Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

Music video: questions of performance, pleasure and address

Sally Stockbridge

In this article I will present a number of arguments about the nature and potential of music video. My position differs from many other accounts specifically those from the USA which are frequently negatively ranged against the USA video cable programme called MTV. In the main, my research is concerned with Australian programming and Australian clips, however, since the rock music industry is international (and multi-national) it is not possible to give an adequate account without including videos from at least the UK and USA. Though many recent articles have dealt with the commercial aspects of the industry and standardisation of production and performance practices, the main project here is a reformulation of notions of spectatorship and the gaze in relation to male and female performance in and around music video clips. These arguments deal mainly with textual characteristics but the operation or practices of fantasy and performance also open a space for active spectating and re-appropriation of the music video texts. Performance, spectacle and address provide an entry into a significantly different discourse on spectatorship and the gaze and the hierarchical opposition of masculinity and feminity.

These elements—performance, spectacle, address—have been dealt with in relation to Hollywood musicals and avant-garde cinema both of which are relevant to a discussion of music video clips. The classic narrative film was said to rely in its construction on the dominance of the third person narration and indirect address. Both the Hollywood musical and the modernist film broke, for different reasons, with this strategy and inserted, instead, direct address. In the Hollywood musical direct address was included in performance segments in order to play upon the conventions of live entertainment, simulating its form. In the modernist film it was based on a radical impulse to counter the illusions of the mainstream cinema and to encourage an active rather than the presumed passive relationship between viewer and text.

The video music clip utilises performance, spectacle and direct address sharing, intertextually, a relationship with both of these preceding forms. These characteristics exist in varying degrees in different clips with mode of address influencing the relationship between text and viewer in significant ways.

The video music clip also includes live performance, narrative, and other visual imagery including computer graphics and animation. It is rarely simply one of these, usually combining several different representational strategies within the 3-4 minute duration. This combination and variability has been called postmodernist pastiche, but it might be said that this very diversity and fragmentation permit the range of possibility that recent theorists suggest for the viewing—participating subject.

Various insights from a number of sources in combination contribute to an analysis of this diversity. From psychoanalytic theory an argument is mounted in relation to spectators, fantasy and identification. In postmodernist writing, performance is interrogated and spectacle and address are considered in articles on the representation of masculinity and feminity.

Firstly, all video music clips may be considered to be examples of 'spectacle'. Spectacle, as distinct from narrative, has been discussed in a number of different works on film and TV but in different ways. It is relevant to a discussion of the gaze and address, and representations of sexual difference.

Jane Feuer [1] used the concept of spectacle to discuss the way address switches, in the Hollywood musical, from indirect address within narrative segments to direct address within segments described as spectacle. This involved a gaze back at the spectator during a performance sequence, and a degree of reflexivity.

Ellis linked 'spectacle' with the psychoanalytic concepts of voyeurism and fetishism which are intrinsically connected to arguments about the gaze of the spectator and address within the film, and where 'spectacle' involves display, fetishistic looking and direct address. [2] However, he characterises all cinema as spectacle when he states that "the cinema spectacle itself has only one aim, that of performing itself for an audience." Voyeurism is associated with the cinema per se, while fetishism is associated with the look of the male character towards the viewer and the frozen narrative (though this tends to also be dependent upon which theorist you read.) But there are contradictions between whether or not a spectacle is 'frozen narrative' and what the spectacle constitutes in relation to voyeurism, fetishism and address.

Laura Mulvey [3] describes the spectacle of the mainstream narrative as one in which the female figure is object of an erotic gaze, object of male desire which is a voyeuristic gaze and not encompassing the gaze back or direct address of the character. The narrative is described as being frozen so that you (the spectator) can gaze at her body (just as the male character in the film does) which is positioned as representing passivity and powerlessness.

Thus we have two different uses of spectacle. One that has been associated with masculinity or performance, involving the look of the character towards the viewer, and one associated with femininity and the look of the viewer at the body of the character.

