Many years ago, one brave, red-leather clad youth in impressively bleach-white socks showed some zombies how to get down, and the world was never quite the same. It was the music video heard round the world—forget the Buggles dancing lifelessly in front of sheets of tinsel, forget Billy Joel and a host of others trying ineptly to recreate its lycanthropic glory—say what you will about Michael Jackson, but “Thriller” and its accompanying music video changed the world. Specifically, it altered forever how we as a society view music as a source of entertainment. It made the music video a necessity—not something sort of passingly cool you could do if you felt like appealing to the new-wave types, but rather a creative obligation. It led the way to a host of new ways to express artistic content, to express social and political dissidence, and to make danceable art.
But for a heartbeat sometime between then and now, in “Thriller” A.D., we somehow lost our compulsion to watch and create ingenious music videos. We have lost the eighties sparkle in our eye, the “I want my MTV fervor” that used to drive us. We were content, for a moment, to be saddled with the mundane, with Fueled by Ramen productions featuring greasy-haired youths in the mansion from Clue, or a forest, or even maybe just on stage. We were stuck with flat video content, with shiver-inducing applications of the fish eye lens and cameras that were always inexplicably spinning in circles tight enough to induce vertigo–the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry.
In more recent days however, Michael Jackson’s ghost has descended upon us, granting us the gift of insanely complex, cinematically masterful music videos with crazy expense production value. Seriously, take a look around. When a ten to fifteen-minute music video stops being an anomaly, when albums (ahem ahem Lemonade) are released and marketed as cinematic experiences, billed as “short films,” something big is going on. The tradition which started with “Thriller” and somehow never managed to reach back up to that glorious, eighties-era zenith has come back into vogue in the modern age. Now major artists like Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga epitomize the genre and have perfected the craft to their universal benefit. Videos like “Mary the Night,” “Runaway” or “Worst Behaviour” that feel more like someone’s tricked-out film project than just some music video made for the sake of a song. Look at the resurgence in animation in music videos, like “If I Had a Tail” by Queens of the Stone Age for example, which exhibits animation far more advanced than the cubist renderings of Dire Straits and “Money for Nothing” that blew people off of their feet back in the day. Look at “Until It Happens To You,” (citing Gaga a lot I know, bear with me) that coalesce with the music to impart an important social message. These things are intricate, time consuming, money hungry beasts that do more than complement a song—they become their own piece of artwork, a separate yet associated entity all its own.
But why the sudden, “Thriller”-like resurgence, the return of the long-lost art of the music video? The answer, or, rather, my own personal hypothesis which I will narcissistically pose to you as an indisputable truth, is quite simple—to get our attention. What about music captivates us? The sound, the feelings it may evoke or suppress, certainly. But the performative aspect of music, the anticipation of the album release, the smell of vinyl or the crackling of fresh cellophane from a CD cover, the all-encompassing experience of the live event—those phenomena have been irrevocably altered in the wake of the internet, social media, and streaming services. What do we have to be excited about? To wait steeped in anticipation for, to wait in line for, or to text our friends about the day after: “Dude, you’ve got to see this.”
The answer is increasingly becoming the music video. With each album release and surprise single drop, we can expect to be treated to and inundated with more high-class music videos complete with story lines, acting, and their own built-in score than we frankly know what to do with. It can only get more intricate and more engrossing to watch from here. And I think, dare I say it, that prospect thrills me.