With physical album sales tanking and streaming royalties frozen by corporate war, you can bet your BitTorrent that major label artists are scrambling to release visual albums. Whether these visual albums will be exclusives for web-based companies remains to be seen: major labels are already circling their contractual wagons, and no less than Spotify has publicly admitted that they disdain exclusives as a competition-killer. Yet Spotify can’t currently (or maybe never) afford in-house visual content. Netflix, Amazon, and Apple can, and do, already buy or commission exclusive visual content.
Now imagine theater chains or film distributors entering the fray. Did Star Wars fans wait to stream The Force Awakens on Amazon or Netflix? Did music fans miss A Hard Day’s Night, Blue Hawaii, The Wall, or Purple Rain, and so on, because they also had the records?
So while Frank Ocean’s culture jamming, visual-only Endless allegedly was intended to serve as a Marvin Gaye-like “Here, My Dear” farewell to his Def Jam/Universal contract, it’s also an artistic throw down. On the downside, someone’s doing CPR on the next Rattle and Hum. On the upside, we may see a return to what initially made music videos great.
For most of the 80s, MTV had fewer videos to run, but also nothing to lose, setting artists free to risk minimalist masterpieces like The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young,” or cinematic adventures like Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” or massive cultural events like Michael Jackson’s MTV-stopping “Thriller.” Innovations continued into the nineties and ‘00s, but videos’ exposure plummeted as MTV moved to hit, and mostly miss, scripted programming. If a video wasn’t noteworthy in some way, and that was costly, few searched for it outside of MTV prior to 2005. Visual albums, and the Internet’s viral road, changes that, spurring artists to aggressively flip their video scripts.
Beyoncé’s visual version of Lemonade delivers on bugged-out imagery, but doesn’t avoid time-worn clichés like slow-motion tracking shots or the fun shock of an A-list celebrity – a cliché that shows no sign of flagging. Last year, Tom Hanks dominated Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You.” Kanye West’s “Famous” goes so far as to actively parody this practice.
But Massive Attack, granddaddies of trip hop, great uncles of dubstep, go meta by using the star-in-a-video cliché so often that they’ve sucked the novelty out of it; their recent videos feature no less than Cate Blanchett, or Kate Moss. Rather than have actress Rosamund Pike cavort butt-naked in a bed or a bathtub for their recent “Voodoo in My Blood,” Massive Attack asks Pike to fling herself around a subway station while battling a floating, sentient orb. High concept, and it probably wasn’t cheap, but it looks like little else.
That’s not to say low concept can’t be arresting. For their 2016 track “Eraser,” Metz employs a strobe effect timed to their stuttering noise rock, matching their aural fuzz with visual fuzz. Or take Lil Yachty’s video for “1 Night.” Beginning with slo-mo tracking shots, “1 Night” begins like the played out “party-on-a boat” hip-hop video and yet devolves into a hilarious, low-budget mess, like a public-access-channel recreation of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
Full-length satirical videos aren’t new. They built Weird Al’s career. More quietly, Aphex Twin & director Chris Cunningham fashioned two of the funniest satirical videos of the past fifteen years. For “Come to Daddy,” they lampooned the solipsism inherent in aggressive music, and their video for “Window Licker” may be the last word on 90s hip hop videos, complete with dancing by one Richard D James. For his 2016 single “CIRKLON3 [ Колхозная mix ],” a track inspired by the difficult Cheetah synthesizer, Aphex Twin handed video production to a 12-year-old boy. The result is stranger, and more beautiful, than anything professional directors could conceive.
For the most striking videos of recent years, head for Norwegian electronic artist Jenny Hval. Her “Innocence is Kinky” video, by director Zia Anger, snapped the Internet’s hamstring in 2013. Hval’s 2015 video for “The Battle Is Over” brought nightmares. For “Female Vampire,” from Hval’s September 2016-planned release “Blood Bitch,” the squad gathers at a club where they apply a translucent, skin-like goo to their faces and then eat it off each other. It’s unsettling, yet completely re-watchable.
As lyric videos go, 2016 is a good year, with Darnell Williams’s “South Central” dropping a sweet spin on pop-up video. For the lyric version of DJ Shadow’s “Nobody Speak,” Run the Jewels props a visual tent with nothing more than their animated lyrics. Innovating in a different direction, Run the Jewels shuts down the competition with their bonkers 360- virtual reality video for “Crown.” 360 VR can’t be seen on any television of any kind unless altered, and down, but only “Crown,” as well as Bjork’s “Stonemilker” and Squarepusher’s incredible “Stor Eiglass” videos, from 2015, have done anything to justify 360 VR as something to seek out.
As they say in Hollywood: location, location, location. For their track “Tom Tom,” Toronto’s Holy Fuck capsize visual clichés by filming a stirring revenge drama in natural light … and in remotest Romania. Alternately, Flaco’s “New Things” keeps things real with what looks like an abandoned racetrack. Unusual locations aren’t new, but they’re always better than special effects, not to mention cheaper.
No strangers to location-stunt performances, XX have held invite-only concerts in art galleries for startlingly small (for them) audiences. For Jamie XX’s “Gosh” video, director Romain Gavras lands in Tianducheng, China, where an abandoned, city-sized replica of Paris backdrops an eerie fable of hero worship featuring a cast of hundreds. It’s like nothing else, and only seen, for the most part, on Apple Music, who’s betting viewers will return at least once or twice to watch. “Gosh” should be the video of 2016. But then there’s David Bowie.
How could Bowie’s “Lazarus” not be the year’s best video? One of the biggest artists in the relative history of rock films a conscious yet sly farewell. His image of head bandages fitted with tiny eyelets appears not only in “Lazarus,” but in an additional video (“Blackstar”). Bowie may have been planning a cohesive visual album.
In video, such a heartbreaking thematic gesture as Bowie’s might have no precedent, unless you count Gord Downie’s possibly simultaneous and cryptic farewell in the heartbreaking lyrics and video for the Tragically Hip’s latest single. It’s also fitting that Bowie lands a terminal-themed video first. By the late seventies, only a few of Bowie’s peers were answering his call to join him in pioneering visually innovative music videos. But if not for them, and if not for him, we might not be looking at music as much as we already do.