In quoting Willemen's position on the male as object of the gaze in the films of Anthony Mann, Neale suggests that the spectacle begins where

the look begins to oscillate between voyeurism and fetishism as the narrative starts to freeze and spectacle takes over. The anxious 'aspects' of the look at the male to which Willemen refers are here both embodied and allayed not just by playing out sadism inherent in voyeurism through scenes of violence and combat, but also by drawing upon the structures and processes of fetishistic looking, by stopping the narrative in order to recognise the pleasure of display, but displacing it from the male body as such and locating it more generally in the overall components of a highly ritualised scene. [4]

The ritualised aspect of this performance (of combat) is also discussed by Morse [5] in relation to football on TV. She suggests that the eroticism in the gaze at the male sports star is disavowed in part through an aural dissection of the game, cast in a 'scientific' mode.

Neale and Willemen disavow the eroticism of the gaze through the use of the term 'fetishistic look', and Morse does so also, although describing it as a specular gaze which is free of uncomfortable homoeroticism ("for it is the narcissistic and identicating gaze at the mirror image before discovery of sexual difference."[6]) Thus, each argues that 'spectacle' problematises the gaze but the male as erotic object is disavowed.

This avoids a number of difficult questions. Firstly, one raised by Morse: what happens to the "specific relation of the female gaze to the phantasm of male perfection?" Or, the look of the female viewer at the body of the male character.

Secondly, are male bodies only represented as objects for other male gazes, and only when they are then brutalised in some manner? Or only when discussed in relation to sporting perfection; are they never eroticised for either male or female? (It is interesting that rock stars are not considered at all.)

Why does the concept of 'the spectacle' shift in relation to the nature of the gaze when one moves from a representation of femininity to one of masculinity? Why isn't the female as spectacle also fetishistic if indeed there is such a differentiation to be made between fetishism and voyeurism? And, isn't the 'performance' spectacle one that involves both female and male characters?

This also returns us to the question of address. This idea of direct address is retained in relation to the male as object of the gaze in Willemen's and Neale's articles but not in relation to the female. That is, the male is seen to be addressing the viewer directly but the female is not. The male character is presumed to be the subject of the address but the female character is 'fixed' as the eternal object. No possibility of reversal or ambiguity is entertained.

If we follow Mulvey, spectacle is a representational strategy producing objects (female) for our (male) contemplation; but all cinema, all visual and performing arts do this. Some also produce 'subjects' who return our gaze, and who are female as well as male.

My thesis here is that through technological reproduction music video clips produce performances of 'popular art' [7] which, while removing the performers' presence, include many aspects of live entertainment—including the simulation of speech directed at the spectator, or, direct address. Equally, that music videos operate in multiple ways in relation to subject/object relations and sexual difference. They also work at the level of fantasy.

In a recent article, Constance Penley mounts an argument for the shifting relations of identification of spectators via the perspective of 'fantasy' as the setting and articulation of desire:

An investigation of the construction of fantasy seems to provide a way of accounting for sexual difference which acknowledges difference but which in no way seeks to dictate or predetermine the subsequent distribution of that difference (in terms of sexual identity) in any given film or for any given spectator, male or female. (This is in part at least because in fantasy) all the possible roles in the narrative are available to the subject: he [sic] can be either subject or object and can even occupy a position 'outside' the scene, looking on from the spectator's point of view ... it is only the formal positions themselves that are fixed (there are 'masculine' and 'feminine' positions of desire); the subject can and does adapt these positions in relation to a variety of complex scenarios, and in accordance with the mobile patterns of his or her own desire.

[Not least of the advantages of a theoretical perspective on film in terms of fantasy, finally, is that it] presents a more accurate description of the spectator's shifting and multiple identifications. [8]

This allows for different conceptualisations of voyeurism and fetishism in relation to male and female bodies. It also questions the assumption that texts function by representing 'something'. As Lawrence Grossberg has argued: "when applied to rock and roll the assumption does not seem false, merely incomplete: particular instances of rock and roll may represent different things for different audiences and in different contexts." [9]

Rock videos take many forms, including narrative and spectacle, and their meaning varies depending upon the context in which they are viewed, and the context or positioning of the viewers or fans.

The performance of rock music includes: live performances to an inside audience; the televising of this to audiences elsewhere watching TV, or, simultaneously by athe use of large video screens to the audience at a distance from the stage—thus, the screen reproduces the simultaneous performance on stage—a performance of a performance; (the audience can often watch both) the rock video of the performers on TV or on a large screen to an audience in a dance club or pub; and must also include audience interaction with performers and spectator performance on the dance floor. This can include the dress or fashions worn by the spectators as part of their performance and filmed performances.

