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Music by VICE

Seriously, What the Hell is Happening to Dance Music Videos?

Now that the MTV generation has passed, music videos live in a whole new world.

by Lev Harris
Jun 4 2014, 6:35pm

Dance music videos have changed. Gone are the late 90s and early 00s, when MTV held the monopoly on all things music-related. In our YouTube and VEVO age - of desperate competition for hits, and where content is often manipulated to be purely attention grabbing - it seems to be having a huge impact on commercial dance music.

The days of sitting in front of the TV and switching between MTV Hits, VH1 and TMF has been over for some time. YouTube is a far easier and more reliable platform for artists, as it bypasses much of the rigmarole of applying to TV networks; emailing a director of music programming, filling out a submission form with video format requirements, a press release and bio - with no guarantee that it will even be aired.

Duly, the ease of YouTube means that music video channels are slowly being rendered redundant. Viewers attention spans have dwindled, and the arms race to be noticed amongst a deluge of videos has meant that quality control now gets pushed aside at the expense of commercial viability.

"I always say it's like the apple of Adam and Eve: good to have a bite, but we all keep on stealing it from the tree because we are all so hungry with curiosity", notes Sofia Mattioli, the co-director of Jamie xx's brilliant new video for 'Sleep Sound'. This hunger and curiosity is, of course, nothing new. It feeds into a far wider debate about the virtues of the internet and, whilst you could make the same points about music videos in general, it seems to be having the a signficant impact on dance music.

Today, you rarely see anything like two skeletons having sex in the toilets like in dom&nic's video for the Chemical Brothers' 'Hey Boy Hey Girl', or Christopher Walken dancing and flying around an empty hotel in Spike Jonze's video for 'Weapon Of Choice' by Fatboy Slim. Whilst neither song nor video was necessarily catering to a mainstream audience at the time, they were still being shown on MTV - and that was the mainstream. 

Is it that dance music is the genre that's never quite found a comfortable look? Hip hop and R&B have had a long, fairly cohesive history of video work, and the huge crossover into the pop realm in recent years hasn't hurt either. The draw of big names like Drake and Kanye means that fans will watch their videos regardless of its content, allowing them to be as adventurous or as bombastic as they like. The same arguably applied back when the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim had become household names, but with the current crop of little-known house producers who are scoring big internet hits, the need for accompanying music videos to raise their profiles by being as watchable - and shareable - as possible has become paramount. 

The proliferation of online video content designed for big hits has been pushed even further by YouTube plays now counting towards the aggregation of Hot 100 Singles Chart placings, and slowly led to a tipping point where where we think that we really have seen everything. This places greater weight on the shoulders of music video directors to come up with something markedly original - and which makes it all the more surprising when it actually happens.

See the recently released video for Oliver Heldens' Dutch house tune 'Gecko', directed by Kidshow aka Andrei Schwartz and Sam Jones. What starts off ostensibly as a light-hearted family comedy quickly descends into a debaucherous story that includes incest, tentacle porn and a gold maneki-neko figurine swinging its arm menacingly in the corner. No, really. Take a look.

"It all started with the commissioners at Warner Bros. When they contacted us with the song, they were very specific that they wanted a video that was offbeat, and wasn't the sort of standard fare that they would've expected to get from a video", explains Andrei. "We were actually surprised that Warner went for it, and were really excited". The backing of a major label whose main goal to produce something "offbeat" seems like a particularly pertinent sign of the times. "They gave us that licence to explore a little bit", says co-director Sam. "Aphex Twin and Fatboy Slim were the videos that we watched to draw inspiration from when we were thinking of this video, even though what we ended up making was something so utterly different". 

Different, it certainly is. 'Gecko' is just the latest in a line of dance music videos that have placed a distinct emphasis on strange concepts, following on from the implanted tape player in Duke Dumont's 'Need U (100%)' and human heads replacing genitalia in 'Big Bad Wolf' by Duck Sauce. This could be put down (in part) to an increase in availability of hi-res cameras at a lower market price. Now that everyone has the ability to make a nice-looking music video, it's made standing out even more difficult for filmmakers. 

"It definitely pushed us to work harder and try and make our stuff more interesting and crazy". says Sam. "We were definitely conscious of bringing something new, instead of retracing steps of videos that we love or even our own steps within the video". Andrei also believes that the heightened competition has encouraged concision and precision in their work. "It's something that drives us and keeps us asking with every line of the treatment: 'Is it good enough? Is it worth it? Is it something we haven't done before?'"

This form of ADD entertainment, for better or worse, has now become the set precedent for mainstream dance music videos, but that's not to say that away from the mainstream we are lacking in innovation. Sofia's collaboration with Cherise Payne for 'Sleep Sound' is a beautiful illustration of deaf people dancing to the sense of the music. "For me, it's important to have a message or concept behind a visual", says Sofia. "If not it should be very simple, whether it's fun or not. Something musical can be transmitted with simply one image, or a few that represent the vision you had for it". 

Sam takes a different view on the matter. "I do have some interest in making slower paced, less crazy work, but I'm not so sure that music videos are the medium to do that." he explains. "There are some more contemplative music videos that do quite well, and there are some that I like, but a lot of them I think are really boring. You have to grab someone right away. You have to tell them something".

Whilst there is this clear disparity between mainstream and independent opinions, there are some directors who choose to sacrifice imagination altogether for a tried and tested formula. Sigma's video for 'Nobody To Love' predictably follows the blueprint of sun, beach, and sunroof down convertibles - essentially the 2014 version of DJ Sammy's 'Boys of Summer'. Whilst Sigma's cheap sexual imagery is its sole draw, 'Gecko''s ambitious concept is what sets it apart. "More than anything else, the gloves are off in the video world", explains Andrei. "We feel like we're under a microscope. Whichever way you choose to go, you just have to be delivering the most that that initial direction allows you to do".

Where we will be with dance music videos in five years time is anyone's guess. With commercial dance videos now serving a different purpose, having been amplified and saturated by the dominance of YouTube, there now comes higher levels of pressure and constraint. The same cannot be said however for the independent market, which continues to flourish.

Warp veterans Plaid, for one, recently unveiled an interactive web app for their new track 'Tether', which allows listeners to "visually interpret the sonic intricacies of the track" themselves. Conversely, Ben Dawkins' recent short film Dealer, which follows a night in the life of a London dealer, was inspired by Burial's own 'Rival Dealer', illustrating that when done right, and with the right source material, videos can operate as a direct homage rather than a necessary add-on to a track.