Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Video Dating and Radio Timelessness

No, I don't mean some web-cam assisted dating service.

Today I was thinking about the way songs get ruined by their awful, dated music videos. Some even get ruined by good music videos. And songs pre-music video can sometimes get ruined by their album cover art. So why is the visual so dating and the aural so timeless?

Music styles change dramatically over time, just like what color schemes are popular (avocado and harvest gold...), what kind of jean wash is coolest (acid or stone?), or what kind of mythology we currently happen to favor in our popular culture (vampires?). Every music lover can tell new sounds from the old, and those of us who wear out the grooves in the vinyl can tell you what year a technique came into use, what kinds of influences were coming back to the fore, and a few musical anecdotes from that year.

So we can hear all the changes in our music, but they don't bother us. We don't think (unless we're 16 years old maybe) "Ugh! This sounds so seventies!" or anything like that. If someone tried to imitate the old sounds, and did it successfully, we'd probably like it.

I think before I go further I have to set the earlier seventies aside, because they're far enough removed that they're cool, in style and color and dress and everything. The later seventies are when some embarrassing things start to happen, like terrible clothes, the debut of spandex being a particularly troubling example. Album covers started to get shiny and sport space-ships and other futuristic stuff. By the eighties, they were spray-painted with graffiti, showed off red lips and roller skates, or worse. Looking at some of these albums you wonder how what's inside the package came from the same culture as what's on the outside.

The '80s also had a few new waves of music that we can place very easily in their '80s time slot. Some of it can be annoying, and like any decade there was plenty of bad to go with the good. But the good stuff, however over-synthesized or over-guitar-soloed it may be, could never make us cringe the way squiggly lines and triangles moving to the beat can.

So yeah, along came the music video, which makes this problem especially bad for the eighties. Some songs that will never live their videos down are Devo's "Whip It," Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," and The Police's "Don't Stand so Close to Me."

"Sledgehammer" defined and influenced the '80s special-effects video look and won a million awards. But the video is too goddamn literal! I think Peter Gabriel is great at times, and I really try to listen to this song when it comes on the radio. I can't hear it though, because I just see claymation clouds floating across his face and claymation hammers smashing other clay junk. I can't separate the video from the song, and the music is less enjoyable because of that. This is a unique example of the problem since "Sledgehammer" is the most played music video of all time, but there's no denying how terribly '80s and dated it looks, and that this has an effect on how we hear the song.

"Whip It" doesn't really work at all without the visual, but it's an example of music catering to the video industry rather than the other way round.

"Don't Stand so Close to Me," despite all the juicy shots of Sting, is also way too literal for a video, and naturally those images get plugged right in as I hear the lyrics, making the song harder to enjoy. Of course this song is mostly meant to be taken literally, but some things are better left to the imagination. The teacher we're supposed to be hot for (confusing, since we should be angry with him right?), is very '80s conventional good-looking and all the high schoolers' hairdos are out of this world '80s yearbook photoesque. I try to just think of Sting. 1980 Sting.

Another example of dating problems I have had (haha) with '80s tunes was my initial fear of Talking Heads. I didn't want to like them, because they just seemed so "then." What fixed me? I watched a live DVD of them that was basically unplaceable in time. In "Stop Making Sense," no one wears any clothing that is dateable. There are no funky video effects. It's just the band playing and doing what they do. So then I started liking Talking Heads.

So why are these visual indicators of time so distasteful to us, while the musical indicators of time are not only tolerated but often welcome and exhilarating? When we look back at the '80s and decide we like something -- a color scheme or a hairdo -- we like it for the kitsch. But if we like an '80s song it's because we truly like it!

The same is true even with the '70s. I genuinely love the '70s, but some people just like them because it's funny to like them. They even had their own show. But the one thing they didn't make fun of on that show was the music.

I don't think video killed the radio star, but it sure made it a lot more complicated to appreciate the radio star without thinking about what he/she was wearing or what kinds of squigglies and special effects his or her video directors were into.

I just watched the video for Bowie's "Modern Love," because I'd never seen it. Big mistake.


  1. I'm going to have to whole-heartedly disagree with you about the "Whip It" video.

    If you consider that the video itself is a satirical look at sexuality in America, even basing it's plot and visual imagery directly from a 40s Soundie, then I think it makes more sense. It should be dislodged from the awful time period surrounding it, because I think that has done more damage to the song, just the mere fact it is from the 80s.

    But of course, that's just my view, and I also like the song, which I can tell you do not, so maybe it is personal bias.

  2. Wait! I never said I didn't like it. I just said that Whip It seemed to be created FOR the video, not just to write a song. What I read about it described it as sort of an art project, where Mothersbaugh thought right from the beginning "wouldn't it be funny to put this song to this image." I get the sexual culture commentary. For me I just can't separate the image and the song, and I can't separate their costumes from the '80s. But that's just another example of how the images stick with the music, when maybe they really shouldn't.

  3. Oh ok, you do like it! Yay!

    I had the music on record before I ever saw the video, and my dad used to always sing them in a weird way. I probably have so many other associations that I can't detach from the bizarreness of the 80s.

    "When we look back at the '80s and decide we like something -- a color scheme or a hairdo -- we like it for the kitsch. But if we like an '80s song it's because we truly like it!"

    I agree with that definitely. I guess the beauty of music is that it can transcend tacky shoulder pads, and men wearing lip stick.

    Probably out of any decade you chose the one that suffers from horrible over saturation of music fused with the image.

    For me, and I don't think I can explain why, Devo is the exception to all things 80s even though they probably created the whole aesthetic in the early to mid 70s unknowingly. To them it was combining horrible commercials and ads they had seen, with primal rhythms and cartoon humor. Their act in its entirety was a huge inside joke, which was perfectly balanced with their raw sound. Their visuals are an added bonus, but I think a lot of people started to mimic their look without any of the humor attached, thus it spiraled into something ugly and tacky.

    Sorry for the rambling!


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