PRINT Summer 2013


“Spectacle: The Music Video”

View of “Spectacle: The Music Video,” 2013, Museum of the Moving Image, New York. “Agent Provocateur” section. Photo: Eric Harvey Brown.

I WAS PRETTY SURPRISED to hear Meg Grey Wells, curator with Jonathan Wells of “Spectacle: The Music Video,” say that the most frequent question they heard while organizing the exhibition was, Is the music video dead? What kind of curmudgeon asks that? I’d already watched half a dozen music videos before arriving for the press preview at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York—and it was only 11 AM.

I’d started with the video for “Boss” (2012) by Tinashe, a young pop-R&B talent I’ve been hearing about. I watched her mouth lyrics to the angry-sexy slow jam, rip a rose off its stem with her teeth, and hang a teddy bear from a noose before finally decapitating it with some kind of sword. She directs her own videos, I learned, so of course I watched them all. Then I saw that Pitchfork was streaming the Knife’s new album, Shaking the Habitual, in advance of its highly anticipated release. I didn’t have time to listen; instead I rewatched the video for their new single “Full of Fire” by feminist-porn director Marit Östberg. Queer trysts unfold to the Swedish duo’s nine-minute dark art-techno track; at the short film’s climax, an androgynous domestic worker smashes—or fantasizes about smashing—wineglasses on the floor of a yuppie couple’s ikea-esque kitchen. Only their young child can see, with psychic clarity, the broken glass.

For me (for everyone, right?), videos embedded in blogs, or linked to in tweets and e-mails, are the best way to discover new music, more so than MTV or VH1 ever were. And because we live in a moment of instantaneous digital archiving, when the largest, most searchable repository of musical recordings hosts them as video files, we wind up watching videos when we really just want to listen to songs. YouTube’s always there, an open tab. Videos are de rigueur in the business of music promotion, and the site’s rife with placeholder stills, scrolling lyrics, and fake-outs, yet we still get sucked in by fascinating or funny work, uploaded by artists, amateurs, and corporations.

If ubiquity and functionality aren’t argument enough for the vitality of the music video, “Spectacle” makes a case for the genre’s constant innovation (while skirting its marketing function). Check your Debordian associations with the show’s title at the door and brace yourself for a celebratory deluge of more than three hundred works.

A brief section called “In the Beginning” sketches the evolution of song-based films, from Hollywood’s musical shorts of the 1920s through such highlights as D. A. Pennebaker’s 1953 Daybreak Express (footage of the MTA’s extinct Third Avenue line cut to Duke Ellington’s record of the same title) and Devo’s early dystopian clips. The history lesson closes with the emergence of MTV in 1981, and Ralph McDaniels’s beloved New York City public-access hip-hop show Video Music Box in 1983 (which still airs, late at night, on NYC TV).

But then chronology is abandoned (and, strangely, Michael Jackson’s pioneering oeuvre is skipped) for a loose taxonomy burdened by the difficulties of exhibiting this much time-based work. You can watch videos with a strong narrative (in the section “Epic”) while seated on mod bleachers; videos based on innovative choreography (“Body Language”) are projected in a dark room at a reasonable volume; but for almost everything else (and there’s a lot more) you’ll have to stand, hogging lonely headphones in front of a monitor playing a long loop. In “Agent Provocateur,” I stooped uncomfortably in a simulated peep show—a gimmick symbolic of the included works’ history of censorship—to watch videos as disparate as Madonna’s soft-core classic “Justify My Love” (1990), directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, and Romain Gavras’s chilling, realist parable for M.I.A.’s “Born Free” (2010). Buried by YouTube in the United States, the video depicts a brutal day in an ethnic-cleansing campaign against redheads.

Yet for the most part the show is heavily skewed toward fun stuff bankrolled by major labels. Twee ingenuity is prominent (Michel Gondry is represented by more than ten videos), and the grotesque gender statistics on view are a dismal inheritance from the shameless music industry. Women constitute a lot of the spectacle but get few directors’ credits. Some consolation is the palpable creative control and cultural influence of the stars themselves—among them Madonna, M.I.A., Björk, Missy Elliott, and Beyoncé—who have used videos brilliantly in their constructions of novel personae. In the exhibition’s charming footage of fans reenacting the 2008 video for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” one doesn’t lose sight of whose star power is fueling the dance craze.

On another visit, I caught up on some ’90s gems (I didn’t have a television for most of that decade) and joined a little crowd in front of a gilt-framed flat-screen monitor to watch artist Marco Brambilla’s video for Kanye West’s “Power” (2010). I remember seeing that kaleidoscopic, gaudy, neoclassical tableau vivant for the first time, so dramatic and jewellike on my phone screen. It seems the real question here is not whether the music video is dead, but how a museum might present its teeming life as a collective cultural experience—and coax us from the private, self-curated ones most of us are content with, left to our own devices.

“Spectacle: The Music Video” originated at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, and is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, through June 16.

Johanna Fateman is a writer and musician and the owner of Seagull Salon in New York. She is a contributor, most recently, to The Riot Grrrl Collection (Feminist Press, 2013).