Film Independent Wed 8.3.2016

Why So Many Modern Rock Videos Are Bad (and What They Could Do to Be Better)

As outlined elsewhere on this blog I’m a big fan of music videos as a legitimate and discreet art form. Since their “I-want-my-MTV” ubiquity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, music videos have evolved from a hodgepodge of mere live concert excerpts and promotional clips into a unique, wildly ambitious creative medium that’s just as enjoyable, entertaining and important as any other type of short-form content.

I frequently enjoy videos by artists I otherwise have opinion about (Drake’s “Hotline Bling”), or even actively dislike (Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”). But while the worlds of pop, hip-hop and electronic music have in recent years regularly generated a plethora of visually dynamic and formally inventive video clips, I can’t help but feel there’s one genre lagging behind—rock (both alternative and indie).

It wasn’t always like this. All through the ‘80s and ‘90s rock bands were making competitive videos left and right, often eschewing linear short-form narrative in favor of a fast-paced smorgasbord of disparate film formats, dynamic textures, high-concept visual trickery and energetic performance footage.

The videos themselves didn’t have to make sense—what does Axl Rose swimming with dolphins have to do with being “estranged” anyway? But even at their most abstract, rock videos of the MTV era at least captured (more often than not) the visceral feeling of the music itself. Recently, however, I’ve noticed a trend in newer rock videos toward asynchronous, monochromatic gobbledygook unfolding at tempos so somnambulistic that I’m actually relieved when the video scrollbar finally reaches its turgid, merciful completion.

Take, for example, two recent (both 2015) videos from major contemporary rock artists: Death Cab for Cutie’s “Black Sun” and Brandon Flowers’ “Can’t Deny My Love”. Both songs are… fine. But their videos let them down.

In “Sun” we see an ultra-slow-motion shot of a bloodied man frantically running away from a menacing-looking black automobile in the industrial flatlands below downtown LA. The car hits the man and he goes flying into the car’s windshield, splintering it apart with the force of his pulverized torso. Sounds exciting, right? Not quite. Did I mention how unbelievably slow this footage is? So slow that it almost seems like the clock on the wall is spinning in reverse. Eventually the video’s seemingly violent scenario is revealed to be a mere film set, with the member of Death Cab mulling around doing a variety of production-y things like watching the playback monitor and snapping the clapboard.

I suppose the whole thing is supposed to be some sort of metaphor for the rank artificially of Hollywood, which itself is probably some (barely) obfuscated shade being thrown at Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard’s ex-wife, the famously adorable and multi-talented Zooey Deschanel. But the biggest problems with “Sun” as a music video are twofold: one, the overbearing monotony of the slow-mo shots, which persist without variation throughout the entire four-minute clip, and two, the lack of any attempt to match the video’s editing to the pace or rhythm of the song.

That second point is also the critical flaw in Flowers’ “Can’t Deny My Love”—a beautifully shot bit of prairie-coven hokum in which Flowers’ woolen-trouser-enthusiast protagonist sets off by torchlight on an ill-defined quest to rescue his love (Evan Rachel Wood, patron saint of bad rock videos) from a shadowy cabal of sallow-faced druids in mud-colored Wicker Man casualwear.

The narrative here is simultaneously more complex and less comprehensible than “Sun” but again: no effort is made to match the rhythm or cadence of anything happening onscreen to the peaks and valleys of the actual song. Instead—in the case of both videos—you just get a lot of pretty footage to ponder while the music flits by underneath, totally disconnected from the soundtrack.

When making a music video, it’s important to think of editing as another rhythm instrument in the band, carrying with it just as much responsibility to lock in with the song’s tempo as the drums or bass. Once a song is transposed to a visual medium, editing becomes an important part in supporting its musical foundation. Subvert this, and you’re thinning out the composition’s impact just as badly as if you removed the percussion track or keyboards.

Luckily, there are still a few rock bands out there making great videos, including OK GO, whose success with the form has practically propelled them out the music world entirely to become pure multi-media art project. But a word of advice to and garage band just starting to futz around with iMovie and a DSLR: your music is not the soundtrack—it’s the star. Use your tools accordingly.

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