Music Videos 101

Introduction to the Forms and Functions of Music Videos

While most of the music video world is concerned with the promotion of a song some directors consider their creations artistic endeavors. Music videos are short enough to have an impact yet long enough to allow for the construction of a coherent story. There are components every music video must contain but there are countless paths a director might take to achieve balance between promotion of the artist and expression of the music.

The meaning of a music video or “promotional film” resides in the combination of music, lyrics and images. There are roughly two categories they tend to fall into: performance and conceptual. I will focus on conceptual videos that implement techniques found in legitimate films or make that statements beyond basic self-promotion.

Great music videos provoke responses much like great films might and are becoming increasingly accessible in the technological age. The form borrows many techniques from traditional film-making.

The Basics: Clips, Music, Imagination

Sven Carlsson identifies three visual traditions in music videos: performance, narrative and art clips. The most common is the performance clip but all three can be combined to create dynamic videos. Music videos are “comprised of several flows of audio-visual information. These flows interact and the resultant meaning is perceived as one complete whole, created by both the ears and eyes” (Carlsson). Certain artists are more inclined to make conceptual or performance clips while a majority incorporate both styles into a mixed clip. More commercialized music relies heavily on the visibility and “selling” of the artist.

Music is a crucial element of most films and that same power can be found in music videos. Some artists and directors consider their work more like short films that have been generated to “go with” the song. Videos that lack “a coherent narrative based on visuals and lyrics [use] unifying aspects…Images are bound together by the beat and other musical features” (Carlsson 1999).

There is something fundamental about imagining a scenario to accompany the music and lyrics. Creating visuals for pre-recorded music is not exclusive to this relatively new form of film-making. Sergei Eisenstein choreographed a battle in his 1938 film Alexander Nevsky to a score that was composed by Sergei Prokofiev, “the Battle on the Ice scene remains one of the most famous audio-visual experiments in film history, perfectly blending action with the rousing score of Sergei Prokofiev” (Criterion 2008). Music video has roots in experimental film but each director and artist is free to reference or emulate aspects from any film genre or utilize any editing technique.

Music Television History

When “music television” first took off in the 1980’s, well-known directors worked on promotional films and developed a varied body of work. Music Television (MTV) “was launched on August 1, 1981, with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” This introduction was followed by the clip “Video Killed the Radio Star” (Burns). In the early years, MTV played music videos twenty-four hours a day “mixing different kinds of musical genres in a continuous flow” (McCourt). This stream-of-consciousness paradise where videos mingled with each other didn’t last long… soon “MTV became less idiosyncratic in its juxtapositions of different kinds of music, moving toward block programming, and the development of shows that fit certain musical genres” (McCourt). Many other music channels were later formed that focused more narrowly on specific genres or demographics.

Female Identities in Music Videos

Gwen Stefani fronted No Doubt a 90’s Ska band that scored a major hit with “I’m Just a Girl.” The video begins with Gwen hanging out with the boys. She sings in a sweet voice “take this pink ribbon off my eyes, I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise, don’t you think I know exactly where I stand? This world is forcing me to hold your hand.” Gwen’s voice changes back and forth in the song from soft and sweet to assertive. Gender specific images flash rapidly throughout the video. Imagery of urinals, men’s room signs and girls putting on makeup are cut in between shots of the band playing. The juxtaposition of traditional male and female imagery creates tension as does Gwen’s strange costuming. Her platinum hair is elegantly styled and she wears heavy classic makeup with heavy black lashes and red lipstick. Her face and hair directly contrast with her outfit which is sporty yet sexy.

Gwen presents herself as more than “just a girl” but Shirley Manson pushes gender issues much further in the video for “Cherry Lips.” Shirley fronts the rock band Garbage which is made up of her and three male members who thanks to green-screen are invisible throughout most of the video. At the end of the video she undresses leaving on only red gloves and tall boots. We see her reflection singing in the mirror before her glove lifts the toilet lid. We assume she is peeing standing up as the last image reveals her boots standing on either side of the toilet with toes pointing toward it.

Shirley doesn’t just make videos about gender issues but speaks out against a business that exploits young female artists: “Record companies and moneymaking people want the easiest way possible to make a lot of money. So they pressure these girls to use their sexuality to enhance the message that they’re trying to get across to the general public” (Lanham 1). In an interview for the Oakland Tribune Shirley shared her disgust with magazine covers featuring barely dressed female artists:

I think there’s a great con pulled by the media over women, to lull them into believing that sexual liberation is about taking your clothes off and showing your titties to whoever happens to want to see ’em. And they’ve sold that to women as freedom. And I’m absolutely behind porn; I think it serves a function. But don’t sell it to me under a different guise, professing it to be about female empowerment. It’s only empowerment if you know you’re doing it for those reasons. (Lanham 1).

