“Music video” commonly designates a short audiovisual text in which a recorded song is accompanied by moving images. The term “music video” refers, as well, to the broader phenomenon of video clips and the television programs or networks that show them. Research on music video has typically used the video clip as an example with which to investigate larger issues concerning the status of image and music within media forms of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It should be noted that large numbers of so-called music videos are, in fact, shot on film rather than tape-based or digital video.
The first wave of scholarship on music video followed shortly behind the introduction in 1981 of MTV (Music Television), a cable-based specialty television network operating in the United States. In the 1970s, short films had been produced by the music industries to promote artists and recordings, through playback in record stores and on television programs typically shown late at night (e.g., Wagman 2001). The launch of MTV was inspired by the availability of such films, and by the enormous growth in specialty television services over the previous decade. MTV’s birth and subsequent rapid rise to popularity came in a decade marked by the growth of cultural studies and theories of postmodernity within Anglo-American media scholarship. Music video quickly became a popular focus of such scholarship, in a wave of writings published in the late 1980s. Chang (1986) and Kaplan (1987) were among the first scholars to use music video as a privileged example in broader diagnoses of the state of contemporary media. It was common, in this first wave of writing, to see the video clip as evidence of a new, image-saturated culture of celebrity, or as exemplifying the fleeting, fragmentary assemblages of sound and image seen to characterize media under the conditions of postmodernity.
These claims receded in the 1990s, as more focused studies of the phenomenon were published (e.g., Goodwin 1992), and as the reach and popularity of music video programming on television changed. By the end of the 1990s, music video networks were available throughout most of Europe, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas, reaching national and transnational communities through satellite or cable distribution systems. During this same period, the novelty and appeal of programs based on the unbroken flow of video clips declined. Many music video networks (such as MTV) moved to develop new programming forms (such as reality shows) to hold on to their youthful audiences. Video clips themselves were now more easily available on the Internet (on sites devoted to individual performers or upload-based sites such as YouTube) and in DVD packages sold at retail. By the early 2000s, the music video clip had became both a ubiquitous tool for the promotion of music and a familiar cultural form that seemed to inspire little controversy or high-level academic theorizing.
Academic treatments of music video have pursued a variety of issues since the 1990s. Historical studies have sought to locate music video within a longer history of interaction between popular music and the film or television industries. Ongoing work has focused on experiments in combining music and moving images that extend back to the early days of cinema and challenge well-entrenched beliefs about the “coming of sound” to cinema. The musical shorts produced by Pathé and Warner Brothers in the first half of the twentieth century are now seen as precursors of music video, as are the Soundies (musical shorts) and Scopitone visual jukeboxes of later decades (Herzog 2004). Since the 1980s, the increased use of songs within the soundtracks of motion picture and video games is viewed as having reduced the specificity of music videos, which are now seen along a continuum of cultural forms combining image and music.
Feminist media scholars have devoted considerable attention to music videos, addressing the ways in which their visuality foregrounds the role of gendered and racialized bodies within popular music (e.g., Railton & Watson 2005). Ethnographic research on the making of music videos has described a complex production process marked by ongoing tensions between the personal visions of directors, the promotional imperatives of record companies, and the desire of musicians for creative autonomy (Vernallis 2004).
Since the early 2000s, a body of scholarship on music video has examined its role within cultural diaspora, such as those of Vietnamese immigrants to Australia or transnational communities of South Asian background. Music videos are increasingly seen as elements within complex assemblages of image and sound that circulate the world and are recombined within a variety of diasporic media, from satellite television networks through DVDs and Internet video clip sites, such as YouTube. For many scholars of the area, music videos function within cultural diaspora as part of their “interocularity” – matrices of images that sustain identities and identifications across several media.
- Chang, B. G. (1986). A hypothesis on the screen: MTV and/as (postmodern) signs. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10, 70 –73.
- Goodwin, A. (1992). Dancing in the distraction factory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Herzog, A. (2004). Discordant visions: The peculiar musical images of the Soundies jukebox film. American Music, 22, 27– 39.
- Kaplan, E. A. (1987). Rocking around the clock: Music television, postmodernism and consumer culture. New York: Methuen.
- Railton, D., & Watson, P. (2005). Naughty girls and red blooded women: Representations of female heterosexuality in music video. Feminist Media Studies, 5, 51– 63.
- Vernallis, C. (2004). Experiencing music video: Aesthetics and cultural context. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Wagman, I. (2001). Rock the nation: MuchMusic, cultural policy and the development of English– Canadian music–video programming, 1979 –1984. Canadian Journal of Communication, 26, 47– 62.