Last semester, I was enrolled in a yearlong course called Modernism and the Arts. On the day that my class was set to learn about French symbolist poet Stepháne Mallarmé, my professor walked into our classroom and called the class to attention. “Picture,” he commanded, with a curled smile, “a tree. Create a clear image of it in your mind.” I pictured a birch: skeletal whiteness—paper-like sheets of bark peeling from a trunk—a few autumn-gold leaves hanging from scraggly branches. “And now realize that your tree, despite its physical absence, exists in this room. As a conjured image, yes, but existent nonetheless.” My professor began our class with this exercise as an introduction to Mallarmé, specifically his assertion of the ability of poetry, or language, to create an absent image.
There is no linguistic medium in which this ability is so resonant as it is in lyrical music. Songs, with their audio aesthetics, create not only an image, but a mood—a situational context that submerges the listener. The exaltation of music video art through the 1981 launch of MTV created tangible visual and contextual resonances of music, in place of imaginative suggestions.
This revolution engendered a sense of solidarity between artists and their supporters, as it allowed fans to witness the style and persona of their heroes. With the introduction of music videos, my 5-year-old self was not only afforded the ability (or lack thereof) to sound like Britney Spears while singing her lyrics on my front porch, but I could look like her, too, simply by tying up my t-shirts in homage to her belly shirt steeze. Mimicry of this kind swept across a generation of young listeners.
And while my young incarnation of Spears may seem inconsequential, it is a microcosmic reflection of the momentous changes that took place in the music world. Through music videos, artists gained the ability to influence their listeners’ means of expression. Popular fashion trends, haircuts, body types, mannerisms, and lifestyles were dictated by the images that now accompanied an artist’s already popular lyrics.
From a marketing standpoint, the effect that music videos had on their watchers was lucrative. From a social standpoint, this effect became increasingly futile. Rather than advancing to a self-expressive form of identification with an artist and their message, mimicry devolved into a superficial façade used for one to become “part of the crowd.”
Recently, the function of music videos has taken a positive turn away from the social stagnation of superficial mimicry, and towards social progression. This new trend utilizes music videos to gain recognition for prevalent social issues and to incite social change.
The most moving example of such a song is Coldplay’s single, released in April, 2016, “Up & Up.” Though the lyrics of the song reflect a commitment to social progression, it is only through the many beautifully arresting images of “Up & Up”’s music video that the song reaches its fullest effect.
The music video itself is a continual presentation of recognizable scenes and images displaced from their conventional setting to lend them a new meaning. For example, the video includes a scene of a river running through a forest. Spanning across the width of the river lays an enlarged paper cup, like those used to serve drinks at fast-food restaurants.
The image is a statement on the impact of human waste on nature. Its arresting distortions, especially in the size of the cup and its obvious lack of belonging, call the viewer to consciousness, encouraging recognition of our human impact on the environment. This resulting awareness contrasts the senseless imitation fostered by earlier music videos due to the video’s presentation of a problem as a social issue rather than a superficial aesthetic.
The viewer is then presented with an image of a massively enlarged butterfly (the size of a building) resting, wings flapping peacefully, on the side of an oilrig in the middle of the ocean. In the background of the image, the sun sets in a vibrant gradient on the ocean’s horizon, rendering the beauty of the scene dominant to the imposition of the oil rig. This image is a metaphor for the triumph of the natural world over the facilitator of its destruction, the oil rig. This compliments the river scene by providing the viewer with a sense of hope for a better tomorrow. This encourages the viewer to take action against the destruction of the natural environment. The form of mimicry incited by this image is one of social progression, rather than pointless impersonation.
While the socio-politically charged lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” and The Beatles’ “Revolution” will always strike a chord of passion within the hearts of their listeners, the visual rhetoric recently adopted by the music world resonates with its viewers on a more effectual level than can be accomplished by lyrics alone. The recent use of music videos to address social issues is a tactical and meaningful capitalization on the ability of music to sway social tides. The new generation of visual artists has departed from the restrictive cove of superficial imitation, to arrive upon the expansive shores of social activism.
Music videos are a powerful medium for the communication of socially progressive ideas. They create, in the words of Mallarmé, “the absent flower of all bouquets,” the realized image of what our society can and should strive to be. These images provide viewers with an encouraging sense of possibility, prompting work towards the realization of the portrayed societal progression. Music videos with an aim at social progress necessarily recognize the problems plaguing our society, positively incite viewers to act, and instill hope for a better tomorrow.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Staff