Do you remember the golden age of the music video? You should, because it’s happening right now.
The first golden age of the music video, of course, took shape on MTV in the 1980s, and its most sensational artifacts were distinctly filmic: Michael Jackson’s epic “Thriller” video, the glossy clips of Duran Duran, the arty productions of Talking Heads, and so on. (Not that every video was quite so ambitious: In those days, simply getting a good, long look at Madonna writhing around was still pretty novel.)
We are, to put it mildly, over that. The new golden age of music videos has taken off online, its aesthetic shaped more by technology and digital magic.
It’s not that there weren’t creative and/or high-production videos along the way. And we still get plenty of sensational silliness (“Wrecking Ball”) and suggestive writhing (“Drunk In Love”) that would have fit right into MTV’s heyday.
Ignore those. To me, what makes this the new golden age of the music video new is all the innovation and experimentation we’re seeing — much of it influenced by, or exploiting, new technologies and techniques.
Like what? For starters, consider some the more audacious experiments that challenge the whole idea of the “video.” For instance: The amazing clip for Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” which lets viewers click through different “channels,” where everyone from Marc Maron to Drew Carey to the weirdos on the Home Shopping Network appears to be singing Bob’s song. Or there’s Pharrell’s 24 Hours of Happy, which bills itself as the first-ever full-day video, streaming around the clock.
Similarly, there have been plenty of “interactive” videos in recent years, where the visuals and action are partly shaped by your clicks. I prefer examples like Io Echo’s “Ministry of Love,” which rifles through a variety of digital tableaus you can mess around with easily. I’m also impressed by the concept of MNDR’s “C.L.U.B.,” which pulls material from your Facebook account to insert you into the action (though I chose not to play along on that one).
But there have also plenty of dazzling examples of cuttting-edge creativity within the video form itself. I started to get interested in tech-driven aesthetic experiments back in 2012, by way of a number of videos using Kinect-derived effects. This one paired the Xbox’s motion-capture device with an LED projector and other gadgetry to project light masks onto singer Olga Bell, in response to her voice and facial movements as she sang “Chase No Face:”
Other experiments matched Kinected data with digital footage, as in this clip for Jon Lindsay’s “Oceans More.”
Since then, the experiments have only accelerated, and they are all over the digital-culture map. Here are some of my more recent favorites.
For the song “Tendency,” Liquid Pegasus and Estate offered a video built of a dazzling series of GIF-style images collected around New York City. The gritty street-photo aesthetic cross-matches the techie gloss in a way that’s impossible to look away from.
Tapping into the contemporary interest in microphotography, and scoring major geek points along the way, a promotional clip matches music from the album Immunity, by Jon Hopkins, against time-lapse microscopic imagery of “crystal growth and chemical reaction.” Note the involvement here of The Creators Project: This excellent site is by far my number one source for the latest in path-breaking music video.
"Washington Irving," by Palomides, goes more retro with an "autostereogram" — a form meant to trick the viewer into seeing a third dimension in matched 2D images. ("If you have difficulty in observing the 3D effect, sit farther back or reduce the size of the video window.")
The video for “Cirrus,” by Bonobo, is a dizzying collage of archival footage, sputtering and repeating and looping scenes of domesticity and manufacturing. It’s really a visual feat (and feast).
The video for “Wire and Flashing Lights,” by Professor Kliq, is intrinsically awesome: A quick and engaging animation involving a wire-made figure interacting with digital manifestations of an irresistible beat.
But what merits special attention is the way this clip came about. Turns out Cliq makes music available vie a Creative Commons license that leaves the door open to anybody using it for video experimentation, and it was a totally unexpected surprise when Victor Haegelin did just that. “I was absolutely blown away,” Kliq responded, according to Create Digital Motion (another great source for this kind of video).
"Brats," by Liars, features an extremely weird re-imagining of Looney Tunes with jumpy, unfinished-looking game characters.
It sounds like a gimmick — okay, it sort of is a gimmick — but the video for Foals’ “My Number” gives a supercool animation update to connecting the dots. (You may notice this is one of a few “Vimeo Staff Picks" on the list — that’s yet another good source for the latest music video experiments.)
In the clip for Atoms For Peace’s “Before Your Very Eyes,” undulating topography shifts from desert beige into a riot of colors, emitting Thom Yorke’s fractured head, and what appears to be a city of made of chocolate. Hypnotic.
Stop-motion video is, obviously, nothing new. But you have to admire the innovation and execution of this clip from — oddly enough — LeAnn Rimes, Rob Thomas, and Jeff Beck. The whole five-minute dancing-object extravaganza was apparently created using Vine.
Another stop-motion stunner has distinctly throw-back roots: “United,” by Appomattox, was made with “a zoetrope machine that spools multiple 14 foot long x 3 inch, paper animation belts at very high speed, to produce the animations.”
Somewhat goofy but incredibly fun, A-Trak’s “Jumbo” features a multitude of the exact same fellow tossing size-changing basketballs to himself. Maybe that sounds confusing. There’s also a cheerleader moment, if that helps?
For aficionados of the glitch aesthetic — glitchionados? — the video for the Jamaican Queens song “Caitlin” is a hot digital mess. A crazy color and pattern pallet that suggests somebody vomiting up a bunch of websites from 1995. But in a good way. Multicolored light projection to convert trees, flowers, and the occasional frog into visually pulsating trippiness, in this clip for “Sansula,” by Dominik Eulberg
The video for “Fragment,” by Emptyset, consists of geometric shapes alternating in descending degrees of distortion. But it’s weirdly compelling, and fits with the harshly electronic music in a way that makes mesmerizing sense.
Not every video has to be a brain-melter to stand out, and two clips from FKA twigs deserve mention. “Water Me” is deceptively subtle: Just a closeup of the singer’s face, which every-so-gradually distorts and finally produces a single, surreally large animated tear. Gorgeous.
The other video is is a little — okay, a lot — more disturbing. “Papi Pacify” is shot in luscious black and white, and relies, for attention and tension, on GIF-like repetition of a man shoving his fingers into a woman’s. It’s hard to watch, and harder to stop watching.
Finally, I love this unflashy but still impressive short video for “I Will Never Change,” by Benga. It shows a waveform for the song, taking physical shape in real time.
It’s a nice comment, actually, on the whole notion of looking at music — a pastime which has grown up beautifully along with the web.