There was a time when music videos were meant to enhance music. Hearing guitars and percussion or understanding lyrics are one thing, but a visual accompaniment advances a story far further. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" isn't just something to look at for 13 minutes.
The days of TRL and Yo! MTV Raps have been swapped for VEVO, YouTube, and countless other digital streaming services. And with that, music videos have become less focused, and the storylines, dialogue and characters we saw in something like "Thriller" are seldom found. Miley Cyrus' video for "We Can't Stop" resembles a scattered, extended Vine post more than anything else, while everyone from Danny Brown to Lady Gaga have been weird simply for weird's sake. In an era of GIFs and segmentation, storylines aren't always essential. The advertising and audience aren't there for another "Thriller." Which is why everyone who channels it looks so bold these days.
Perhaps the savior of the music video isn't even the music video, it's this short film concept that's been slowly pervading recent releases. "Thriller" came out when attention spans weren't so compromised, yet the past few extended music videos feature even bolder artistic concepts and longer durations. As each one picks up praise, can we bank on the music short film — not as catchy, perhaps — to redirect the state of music videos?
Janelle Monae's "Dance Apocalypse" is the latest effort, a 4:30 excerpt of the upcoming short film The Dance Apocalyptic, which doubles as a cut from Monae's upcoming LP The Electric Lady. The film is set in an alternate American present-day dystopia.
"Our Deal" is Best Coast's effort at recreating West Side Story in 11 minutes. Portugal The Man brought in director Michael Ragen to do a two-track, 13-minute project featuring fear, realization and a whole lot of blood in the Alaskan wilderness. Kanye West dropped a 35-minute mini-movie out of nowhere to tell the story of his award-winning My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. All were released in 2011.
Does Monae run a risk in making a short film as bold as The Dance Apocalyptic? It's possible. West was reviled by many for making such an intricate video, and some critics charged that the 35-minute film of "Runaway" distracted from the music itself. Will Monae's out-there vision detract from the promise of her new album?
Ultimately, this risk taking is what keeps music so fresh. In an industry increasingly dominated by image, music videos need to serve a new purpose, a new medium of storytelling that reaches more than just an album's niche audience. Artists shouldn't be afraid to tell a sweeping, bold story: after all, every good song should involve characters, plot and conflict that lasts longer than a four-minute music video.
How much more intriguing would Magna Carta Holy Grail be if it involved a theatrical element? What about Yeezus or any of the other huge releases this year? Regardless of advertising sense, artists should embrace this new evolution of long-form music videos as another way to stand out from the clutter. Heck, something extravagant and convoluted is right up Lady Gaga's alley. Telling a story with music — and superseding music's boundaries — sounds bold, but if you think about it, that's much of what music was supposed to be in the first place.