Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 1, May 1983

Video clips and popular music

Graeme Turner

Popular music since rock n'roll, while a significant and complex form, has not been given a great deal of serious attention by students of popular culture. The cultural determinism of Adorno, which saw the consumers of popular music as hopelessly entrapped by the producers of Tin Pan Alley, predates, and in many ways is discredited by, rock n'roll. The rise of rock n'roll effected changes in the forms and function of popular music, particularly in its relation to the user. In recent years this relation itself seems to be modulating through an important change in the music's presentation of itself to the public. That change, implying a restructuring of the music's cultural functions, is the increasing dominance of the video clip.

The precursors of the contemporary video clip were the "live", or pseudo-live, performances of singers and groups on shows such as "Bandstand" in the U.S., ~'Six O'Clock Rock" in Australia, and "Ready Steady Go' in the U.K. The singers would mime their current hit within a quasi-concert set, complete with audience, screams and mobbing. The only "filmed" clips used were those needed when an artist was not available: in Australia, this was a frequent occurrence due to the dominance of American hits, but in the U.S. it only occurred when an artist was "above" live performances on TV shows; the latter case fitted Elvis Presley and later, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. During the fifties and sixties, then, the film clip was usually film of a performance; the only variation was the dance craze, where dance floor footage was used to explain the steps and indicate the kind of excitement to which those steps might lead. In all cases, the medium of film was "transparent"; that is, the medium did not attract attention to itself by inter preting its material. The aim was simply to document the song and the performer.

One of the distinguishing features of popular music since rock n'roll, when compared to earlier popular musics, was the particular importance it placed on its performative aspects. While acting as a bearer of messages, and as a struc turing mechanism for cultural practices, rock n'roll increasingly became a highly conventionalised ritual through which the youth audience articulated particular identities, placed themselves in relation to others within their groups, and form ed their sense of a relation with the larger culture. Coinciding with, and par ticipating in, the birth of the teenager, rock n'roll very rapidly becomes a sign for a particular range of values, attitudes or ages. While records supplied a cer tain amount of the group activities, and the operation of taste became an activi ty in itself, the true ritual in which group identity and its shared experience were celebrated and confirmed was the perforrnance of bands in concerts and dances. Where rock music invoked a kind of tribal identity—as sub-cultures developed and branches of the music broke off into separate areas—the performance of fered the primary opportunity for those members of the tribe to affirm their membership.

Subsequently, the film clips of the sixties, as rock n'roll became progressive Iy more complex and diverse, reflect the importance of this performative aspect. Film clips during the sixties and early seventies did become more adventurous,


using film or video to greater visual effect, and foregrounding the role of the camera more than had been the case previously.

Rock n'roll movies, from the mid sixties onwards, were not narratives written around Tommy Sands, Frankie Avalon and their ilk, but concert movies—carefully and often Iyrically shot. One effect of this trend was to elevate the musicians into mythological status, as the concentration on their every lick, grimace and eye movement created, for instance, the cult of the "guitar hero" that surround ed Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton. Always however, the visuals illustrated, and were subordinate to, the music. Even where ihe emphasis on musi cianship was less crucial, the visuals carefully matched the musical style in order to avoid intrusion. So, for example, a Status Quo clip would be all lights, smoke bombs and multiple images, but would still be a recognisable portrait of the band's effects on stage. As the intention became one of creatively recreating the ex perience of the concert itself in a more subjective mode, the camera work became more quirky, or more romantic, or more "pyschedelic". The amount of attention thus given to the representation of the live performance turned it into myth; the apotheosis of this trend was, of course, Woodstock. It is not until the success of the Beatles' films, one suspects, that the possibility of placing rock music as background to zany or bizarre narrative sequences seems to have been final ly accepted by rock producers. Certainly, while we can see in A Hard Day's Night and Help! the beginnings of the contemporary mode, it is not until late in the seventies that we see the widespread use of the narrative video clip, the use of animation, computer images, and collage bearing very slim relation to the con tent or style of the music they decorate.

The most significant factor in the current fashion for video clips, then, is not their sheer number but the fact that so few of them use live "performance" footage; those that do belong to older bands like the Rolling Stones or the Little River Band, which in itself indicates a split in the market's uses for apparently similar music. Countdown, originally a show built around performances in the studio, now seems dominated by video clips with some equivocation as to which is the centre of attention—the music or the visuals. Occasionally, when per formers do present their hit "live" on the Countdown stage, they do so via a per formance which continually refers to the clip which has already been aired. Per formance of the music is subordinated to an imitation of the video clip, for the music has now become the soundtrack. This signals a clear alteration in the music's relation to its audience, and thus its cultural function. The ritual, perfor mative aspect of rock n'roll is separated from its relation to its audience by the video clip's definitive—definitive, that is, of itself as a medium—concentra tion on non-concert footage.

