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Not With The Band: What Makes A Great Music Video?

close to the Grammys
















This Saturday afternoon at Sonos Studio was probably the closest I will ever get to the Grammys’ crowd for a long time. The workshop entitled, ‘What makes a great music video?’ was a discussion between Grammy-Nominated directors Jon Jon Augustavo, Grady Hall, Dori Oskowitz and Melina Matsoukas (who actually won a Grammy last year). The four of them have directed so many music videos that it’s hard to pick a few ones, but just to give you an idea, Melina Matsoukas, who is probably the most prolific of the four, has made videos for Ludacris, Pharrell, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna and of course Beyoncé, Dori Oskowitz worked with Cee Lo, Raphael Saadiq, Passion Pit and Jack White, Grady Hall for R.E.M., Modest Mouse, Capital Cities, Beck and Katy Perry, and Jon Jon Augustavo, the newcomer in this video business, did the videos for Macklemore.  

I am not sure what I expected from such a discussion, may be what is really the purpose of a music video, and what it brings to music or to a song? But I don’t think I really got my answer to this. If the discussion was interesting – it is always fascinating to listen to people who work with such high ranked stars – I can’t say I have learnt a lot. Why are we making music videos? For me, if a song is good, it should have its own life in people’s mind, and everyone should come up with his own imagery. Bringing the visuals invented by someone else is obviously a way to limit anyone’s imagination, and it reflects people’s increasing needs to have everything catered to them in a world of all-entertainment, all sense-stimulation-all-the-time. In these conditions, videos make sense, but they have never been a substitute for a song that I listen with my earphones on, alone with myself. Actually, I always prefer to discover a new song without a video, but it’s rarely the case these days. So I didn’t get a lot of this during their conversation, I guess music videos are a given now and we don’t even question their existence anymore. Look at Beyoncé’s last visual album and her 17 music videos!

During the talk, we got to see a few videos, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ ‘Can’t Hold Us’ directed by Jon Jon Augustavo, Capital Cities’ ‘Safe and Sound’ directed by Grady Hall, Jack White’s ‘I’m Shakin’ directed by Dori Oskowitz, and Rihanna‪’s ‘We Found Love’ directed by Melina Matsoukas, and even another one by Oskowitz, which was never released and starring Lenny Kravitz and a model doing their own version of ‘9 ½ Weeks’. All of them were interesting to look at, more or less inventive and complex, filmed in lots of locations like the Macklemore’s one, or simply in one room like the Jack White’s one. At the end, these directors brought their own vision of the songs: a bit crazy and really all over the place with an exotic journey all around the world (Augustavo), super racy with steamy sexy scenes and an unhealthy love-equals-drugs affair (Matsoukas,… but what else to expect with Rihanna?), or entertaining showing a deep love for dance in all its forms and periods (Hall). It may have been Oskowitz’s video for Jack White – a duel between female and male bands all dressed up in black and blue – that I liked the most, but it was also the music I preferred (by far). Would a well-made video make me like a song? I seriously doubt.

In this Youtube era, directors don’t make much money off their videos, Oskowitz said he had to make commercials to make a living, so why do they still do it? For the love of music of course. For Melina Matsoukas, it’s also a passion, an interesting way to express herself in an experimental way, with more freedom than in commercials. For Jon Jon Augustavo, it is the logic result of an obsession with music (he didn’t want to have a regular job), for Grady Hall, it is a pure creative experience, a way to connect with music and to share a song, and for Dori Oskowitz, it is an intoxicating feeling as music and images are a magic combination. Would these people have way more fun and satisfaction making a video than me watching it?

They could not really explain what makes a video really good, the strong characters? The narrative? Pushing the boundaries? Melina Matsoukas seems to be big on that idea (she also did Rihanna’s ‘S&M’), this is a girl who wants to get banned, she wants to be provocative but successful at the end. She wants to make people uncomfortable and she wants to start the dialogue. We got to see one of her Beyoncé’s video ‘Pretty Hurts’… yeah the one where Beyoncé blames society to pressure her to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

I am sure that videos could be a way to bring new ideas and engage people into a new dialogue but I would need more than Rihanna’s S&M bondage or Beyoncé’s head vomiting over the toilet, to consider a video as a good vehicle for new ideas, these are overused clichés. Honestly, at the moment, videos are just a pretext to have fun with images, special effects and hot female bodies. 

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