What are Music Videos for?

Miley’s video for Wrecking Ball is horrible, the kind of thing that makes you feel like a worse human being for having watched it. It has no redeeming features that I can think of, and as a teacher I am well used to finding silver linings where none actually exist. Still, we need to talk about some music video, and this is the one that has been getting attention this week, so let’s have at it. It’s almost certainly entirely inappropriate for younger viewers, but, as I’ve indicated, I think it’s actually inappropriate for all of humanity and I can’t think of any reason why young people should be protected any more than the rest of us. So, here y’go:

Before we even get to the video, we would do well to recap on what’s been going on in Miley-land over the last few years. It’s a familiar story by now – like Justin, or the other Justin, or Britney, or Christina, she’s had to make the transition from child star to adult star. Or rather (like Bieber) she’s in mid-transition, and she’s not being too subtle about it.  Sex appeal has long been a favourite marketing tool in all sectors of the entertainment industry and pop music in particular would barely exist without it. Ever since MTV was founded in 1981, pop music has been, arguably, a primarily visual medium. Not that looking a certain way wasn’t always important, but once a music video became a necessary component of any marketing campaign, it’s commonly been said that appearance is more important than musicality. Certainly, the biggest eighties stars – Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen – had very powerful visual images in a way that seventies, pre-video era, stars  – Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel, The Eagles – did not.

So, it’s hardly surprising that Miley is focused more on looks and behaviour than music. When we think of Michael Jackson, we think of the moonwalk, the single jewelled glove, the hat, the silhouette pose. Quite possibly, we think of this more than his music. These are the icons, the signs with which his persona is constructed; to his audience, they are what he is. Miley is in search of her own signs, the things which will define her (and which can be used to market her.) She is trying for a very slightly punky image – short hair, a few piercings, a reasonable number of tattoos in visible locations. Mostly, though, she has chosen two visual symbols to shape her persona; the tongue and the twerk. Conveniently for us, she did both at once at the Video Music Awards this year:

Miley-Cyrus-2224429

The supposed attraction of the twerk seems pretty obvious. What the tongue is supposed to mean, I have no idea – is it mean to be sexual? Playful? a bit crazy? It even has its own website and yet, as a signifier, it seems strangely empty.

And that emptiness brings us to ‘Wrecking Ball.’ The song is based around a simple extended metaphor wherein Miley is the titular ‘Wrecking Ball’ – she wrecked her relationship because she ‘never hit so hard in love’, or something. (Although she also sings that ‘All you ever did was wreck me’ so I’m not actually sure who’s wrecking who in this song. There is definitely a lot of wrecking going on, though.) Now, there are a few options when making a video. You can go with a live performance, much beloved of rock groups because of the authenticity it lends them but not so much the pop fraternity. There’s the interpretative video, often with no obvious link to the song’s lyrics, also very popular but perhaps more likely to appeal to those on the artsier end of the scale – indie bands and those targeted at older or niche audiences. Finally, there are narrative videos, those which tell a story – generally, a story which is at least partially told in the song’s lyrics. This is often popular with younger audiences.

There’s another option, and it’s generally the worst one. It’s the absolutely literal approach, where you take whatever is mentioned in the song’s lyrics and film it. This literal approach is generally regarded as being so clumsy and inept that it spawned a series of internet pastiches. Here’s a good one:

So, a song called ‘Wrecking Ball’ needs a video. I know – let’s have a wrecking ball in it. And it’s Miley Cyrus, so let’s have her naked on the wrecking ball. There is some departure from absolute literalness when we have her licking a hammer (the tongue again!) and when we see her crying at the start, in a pretty obvious intertextual echo of Sinead O’Connor’s wonderful video for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’ Basically, though, it is actually just a wrecking ball, and if nothing else, that seems to betray something of a lack of imagination.

What are videos actually for? Most obviously, to offer a visual component to the artist’s sound; to give them a visual image. Miley’s offering here is trying to make her seem both very overtly sexual (naked on the wrecking ball, writhing around whilst maintaining very direct and confident eye contact with the camera) and very vulnerable and innocent (the crying at the start, the colour symbolism of her white clothes. When she’s wearing clothes.) I think these two representations are inconsistent and clash horribly. Videos can also be used to change an artist’s image, and obviously Miley is trying to construct a new persona for herself; adult, sexual, edgy and challenging. But again, there are two opposing ideas or representations of what it means to be ‘adult’ in this video – there’s serious, emotional Miley (crying at the camera) and sexual Miley (writhing around pointlessly on the floor and, both worryingly and ridiculously, licking a hammer.) The result suggests that she has no actual idea what ‘adults’ are like.The signification is all over the place- the innocence of the white clothes clashes with the exaggerated sexual writhing; the supposedly authentic vulnerability of the crying is contradicted by her heavy make-up and very stylized image; the violence of the wrecking ball is negated by her very artificial pose while she’s on the thing. The nudity is utterly gratuitous. And the hammer-licking is possibly the dumbest thing I’ve seen in a video ever. (Incidentally, I think that’s the fourth time in this post I’ve had to use some version of the phrase ‘licking a hammer.’ I’m not very happy about that.)

Not that Miley will care. Firstly, I’m about a thousand years and one gender removed from her target audience. Secondly, the other thing videos can do, perhaps the main thing, is to get attention. That’s hard to do in a world which is absolutely saturated with media, all competing for ever-decreasing fractions of an audience’s attention. And the video has most certainly done that, managing to stir up all the fake outrage which certain segments of the media excel at. Here’s the Daily Mail being outraged whilst posting all the most revealing shots from the video so their audience can be outraged and titillated all at the same time. Pure synergy and they even manage to work in promotion for One Direction and Dr Marten boots. The single has gone to number one, the video has 143 million views on YouTube (that’s a lot) and Miley is still firmly in the public eye. Assuming there is no such thing as bad publicity (I’m not sure that’s actually true, but still…), her video has worked perfectly.

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