beautification, whereas OkGo's music is freewheeling and spontaneous, so the video is a back-room jaunt of power-pop tomfoolery. In both cases, though, the effect of the minimalism is to distill the essential effect from the visuals so the music is complimented on the most effective level.

Consider some simple similarities, though... both videos are one long cut, with no breaks or interruptions in the cinematic rhythm. Compare that to videos like The Perfect Drug, which jump around madly with no apparent regard for continuity. In the Barkley and the OkGo videos, the image stands on its own, and its pace is enough to keep the watcher's attenion for the whole song. Reznor's video depends entirely on the novelty of each separate image, because no matter how gorgeous your set, you can only watch Trent stand on a statue of a hand for so long.

Another similarity is each video's dependence on symmetry. This one is pretty incidental, but it makes the experience of a video seem more careful, more calculated, and more focused. The unflinching, uncomplicated camera action, designed to emphasize the visual effect of gorgeous symmetrical images, is a welcome change from the flying camera monkey paradigm that we get in videos like Creed's Matrix-obsessed Higher.

Finally (the points are getting less and less interesting) there's the simple fact of sytlistic cohesion in my featured videos. OkGo: one long low-budget camera shot of guys jumping around on treadmills. Gnarles: nothing but shifting monochromatic shapes, drifting in and out according to a surreally intuitive visual logic. These days everybody wants to mix CGI and animation and live shots, which is awesome, sure, like, totally, but it exposes a serious conceptual deficiency in music videos like Freak On a Leash. Korn uses a ton of styles and cinematic gimmicks because they're incapable of developing a visual idea to the point where it makes the overstimulated fans happy.

Now, don't get me wrong... I need my share of aesthetic excess. After all, I'm the guy whose favorite movies include The Rundown and Wild Zero (haven't seen that one? You HAVE to check it out). Still, I want my experience of music to penetrate deeper than my experience of bad film, and music video effects extravaganzas usually make me want to get up and get another soda.

I'm profoundly relieved that there are still innovators, thinking through their aesthetic approaches, making my music video consumption just a little more satisfying.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Well put. As someone who rarely, if EVER, watches music videos, I'm happy to say I could follow along. And I love every video Ok Go does, no matter how low-budget.