The context of viewing and use itself can influence the diversity of roles available and the mode of address can cut across established conventions (of the gaze) and produce or reproduce a diversity that is already there (rather than imposed).

This diversity relates to masculine and feminine constructions and positions as well as to the range of fans and performance contexts of rock and roll and video and leads to a discussion of address and performance in clips in relation to sexual difference and dance clubs. It is arguable that performance does not take place solely within the clip or on the stage but that it also includes the dance floor, within the TV studio and the dance club, and the performance of the spectators and their use of fashion.

There are three major points for consideration in relation to video music clips:

1. Direct address predominates in non-narrative clips and in segments of otherwise narrative clips, a situation that is relevant to their status as spectacle and display and which incorporates both female and male artists. This point is of greater importance when it is considered in relation to the notion of the controlling gaze of the (male) spectator within dominant discourses. The idea of looking is connected with a theory of power and relationships of activity and passivity. What is at stake is not just male and female sexuality, but male and female power.

2. The thesis that fantasy operates in relation to these clips by allowing for the possibility of multiple and not gender specific spectator positions. And, that there are differences within masculinity and within feminity both on the screen and in relation to desire.

3. That performance also operates in a number of different ways effecting spectator-performer relationships in different ways in different contexts, making the viewing situation and use of clips variable rather than fixed.

These issues will be addressed in relation to the following clips:

Kids in the Kitchen

"Something you Said"


Bronski Beat

"Smalltown Boy"


Olivia Newton-John

"Let's Get Physical


Weather Girls

"It's Raining Men"


Cyndi Lauper



Renee Geyer

"All My Love"


Do Re Mi

"Man Overboard"


Sport, according to Dyer and Morse, may be the most common contemporary source of male imagery but it is not the only one. In sport, Dyer argues, the body quality that is promoted is muscularity—as a sign of power which is constructed as 'natural', 'achieved' and 'phallic'.10 In video music clips muscularity might or might not be emphasised. There are differences between video music clips in relation to the representation of masculinity and the way in which it is tied to sexuality and to subject/object relations of desire. The sportsman is the object of the male gaze but, according to references already cited, it is not sexual. This is not the case with video music clips where rock stars are established first and foremost as 'being there to be looked at'—in admiration or in relation to sexual desire.

The Australian group, Kids in the Kitchen, like INXS, rely upon the presence of their lead male singer as the central focus of all of their video clips. He looks directly at the camera and is usually centre frame. In the clip, "Something you said", there are also Japanese girls, there to be looked at, passive and virtually immobile, but looking out at the camera. It becomes apparent that the 'you' of the song isn't necessarily the Japanese woman, it is you, the spectator. The Japanese affectation is a fashion of 1985, Melbourne. The "Kids', not men, perform for us, but it isn't muscularity that is emphasised, it is their youth.

In the British group Bronski Beat's clip "Smalltown Boy" we have a narrative in which the sportsman (diver/swimmer) is represented as an object of masculine physical perfection and desirability, but not for our gaze. He is the object of the lead male singer's gaze. The address in this clip is the third person of narrative cinema but it is not patriarchal heterosexuality that is signified and reproduced. Rather, the gaze within the clip relates to homosexual desire.

Richard Dyer has written a considerable amount about the eroticising of signs of masculinity in a homosexual context and this is certainly the case in the clips of Bronski Beat (and Frankie Goes to Hollywood ...). Weeks [11] suggests that this calls into question the 'naturalness' and inevitability of heterosexual object choice, and underscores the fact of sexual diversity. But, it also problematises the hegemony of the 'male heterosexual gaze' within film theory. This finds expression within the video music clips of female artists as well.

What we have here are different constructions of the gaze and differences within representations of masculine and feminine sexuality, representations which utilise and undermine dominant constructions of masculinity in relation to muscles, sport, and machismo, and which also serve to undermine dominant discourses in relation to the supposed active/passive aspects of the gaze as they are related to sexual difference.

In "Let's Get Physical" Olivia Newton-John transforms some fat and flabby Australian men into phantasms of masculine physical perfection. She moulds them in relation to her desire and cultural notions of the perfect male body. However, they are produced eventually not for her gaze, but for their own.

