Characteristics of Music Video
Ultimately we will advocate using cultural models for the rhetorical analysis of music video. To fully understand how a cultural model facilitates rhetorical criticism of music video, it is first necessary to explore the unique features of the genre. Music, particularly rock, has always had a visual element. The album cover, the "look" a band strived for in performance, concert staging, and promotional publicity have all helped create a visual imagery for rock (Goodwin, 1992). The use of video to stimulate album sales and the birth of MTV as a continuous outlet for viewing simply served to enhance the visual potential present in rock.
Viewers typically do not regard the music video as a commercial for an album or act. Aufderheide (1986) describes the connection of viewer to video."With nary a reference to cash or commodities, music videos cross the consumer's gaze as a series of mood states. They trigger nostalgia, regret, anxiety, confusion, dread, envy, admiration, pity, titillation--attitudes at one remove from the primal expression such as passion, ecstasy, and rage. The moods often express a lack, an incompletion, an instability, a searching for location. In music videos, those feelings are carried on flights of whimsy, extended journeys into the arbitrary." (p. 63)
That music videos present compelling mood states that may claim the attention of the viewer is not a matter of happenstance.
Abt (1987) states that "directors of videos strive to make their products as exciting as the music. In the struggle to establish and maintain a following, artists utilize any number of techniques in order to appear exotic, powerful, tough, sexy, cool, unique" (p. 103). Further, Abt indicates a video must compete with other videos.
"They must gain and hold the viewer's attention amidst other videos; help establish, visualize, or maintain the artist's image; sell that image and the products associated with it; and perhaps, carry one or several direct or indirect messages . . ." (p. 97).
Music videos may be further characterized by three broad typologies: performance, narrative, and conceptual (Firth, 1988).
These types describe the form and content selected by the director or artist to attract viewers and to convey a direct or indirect message.
Performance videos, the most common type (Firth 1988) feature the star or group singing in concert to wildly enthusiastic fans. The goal is to convey a sense of the in-concert experience. Gow (1992) suggests "the predominance of performance as a formal system in the popular clips indicates that music video defines itself chiefly by communicating images of artists singing and playing songs" (pp. 48-49). Performance videos, especially those that display the star or group in the studio, remind the viewer that the soundtrack is still important. "Performance oriented visuals cue viewers that, indeed, the recording of the music is the most significant element" (Gow, 1992, p. 45).
A narrative video presents a sequence of events. A video may tell any kind of story in linear, cause-effect sequencing. Love stories, however, are the most common narrative mode in music video. The narrative pattern is one of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Action in the story is dominated by males who do things and females who passively react or wait for something to happen (Schwichtenberg, 1992).Conceptual videos rely on poetic form, primarily metaphor (Firth, 1988). The conceptual video can be metaphysical poetry articulated through visual and verbal elements. "These videos make significant use of the visual element, presenting to the eye as well as the ear, and in doing so, conveying truths inexpressible discursively" (Lorch, 1988, p. 143). Conceptual videos do not tell a story in linear fashion, but rather create a mood, a feeling to be evoked in the experience of viewing (Firth, 1988).
Conceptual videos contain the possibility for multiple meanings as the metaphor or metaphoric sequence is interpreted by the viewer.
"Thus the metaphorical relations between images structured according to musical and visual rhymes and rhythms play a suggestive role in soliciting multiple meanings from us, the viewers/listeners, that resonate with our experience--something we can feel and describe" (Schwichtenberg, 1992 p. 124).
A given music video may actually have elements of more than one category. Goodwin (1992), in describing Madonna's videos, suggests that the essential narrative component of a music video is found in its ability to frame the star, "star-in-text," as all Madonna's videos seem to do. A story exists solely for its ability to create, or in Madonna's case recreate, the star's persona. This blending of elements can also enable a type of music such as rap to have cross-over appeal to a wider audience.Although we may profitably interpret the message potential of music video using these three categories as a basis for content analysis, certain limitations exist if we remain on that path. "Analysts of music video narrative have been all too eager to freeze the moment and study videos shot by shot, but here the problem is that this generates not too much but too little knowledge, because the individual narrative is highly intertextual" (Goodwin, 1992 p. 90).
As a blend of video technique and imagery from film and television, music video offers us a new perceptual agenda by providing allusions to and incorporations of old iconic imagery from film, allowing us to reconstitute the pieces of the 20th century information explosion (Turner, 1986). The brevity of the music video has created a new grammar of video technique particular to this miniscule video form.
"Visual techniques commonly employed in music videos exaggerate . . . Interest and excitement is stimulated by rapid cutting, intercutting, dissolves, superimpositions, and other special effects, that taken together with different scenes and characters, make music videos visually and thematically dynamic." (Abt, 1987 pp. 97-98)
Born of an amalgam of commercialism, television, and film, for the purpose of selling rock albums, music videos frequently employ well-established verbal and visual symbols in telling a story or making a point. If no such symbols exist, music videos coin their own which, given the ubiquity of the medium, quickly find their way into the vernacular.How then to best understand the rhetorical properties that such a media form has for the audience? Schwichtenberg (1992) suggests that what critics should consider "is how music videos are woven into a complex cultural context that includes performers, industries, and diverse audiences who attribute a wide variety of meanings to the music and visuals" (p. 117).
These characteristics suggest that the most methodologically appropriate approach to understanding how music videos might function as rhetoric is to view them as cultural acts, intertextually located in the viewer's own experience. We define culture, with a little help from Bruce Gronbeck (1983), as a complex of collectively determined sets of rules, values, ideologies, and habits that constrain rhetors and their acts. This complex leads a society to generate meaning through various message forms to establish a series of societal truths. The extent to which any form of communication such as a music video plays a part in the process of truth-making is what the rhetorical critic attempts to discover through criticism.
Karyn Charles Rybacki and Donald Jay Rybacki Northern Michigan University