03 July 2009

What Exactly Do Videos Sell?

Reality: at the end of it all, you can produce the most amazing video ever, but if the music is subpar, it will not catch on. Ultimately, bands try to sell their music through videos, and in our sound byte, broadband world videos have become more and more important. But it is not just the actual song that videos are selling, they also sell the band as product: image, attitude, etc… Most fashion is emulation of famous people, and most teens get their idea of rebellion and counterculture (or at least what will piss off their parents) from musicians and celebrities. The image of the band, who they are, is the most important thing to sell other than the music; it helps identify them, set them apart, and is a sort of visual signature that cannot be confused. But what happens when a band decides that they do not want to be the focal part of their own videos? What if they do not want to even appear in their own video? This is where things get really tricky.

Take Bjork for instance. Her video for “All Is Full of Love” has her animated as a robot that is being constructed. (Video from the bjorkotcom YouTube Channel.)

Always one to juxtapose fantasy and reality, the carnal from the synthetic, Bjork’s video is the story of a robot that feels love, or as she sings, “full of love,” from another robot. Symbolism? Well, we as humans work as robots, in a daily grind, but it is not often that our labors are appreciated. Actually, those that we pore ourselves over quite often take us for granted. She sings, “You’ll be given love, you have to trust it, maybe not from the sources you have poured yours.” Comfort and love is not often found in the object that you pour your devotion over, but rather in those that pour themselves as you do. Love is found in the familiar, the similar, not in opposites or where you do not have the right to demand it. Most work is thankless, comfort is found in the least expected places.

Then you have Metallic’s harrowing “All Nightmare Long.” (from their MySpace Videos page.)

Metallica - All Nightmare Long

Depicted in the video is an alternate history of a battle between the USA and the USSR, in which the USA loses. The narrative in brief: the USSR discovers this alien sore that can reanimate dead bodies (as it uses it as a host). This spore (analogous to a bio weapon) devastates the American population – as a new flag, a hybrid of the American and Soviet flags, is planted. Perhaps the song itself was not originally written for political reasons (“Cause we hunt you down without mercy! Hunt you down! All nightmare long!”), the song works well with the idea of terrorists trying to gain a biological weapon that other nations are not ready to combat. In one quick attack, history as we know it could take another turn, supplanting the USA as a world power to another nation. This is perhaps Metallica’s most ambitious video to date.

But it does not all have to be death and gloom; sometimes bands just want to create a fun video. For instance, Bloc Party’s “Flux” (from blocpartyofficial YouTube Channel.)

No statement, just a fun video. An ode to Godzilla and Mazinger (Tranzor Z in the USA) type monster film, this video offers an alternative to boring videos with bands standing there in performance or some heady narrative. Though lyrically and visually the video has no common ground (other than the line “I’d kill for an adventure”), the storyline is cute, infectious, and as fast paced as the song. It works.

And not all statements have to be as apocalyptic as Metallica’s. Erasure, using some fan footage, makes a powerful, practical statement with “I Could Fall in Love with You.” (From the MuteUSA YouTube Channel.)

A love fest for sure. Boy kissing girl, girl kissing boy, boy kissing boy, girl kissing girl – cast to a typical Erasure single (somewhere between pop-ditty and ballad in tempo, with perfect melodies but awkward rhymes at times), the video just pushes forth the notion that love is love, no matter in what format it comes in. (I am curious though, which video – Metallica’s or Erasure’s – would piss off the conservative right the most?)

Though the boys of Muse appear in their video “Knights of Cydonia” (from the muse YouTube Channel), they are supplanted as the focal point by the narrative of the video.

Combining elements of spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies, and science fiction, the storyline revolves around The Man With No Name saving his love, Princess Shame Kuriyami. Sure, the video dismisses the real lyrical theme of the song, which is political (“How can we win, when fools can be kings; don’t waste your time, or time will waste you…”) and a calling to arms to stand for justice. But the video works, and though the band is in the video as holograms, it is the actors that command your attention.

Placebo took a stab at this kind of video with their cover of Kate Bush’s “Running up That Hill” (from their MySpace Videos page.)

Running Up That Hill

First off, I think that this was the most daring song that Placebo has ever covered. This is one of those songs that are sacrosanct, untouchable. Yet Placebo is able to pull it off to perfection. A montage of fan footage, mouthing the lyrics of the song, the video is as slow and gut wrenching as their cover of the song. And why not take this approach? The song is a cover, and, in essence, the montage is covering them covering a song. Considering that they have the money to produce a flashier video than this, they get bonus points for not doing it! Instead, the video gains emotional power because of their fans – it is so obvious that these non-professional actors feel what the band is putting out there.

Well, it came as a surprise to me when Depeche Mode took this approach with the video off of “Sounds of the Universe”: “Wrong.” (From their MySpace Videos page.)

Depeche Mode - "Wrong" (official music video)

Definitely wrong in everyway! The video is a harrowing narrative of a man tied in a car, moving backwards out of his control, as it smashes into everything until eventually he gets smashed at the end, as the song ends on it’s final word, “Wrong.” The band only appears for a few seconds, as bystanders looking at this car spin out of control. My first impression of the video: fucking amazing! Like Muse, I am not sure that the video does justice to the lyrical content of the song, but this video demonstrated that this band of veterans could try something new, something different, and could still disturb the shit out of me. Hands down, this is my favorite of video of the year so far.

Then the band released “Peace.” For some odd reason the single will not be released in the USA. (From their MySpace Videos page.)

Depeche Mode - "Peace"

So why was does the video not include Depeche Mode at all? The official line is that David Gahan was ill (he did have surgery) and was not available for the video. But videos are not produced overnight; they are planned out, permits have to be obtained, directors and producers have to make time in their schedule, etc… So forgive me if I do not buy the party line. This is a well-conceived and filmed video. So other than the promotional poster on the building towards the end of the video, why is the band not in it? Why not wait till Gahan was out of the hospital and able to film? Personally, I think that this was the concept for the video from the beginning. Which leads me to think – and this can be dangerous.

If videos sell more than just the song, has Depeche Mode hit on something that other bands have not? Videos also sell image, attitude, and, yes, culture. “Peace” is so intertwined with war in this video. (It sort of reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw a while ago: “Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity.”) Is DM capitalizing on the current world crisis with wars and threats of it everywhere? It is impossible to think that anyone in this world is not conscious of all of the war occurring. Or is DM hiding behind their videos? Let’s admit it, videos are made for teens and twenty-somethings, who get to watch one or two videos a day between reality shows on MTV. Is the image of three Brits pushing fifty the sellable image that they want, or a haunting video that will stay with their audience?

Perhaps I am wrong, and that may make me a bit of a schmuck for dissing Depeche Mode this way. Perhaps the video was filmed this way because of circumstances, but I find it hard to believe. The better question to ask, though, is are these two videos going to garnish the attention and airplay that DM is hoping for? Will these veterans be able to add to their fanbase? Considering that they peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 album charts, #2 in the UK, and #1 on the World Album charts (not to mention #1 in at least 20 countries, already scoring a platinum albums in Germany and Italy), perhaps they are doing something right.

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