In "It's Raining Men" the Weather Girls are actively pursuing their own desires for male bodies, aided and abetted by mother nature. Their desires are served by the muscle-bound males who are sent to satisfy them as well as the younger women in the street who need the 'earth mother's' assistance. However, this clip is interesting because it is operating in a number of ways. The muscular males do serve to reinforce a specific and dominant construction of masculinity—that the bigger the muscle the better. It also dresses them in the garb of the 'flasher'. The power within the clip is in the hands of the earth mothers but the representations of manhood here could work to undermine this. There is also the possibility that such masculine images fit more easily within the pages of a gay male magazine. Whatever the position taken, they are there as 'beefcake'. But they operate as active participants in relation to their position as objects of desire, or desirable objects.

The 'beefcake' theme is contined within Lauper's clip "She-Bop". She reads a 'beefcake magazine' in her car before sidling up to the motobike boy. This constructs her as the active pursuer of her own desire. And , this desire doesn't have to include an 'other' as object. Lauper's 1985 clip eulogises auto-eroticism or masturbation, and not unlike her "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" video, it centres pleasure within oneself rather than through the good graces of someone else.

Renee Geyer's position within her clip, "All My Love", is very similar to that of the singer in Kids in the Kitchen. She occupies centre frame and sings directly to camera which is the dominant positioning and mode of address in clips, also utilising dance movements in time to the beat, but she doesn't share this space with band members as in Kids in the Kitchen. Instead, she is represented against a backdrop or fantasy situations expropriated intertextually from Hollywood cinema. It is an upbeat love song and, again, the 'you' of her address is you, the spectator. It is by no means clear that this spectator must be male, however; the backdrop collage does represent heterosexual love therefore one could argue that this is the subject matter of the clip. It is fairly unproblematic, but doesn't negate the possibility of the multiple levels of fantasy described by Penley.

In Do Re Mi's clip "Man Overboard", the subject is again probably heterosexual 'love', but it is by no means unproblematic. The performance of the band and the female singer is interspersed with voyeuristic segments of suburban relationships. The object of the song and of many of the shots is the Australian male. However, this Australian male is a very unsatisfactory and undesirable masculine representation. The female lead singer isn't clearly signified as the object of a desiring male gaze. She is more likely, perhaps, to be a subject of identification for female members of the audience in relation to the disastrous results of heterosexual desire, rather than its representation as desirable romantic love! The song itself is cynical, not at all romantic.

Teresa de Lauretis [12] and Helene Cixous [13] follow the position that the polarisation of sexual difference is a product of patriarchal culture founded on ideas of dominance. De Lauretis argues that there are differences between women, and arguably, then, also between men. Representational forms do not always reflect this level of difference, however there is a degree of this across video music clips which are by no means homogeneous in their music, style, or representational strategies. Renee Geyer is not Cyndi Lauper, who is not The Weather Girls or Madonna. The Bronski Beat are very different from Heavy Metal. Control over representation is now quite frequently within the hands of the artist, particularly collaborative. Especially as an artist becomes more popular, more well known, their 'image' isn't necessarily the direct product of a multi-national record company, as it was for most girl bands of the fifties and sixties. [14] (Signed , Sealed and Delivered 1984)

Helene Cixous also calls into question the opposition masculine and feminine. Her argument concurs with Penley's articulation of fantasy and the differences 'between', that de Lauretis suggests. The spectator is not fixed or homogenised in relation to gender but is shifting and mobile. Video clips in their very heterogeneity serve to reinforce these attitudes.

Cixous reminds us that the adjectives 'masculine' and 'feminine' are qualifiers of sexual difference, difference that is not defined only by anatomy. For, as she says, "There are men who do not repress their femininity, women who more or less forcefully inscribe their masculinity." Cixous avoids the classification of sexuality as 'male' or 'female'—biological definitions. The adjectives 'masculine' and 'feminine' refer to a heterogeneous range of possibilities within any individual libido. Difference, for Cixous, is not a function of mutual exclusion, but of multiplicity. But, this is not to suggest that there exists an infinite range of possibilities, the contexts of text and audience both provide some level of determination however difficult to theorise.

