Take the time to watch a few music videos in a row in the year 2017 and you might start to notice a trend. Artists of all genres have adopted a visual aesthetic that slightly varies between videos, but will include some if not all of the items off the Moody and Cool checklist: neon piping, a pastel colour palette and some ~meaningful~ fog. From The 1975 to Rihanna; Busted to Bieber; Carly Rae Jepsen to Fall Out Boy – everyone is on it.
Obviously, it looks good. It's like millennial pink: you might be sick of seeing it everywhere, but do you actually think it's ugly? No—it's soothing and inoffensive at best, like an Instagram of someone's bathwater right after they dropped a Lush bomb in it. But, at the same time, you can't scroll down your YouTube recommendations these days without being confronted by a pop video that looks like it was shot at someone's prom in the 80s. It's been happening since Lady Gaga's "Billie Jean"-referencing "The Edge of Glory" in 2011. The time has come to ask: why?
We're long past a time when you would actually sit through an entire music video on telly, flicking between MTV Hits, KISS, and The Box to watch the same dramatic Ne-Yo videos on loop. Gone are the days where labels would drop a million on three outfits and an array of ridiculous CGI stunts for Britney Spears—and, with tighter budgets and shorter shoot times for anyone who isn't a Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar, there's inevitably been a squeeze on how outlandish music visuals can even be for artists. While the music video hasn't completely "died" as the doomsday predictors whispered in the early 00s, you get the sense that many directors are having to try to do more with less. If the end result won't be guaranteed a huge and captive audience anyway, why not just do something that is passable, reasonably cheap and recognisable as a style? Enter this artistic-looking, ubiquitous #deep #aesthetic.
For Julie Wright, a film and music academic who recently contributed to forthcoming book The Music Video, a lot of this look today relates to the past. "This aesthetic returns music video to the early MTV period when lights or lens filters or smoke machines were utilised to create atmosphere and mood," she tells me. "Ultravox's 'Vienna' is such a quintessential early music video—disjointed narrative with very little coherence, but visually interesting. The emphasis on visuals was partly due to the visual medium, but it was also because there was very little money to produce videos. Color, lighting, smoke—all of these things can be used to create something interesting out of settings and spaces that are otherwise very mundane, like a recording studio."
But why the trend for 80s aesthetics? "The 80s are a time that is caught in the nostalgia kick that seems to be overtaking popular culture," Julie continues. "It's a decade that is old enough to be in the past, but recent enough to be referenced, and those references are understood." And so the visual cues for that era blend minimalism with nostalgia to feed into the repeated use of the Cheap But Deep look.
But this isn't just a trend in music videos: films and TV shows from Drive, Only God Forgives and Lost River to this year's Riverdale and "San Junipero"—the most memorable episode of 2016's Black Mirror series—all lean on similar visuals. The fact that Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn are attached to many of those projects isn't a coincidence. Winding Refn didn't invent neon and pink and purple, obviously—he lifted that trick directly from Dario Argento films and the 80s in general – but he did help re-popularize a look that's become the go-to for anyone trying to achieve the same dreamy/dark vibe. That's not to say music video directors are copying Winding Refn's work, but that the aesthetic he returns to is embedded in our collective consciousness now, like "One Does Not Simply…" meme or The Rock's arms.
That said, boyband-turned-actual-rock-stars Busted definitely did lift their newfound cool neon aesthetic from Winding Refn. Their comeback album is quite literally called Night Driver. The cover shows the band backgrounded by an inky LA sunset with their name splashed across the top of the image in purple and pink. Almost six years after Drive was released, they really took a creative risk in committing their entire comeback to it. But lo! That isn't all! The first video from the album, "On What You're On", has the band performing in a dimly (but purpley) lit basement bar to an audience who absolutely do not give a shit, but all of whom look great under neon. The same goes for all of the live videos for the album.
We may be living in a time when every other pop video looks like Ryan Gosling's Lost River or—in the case of Justin Bieber's "What Do You Mean" with its heavy rain, moody neon and suspiciously similar font, like Blade Runner—but it's not like this isn't the first time a particular idea has seeped through the industry, picked up and tried time after time. Just as publishing does with books, or blockbusters with franchises, it's easy to find something that works then do it to death. "After 'Thriller,' seemingly every video had a ton of people dancing in a triangular formation—Pat Benatar, Patty Smythe—and 'killing' people like zombies," says Gina Arnold, music critic and contributor to book Music/Video: Histories, Aesthetics, Media. "I think those were all choreographed by Paula Abdul. During the grunge era it was incredible how many videos had bands standing out in a desert landscape, playing their instruments with seemingly no power supply. Water splashing on the drumset—rotoscoping—so many bands, so many video cliches. Videos are the same as music and art in terms of its derivative nature."
Academic analysis is all well and good, but to get to the bottom of why everyone and their mam is smothering their music videos in a fog that looks like grape-flavored vape smoke, you've got to hear from someone who helps make those decisions. I spoke to Mel Soria, director of one of the more recent videos in question: Fall Out Boy's "Young and Menace." While the band had already chosen that aesthetic, Mel did say that, "I have noticed an uptick in the use of neons and purples in our current—American—cultural zeitgeist. Movies like Moonlight and TV shows like American Gods have saturated our mainstream and social media, so I'm not surprised that graphic designers and ad agencies have consciously, or subconsciously for that matter, embraced the trend—which in turn manifested in our video." Fall Out Boy have said their decision to use purple for "Mania" was because all their albums have had a dominant color, while Mel adds that the choice was to convey "a subtle message of unity and coming together."
Ultimately, all art is cyclical. What we find cool or aesthetically pleasing will be absolutely rinsed to the point of over-saturation and meaninglessness, and then we'll find something else to nick from. We live in a highly nostalgic time when a yearning for aspects of the 80s/90s/00s, especially the aesthetics of the time, permeate all areas of life. Nostalgia, minimalism and low cost appear to be the primary reasons for the popularity of this particular aesthetic, although there are other reasons. As Daniel Cookney, a University of Salford lecturer and another contributor to Music/Video: History, Aesthetics, Media says, "Simulations of 'live' performance have also been situated in the video examples you've cited. These parts almost act as a counterpoint to the more frivolous visual aspects to offer some semblance of rock authenticity." And that is it, really. When done well, this look can convey a deeper mood. When lifted from elsewhere and done cheaply, however, it can glint like a low-grade shellac veneer over a pop song, attempting to give it more credibility.
Better a bit of pink and purple neon than that brief era where everyone's music video took place in a sweaty gym, though, right?
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