While the reduction of the importance of concert footage also reflects the decline in interest in musicians as musicians—the guitar heroes of the past were known by a certain musical style rather than a visual or political style— the dominance of visual style over musical style in the clip reflects the inversion in the balance of power between the clip and the music. Where the music itself may have once offered hints of subversion or opposition, now the subversive content usually occurs within the visuals alone. For instance, Culture Club's hit single "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" is musically extremely conventional. Beginning with old-fashioned recitative the song is a standard lover's lament


in ballad form given contemporaneity by the simple expedient of imposing a reg gae rhythmic pattern. The split rhythm is unobtrusive, and denied by the singer sticking to conventional formal phrasing rather than reggae "scat", so it is very much old wine in a newish bottle. The film clip, however, unequivocally places the song in a radical context. Set within a courtroom, the singer—Boy George —dressed in an androgynous and bizarre fashion, it draws on the discourse of political persecution and victimisation—something totally unrecoverable from a reading of the song's Iyrics.

The only way in which a communication such as this can be understood is if the musical codes are subordinated to the visual codes. That popular music in general, and rock n'roll in particular, has declined in importance within the youth culture, and that the potential replacement seems to be the video game and the computer, seems a not too fanciful conclusion to draw. Certainly much of current pop music is extremely simplistic in form and limited in the range of influences it admits and allusions it draws. This is not true of video clips, although in these the constant reference point is to film and television. The recent Duran Duran single (the band's name itself comes from the sci-fi sex movie, Barbarella) "Hungry Like The Wolf" was an unashamed tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark, while reference back to the golden years of Hollywood—particularly to Bogart —has become a convention. Often the choice of a band's name is significant why, for example would a rock band call itself Moving Pictures?

An effect of this is, perhaps, that the music is more dull. Certainly pop music is more subservient to pure fashion than it has been for a long time, probably since the period 1959-63. Boy George, Adam Ant and others are creations of a style of dress, recommending certain behavioural postures of group and class identification, and are indicators of taste; they do not signify "musician", but "model", in much the same way Frankie Avalon and Fabian did in the early six ties. Since their appearance carries the most important and prominent meanings the popular audience is responding accurately by making its discriminations where they can most genuinely be made—not in the form and quality of the music, but in the fashion with which it coexists. While fashion can reinforce group membership and identity, it can also become an activity—play—and be a means of testing or probing at the problem of discrimination itself. It is this aspect of fashion which the video clip seems most directly to provoke.

These fashions, however, advertise the clothes and other trappings of the style as much, if not more, than the music. So, the record business is in the kind of doldrums qualitatively and commercially it experienced from 1959 to 1963. Even though the teenager was a booming commercial force, and rock n'roll generated great interest, the rate of increase in record sales declined dramatically in these years. In Britain, for instance, while there was a growth of 6.7% and 8.8% respec tively, in 1961 and 1962, the advent of the Beatles sent the rate soaring to 25% the next year. (Harker, One For the Money). In the U.S., the sales hovered bet ween 600 million dollars per annum and 698 million dollars per annum from 1959 to 1963, but almost doubled in the next four years, grossing 1173 million in 1967. (Harker). In the U.S. and Australia, currently, turnover is down between 20% and 30%, and in Australia recently a number two single sold only 15,000 copies— the kind of sales that in fatter times would not have made the top twenty. (Roll ing Stone, No. 359).


Given this suggestive parallel, it is ironic that the video clip has risen to such prominence in response to falling record sales. Employed to promote records, it has failed to increase the volume of sales (of records which probably deserv ed their fate) but has instead carved out a role for itself as a medium. By using more invention and imagination than the music it was meant to promote, the enhanced function of the video clip has reduced the importance of musical codes in television pop music shows, and replaced them with visual codes. Subsequent ly, the ways in which one is invi'.ed to discriminate between video clips is primarily by way of fashion, as the conventionality of the music is renovated by the ap parent unconventionality of the behaviour, narratives, and other messages presented in the clips. This, of course, restricts the influence of the video clip to that area of music most dependent on fashion, the hit parade, singles market. Without considering the ideological implications of this recasting of the music industry, it is at least clear that it represents an alteration in the patterns and significance of the function of pop music in our culture which reduces its im portance as a ritualised celebration of group identity. It is no longer possible to see the video clip simply as the parasite on the body of rock,n'roll; in the hit parade, singles market, at least, the relationship between parasite and host has been reversed.

Graeme Turner teaches in the School of English at the Western Australian Institute of Technology.


Dave Harker, One For The Money (London: Hutchinson; 1980).

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