It becomes apparent in the clips dealing with male and female artists that, in spite of the dominance of the theory that looking is power and masculine and being looked at is powerless and feminine, this discourse is oversimplified. Just as Dyer argues in relation to photographic models, the artists prepare themselves to be looked at and the artist or cinematographer constructs the image to be looked at; what we see is in collaboration with those who have created the image. Also, both male and female artists address their audiences, representational strategies are not fixed in relation to dominant discourses on sexual difference or address. This shifts the relations of activity/passivity of power, in relation to both the male and the female artists.

In clips, unlike film, the 'world' to be looked at is also looking out, it is aware of its publicness and invokes it. It isn't, therefore, the same kind of voyeurism (of dominant discourse). The spectator isn't given the same illusion of controlling the gaze. The 'star' isn't simply the object of the spectator's gaze, they are also, simultaneously, the subjects. The subject/object opposition no longer pertains.

Here, the audience personifies the object-ives of the industry—commercial success. The star personifies both ego and ego-ideal, subject and object, and the shift from indirect to direct address by both male and female rock performers facilitates this mobility and ambiguity.

However, the audience for video music clips isn't simply controlled either by the commercial dictates of the rock industry. It isn't only the star who performs or the record company that produces or appropriates. The spectators also perform and create themselves as subjects in relation to the dance floor and in relation to fashion.

While most of the analysis so far has been concerned with textuality, dance and fashion relate to rock stars, clips, commerce and the audience. The activity of audiences or fans has been the subject of subcultural analysis in the work of Hebdige [15] in particular and both subcultures and pleasure in articles by Grossberg and McRobbie. [16] Subculture theory emphasises the activity of the fans in re-appropriating the music and is aligned with resistance and opposition. But, equally, Grossbert and McRobbie generally agree that the pleasure of the rock and roll body is tied, most directly, to movement and dance.

This, then, is another aspect of pleasure that may also be drawn from video music clips apart from the pleasure of the music alone and the pleasure of shifting identifications and the breaking of dominant representational codes within the clips as suggested above.

Dance occurs in a number of different spaces: within the clips where it can become a potential re-appropriation and form of resistance to rock and roll and to the use of space previously dominantly masculine; within the TV programme as an active response by the studio audience to a clip or a band; within a dance club to a clip projected onto a large screen, to a record, or to a live band; or at a party or gathering of friends. Dance is an aspect of performance that occurs both within and outside of the video clip.

McRobbie argues that there are a number of possible interpretations of dance. While it plays a role in gender relations and courtship behaviour it is not simply a conservative re-enactment of this. [17] Dance can actually signify different things as part of an interaction with music. It may be a form of resistance in the context of punk, as Hebdige has described it in his book on subcultures [18] or in break dancing and hip hop. Or it may function as a form of auto-eroticism and escapist fantasy. In this sense Grossberg and McRobbie both argue that through dance the rock and roll body produces its own space. This is possible also because the kind of dancing made possible by rock and roll and pop music is much more varied and self-appropriating than, say, the waltz or other highly constructed forms. It has the potential to be constructed and deconstructed simultaneously.

For women and girls dance has always offered a channel, albeit a limited one, for bodily self-expression and control; it has also been a source of pleasure and sensuality. Even though it has often been directed towards men, the spectacle of women dancing has been linked unambiguously with female pleasure. [19]

Another form of pleasure has been linked with fashion and style. The act of taking on a particular fashion can be interpreted as one of pleasure in emulating an admired rock star and in affiliation with a group and as resistance. Hebdige used the concept of bricolage to describe a process where commodity appropriation as fashion can be constituted as both subversion and a new meaning system.

Through punk it became possible to play with—rather than refuse—the commodity. Any look could be appropriated in such a way that meanings were rendered unstable and original meanings transformed. The past could be raided and its images re-cast with new and modern meanings. It was no longer clear that a look was what, superficially, it purported to be.

And, on the recent penchant for the fifties in fashion Janice Winship argues that:

looking backwards would also seem to be a way of creating an ethos for the present. As Richard Horn in his book Fifties Style Then and Now points out, the take-up of fifties style reflects an eighties sensibility 'a sensibility that both ridicules and enjoys the ridiculousness of naively optimistic, consumer-crazed post war America. [20]

This is an argument that can be extended to both rock star fashion within a music video clip and to the emulation of this within a subculture or by audience/fan members. Though, there is no reason to suggest that fashion will be resistive it may simply be fashion or style.

