From Dylan waving placards along with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ to Chris Cunningham’s nightmarish animations for Aphex Twin, pop history is full of iconic, innovative videos. And yet, difficult though it may be to comprehend in the age of YouTube, the record industry hasn’t always valued them so highly.
Initially the pop promo was seen by old-skool rockists as commercial fluff, an advert that diverted attention from the more important matter of the music itself. MTV changed all that, as the artistic ambitions that fuelled 1980s chart pop provided a platform for directors to challenge their own colourful imaginations.
A major new exhibition at FACT - Liverpool’s acclaimed media arts centre - investigates the history of the medium, featuring over a hundred video clips ranging from Fred Astaire’s iconic ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ choreography to Spike Jonze’s stylised work for the likes of Björk and Fatboy Slim. According to curator Michael P Aust, the pop video’s “synaesthesia of music and moving pictures” is unique.
“No other art form has this: the moment when we’re moved by a song, but unable to distinguish whether this comes from what we’ve seen, or what we’ve heard,” he says. The Art Of Pop Video exhibition provides a rare chance to properly study this powerful combination. “There are no pop video museums,” says Aust. “Unlike in cinema, no canonized selection of important works has been established yet.”
It’s an apt time to look at this subject, as we may actually be in something of a golden era. Always a way for breaking filmmakers to boost their credentials, videos are currently attracting Hollywood big-hitters. JJ Abrams is directing Empire Of The Sun’s new ones, David Fincher did Justin Timberlake’s comeback vid, while the likes of Tilda Swinton and Shia LeBouef have taken high-profile starring roles recently. Videos are a rare chance to do an arty short film that people will actually see.
Newer acts are fully exploring the medium’s potential. North London troubadour Tom Hickox is the son of a classical composer, Richard Hickox, but takes his visuals as seriously as his songs. He collaborates with a new company called De La Muerte Films, and feels that music videos are more important now than ever.
“People are as likely to hear music on YouTube as anywhere else, so the visual half of that medium needs to be addressed,” he says. “Film is such a potent force, so it needs to be handled with care, but when the marriage of film and music works it elevates the song into a different realm.”
For FACT, the exhibition represents an opportunity to explore pop video in a grander context, posing questions about “what legitimises an art form,” explains programme producer Ana Botella, “and what defines our times - past the age of television into the age of accessible digital tools, the Internet and social networks.”
The technology has certainly improved over the years, but has the overall quality? “There are a hell of a lot of stylish, expensive videos out there which lack any soul or impact,” says Debbie Scanlon of De La Muerte, who’ve also made films for Dog Is Dead and Kyla la Grange. “We have the potential to be more creative now with new tools, but it’s important we still use our brains.”
So is there scope to take more creative risks, in the post-TV age? “It tends to be down to the artist and their team. We probably won’t be allowed to make that big budget elephant sex video we had in mind for One Direction,” she laughs. “But at the same time, if they decide they want to change their image…”
The Art Of Pop Video is at FACT, Liverpool until May 26.
Words: Will Fitzpatrick
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