Illustration by Ben Beechener
In under six months, Lil Nas X’s ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’ had garnered over 350m views on YouTube. The music video, with its sexually-charged biblical imagery, including a scene depicting Nas riding a pole down to Hell, and its surrounding products (‘Satan Shoes’ containing a drop of human blood) has been nothing short of controversial. He was met with inflamed criticism on Twitter from a number of conservative pundits, but was also praised for being “unabashedly queer”. This, however, was a video designed to be provocative, designed exactly to spark controversy. And, in turn, the outrage caused was what Billboard described as “genius” marketing.
‘MONTERO’ peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and maintained a chart position for 25 weeks – Lil Nas X came out on top. With this in mind, can we really say that the influence of the music video has ‘died’?
The days of sitting in your living room watching MTV are long gone. Before digital streaming services, when listeners would actually have to go and buy a physical CD, music videos and appearances on TV were ways of promotion for the artist. Not being able to immediately listen to a song on your phone meant that the music video was one of the few ways many people could access a new record. Since the CD is now defunct, there seems to be a genuine case for the subsequent death of the music video. It seems baffling that artists still pour so much money into making something that isn’t guaranteed to be watched, in an age where people can decide to save a song within 30 seconds of listening to it on Spotify.
So, what is the point of the music video? As seen in the case of Lil Nas X, it’s undeniable that they still serve as prime promotional material for an artist and their music. Take the cultural impact of ‘WAP’ by Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion. The song’s wild success, debuting at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, was no doubt due to a combination of not only two extremely popular artists and the raunchy lyrics, but the equally explicit and provocative video. And ‘WAP’, just like ‘MONTERO’, was also deeply polarising.
Music videos still promote songs – just not on television screens any more. Before even hearing ‘WAP’ for myself, I woke up to clips of Megan and Cardi (and that one shot of Kylie Jenner in leopard print) plastered all over my timeline. In the internet clickbait era, short marketable clips are perfect to grab people’s attention and then drive them to listen to the song.
This form of promotion has been aided by the intensification of ‘stan’ culture. Artists can make the video, press post and leave the rest to the keyboards of their loyal fans. Edits are made, videos embedded, scenes memed, outfits and styling dissected. And this discussion hasn’t even factored in how music video streams count for the charts. We have seen a rise in orchestrated mass streaming culture, where fans will stream a song – and its music video – repeatedly for promotion, chart placement and general fandom bragging rights. “STREAM ____” bombards my Twitter on any major music release day. If the music video is anything, it is now a new battleground for fanwars.
But the importance of the music video extends beyond surface-level observations on their promotional capabilities. A good music video still remains integral to the artistic vision, and an addition to a musician’s creativity. They are extensions to the song and help to visually encapsulate the song’s lyrics, message or its general vibe.
One of my recent favourite videos in this sense is Rina Sawyama’s ‘XS’. It’s a 2000s-inspired pop song that satirises and mocks the excess (XS) of capitalism. The song itself is loud, sleek, overwhelming – much in the way that our world is today – and Rina’s music video perfectly reflects that. Rina portrays a robotic shopping channel saleswoman, trying to sell bottled water made from 99% 24-karat gold. The video is flashy, bright, confusing at times and completely unabashed. The video is also flashy and bright, confusing at times and unabashed in the visual delivery of its message. And yes, you should definitely STREAM ‘XS’, by the way.
We’re seeing the rebirth (of sorts) of the pop star, with the glamour, performance quality and conceptual visions that come along with it. It isn’t as if this has declined. In fact, if we look outside of the Western pop industry, we see that many artists and performers have maintained these efforts. Take the Kpop industry for example, where music videos are part and parcel to the artistic vision.
Perhaps in a year of mundanity, we are yearning for this level of ‘star power’ that can most easily be expressed in the glitz of a well-produced music video. In a year where we haven’t been able to see artists perform live and in-person, the awareness of the music video in essentially taking the show to our rooms has been amplified.
Arguably now, more than ever, we are gripped by visual imagery, by flashiness, by clickbait and controversy, by the rebirth of the ‘pop star’ and all its theatricalities. If anything, the modern-day music video epitomises everything about mainstream popular culture: boldness, performance, a statement that is undeniably in-your-face. We may be watching them on smaller screens but in no way can it be said that their cultural influence has died. Video killed the radio star, sure. But what dares challenge the domination of the video?