Rock and pop music have, since the fifties, been the signifiers and carriers of rebellion. It is therefore not surprising that multi-levelled reading positions are suggested in relation to their latest permutation, the video music clip. The relationship between these new forms and nonconformity is the subject of a debate which changes its tone and its parameters depending upon, not only the context of the performance, but also the context of the writing about that performance.

In this article a number of elements of the text and in relation to the spectators/fans have been foregrounded to suggest a lack of uniformity that is not simply 'postmodern' in range but potentially rebellious and disruptive of dominant representations and of dominant ways of thinking about these. To suggest that music videos operate in multiple ways offering not simply one reading position or use does not remove unequal social power divisions between men and women and within these categories, but it does represent the possibility of different discursive positions including those not simply determined by the text. The concept of fantasy provides an argument that identification does not have to work along gendered or heterosexual lines. Equally, the fantasy associated with rock stardom and fashion does not necessarily serve to obliterate social awareness. Fashion can also be subversive or parodic.

It is my argument, then, that video music clips and their associated accessories such as fashion and style are not simply standardised new commodities reinforcing dominant discourses nor are they completely subversive or the products of a rebellious, non-conformist or avant-garde impulse. Rather, they allow for a range of interpretations and uses because of their lack of uniformity and because of the various and different contexts in which they appear.

The textual qualities of spectacle and direct address shift the discourses of the gaze as male power in some contexts to one that includes the eroticism of the male rock and roll body as well as of the female, and if direct address can empower the male rock star it can also empower the female. Performance becomes a quality of the text and of the audience and pleasure is not simply of looking but also of participation. Video music clips are not the same as live performances but they are sometimes used that way, especially in dance clubs. They are open rather than closed texts and also make their way onto the dance floor via fashion and emulation. The various aspects of address, performance and fantasy should be seen as opening out the debate on the meaning and function of video music clips at least in relation to male and female performance.


Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (London: Macmillan, 1982).

  • John Ellis, Visible Fictions (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), pp.43-47.

    Laura Mulvey, "Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure", Screen v.16, n. 3. (Autumn 1975).

    Steve Neale, "Sexual Difference in Cinema—Issues of Fantasy, Narrative and the Look", Oxford Literary Review, v.8, n.1-2 (1986), p.12.

    Margaret Morse, "Sport on Television: Replay and Display" in E. Ann Kaplan ed. Regarding Television (Los Angeles: A.F.I., 1983).

    Morse, p.57.

    Feuer, pp.2-3

    Constance Penley, "Feminism, Film Theory and the Bachelor Machines" in m/f n.10 (1985), p.54.

    Lawrence Grossberg, "I'd Rather Feel Bad Than Not Feel Anything At All: Rock and Roll, Pleasure and Power", Enclitic v.8, n.1-2. (Spring/Fall 1984), p.2.

    Richard Dyer, "Don't Look Now—The Male Pin-Up", in Screen, v.23, n.3-4, (September/October 1982), p.68.

    J. Weeks, "Masculinity and the Science of Desire", in Oxford Literary Review, v.8, n.1-2, (1986).

    Teresa de Lauretis, "Aesthetic and Feminist Theory: Rethinking Women's Cinema", New German Critique, n.34 (Winter 1985).

    Helene Cixous in Marks and de Courtivron eds., New French Feminisms, (New York: Schocken Books, 1981).

    S. Steward and S. Garratt, Signed, Sealed and Delivered (London; Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984).

    Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979).

    Angela McRobbie, "Settling Accounts with Subcultures: A Feminist Critique", Screen Education, n.34 (1980); and Angela McRobbie, "Dance and Social Fantasy" in Angela McRobbie and M. Nava, eds. Gender and Generation, (London: Macmillan, 1984).

    McRobbie (1984)

    Hebdige, pp.108-9.

    McRobbie (1984), p.132.

    Janice Winship, "Back to the Future", in New Socialist (July/Aug. 1986), p.49.

    New: 31 January, 1996 | Now: 9 March, 2015