Sadly, degradation is a common occurrence in the music industry especially in the genres of Rap, Hip Hop and Rock. These mostly male driven genres are notorious for clips that include images and lyrics that blatantly exploit women. More and more artists in these genres are trying to go against the grain but it is often difficult because sex sells even in the realm of music videos. While some artists choose to continue perpetuating inequality among genders many have turned the form around to make powerful statements.

Censorship and Controversy on Music Television

Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” brought school violence into the spotlight: “On January 8, 1991, Jeremy Wade Delle, a student at Richardson High School in the Dallas suburbs, showed up late for his second-period English class. The troubled boy was sent to the administrative office for a late-admittance pass, but he returned with a .357 Magnum. He spoke just one chilling sentence — “Miss, I got what I really went for” — and then, as his classmates watched in horror, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger“ (Black). Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam wrote the song after seeing a newspaper clipping of the incident and also drew from personal experience with school violence. The video begins with grainy frames filled with phrases and pieces of newspapers. The phrases flash quickly with static, a school bell and random media voices reacting to the event “3:30 in the afternoon, no note was found, an affluent suburb, 64 degrees and cloudy.” Then we see Jeremy’s name; it disappears revealing a hanging blackboard. The blackboard contains several more phrases throughout the video and all the people in Jeremy’s world don’t move.

Vedder sings the lyrics as if he is telling the story and the other members of Pearl Jam hardly appear at all. This video was not to everyone’s liking. Some might have preferred the earlier video made by Chris Cuffaro but Mark Pellington’s version of “Jeremy” became very controversial. In an interview with Spin Pellington disclosed his frustration with misinterpretation of the video: “the ending is sometimes misinterpreted as that he shot his classmates. The idea is, that’s his blood on them, and they’re frozen at the moment of looking.”  MTV banned the uncut video because it showed Jeremy putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger but without this essential image people got the wrong idea and believed Jeremy shot his classmates instead of himself.

One of the other most contested videos was Nine Inch Nails “Closer.” There are two versions of this video as well but I would argue that the edited version is creepier due to the things that are left out and covered up.

Mark Romanek directed the dark yet erotic music video for “Closer.” The overall style of the video resembles an old film and was heavily censored. The song itself presents a disturbing vision of love and sex that shows Reznor sporting S&M devices and saying the word “fuck” in the song’s chorus.  Images of a naked woman wearing a black mask with a crucifix on it, a monkey tied to a cross and illustrations of the female anatomy were deemed inappropriate. Instead of radically changing the video to be played on television Romanek inserted “scene missing” screens where the whole image had to be removed and blurred or blackened anything else that was too offensive.

Dreams and the Surreality of Music Videos
Artists that aim to make thought-provoking videos often transcend reality, pushing the viewer into some strange places. I will look at two videos in this category; it just so happens these are some of my favorite videos of all time. The first video is Marcy Playground’s visually dark and erotic “Sex and Candy.”

The strangest thing about this “playground” is that only boys seem to be there. The three male members of the band find only traces of a woman. Lead singer John Wozniak pokes his head out of a dark hole in a landscape with a blue and green checker-pattern as a spider is released and crawls toward him over the rolling hills. Wozniak’s band mates rummage through an old dresser filled with women’s clothes and underwear and discover a high-heeled shoe hanging from a string. The video is strangely neither sex nor candy but its dark imagery evokes a dreamlike state where a deadly black widow stalks her prey.

Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” is charged with religious imagery and is one of the band’s most creative videos. The dark imagery was partly based on front man Kurt Cobain’s disturbing dreams.

The video begins in a hospital room with the three members of the band looking at an old man hooked up to an IV. A black cross is painted on the floor jetting out from under the sick man’s bed while a fetus floats in the IV bag. The next scene shows the old man from the bed wearing a Santa hat and a cloth diaper climbing onto a crow-ridden cross. During the chorus the band plays in a field of poppies in front of the “crucified” old man. Kurt gets close to the camera and goes in and out of focus.

The second verse shows a young blonde-haired blue-eyed girl in a KKK robe and hood and an obese lady with angel wings and her insides on the outside. The girl tries to grab fetuses that hang from a twisted forest of trees and then reaches for the old man on the cross. Her hat is carried off by the wind and lands in a puddle turning it black. The scene jumps back to the hospital room where the girl stands in a blackened robe and hood. The video was controversial and an extended version with Kurt sleeping in the poppy field was never aired on television.


More than anything music videos are the product of a merging of images, music and marketing. They serve a purpose in our capitalistic society while providing a creative outlet for artists at the same time. What a music video actually is rests on the person watching. Critics of the form might see only the negative examples while ignoring the small percentage of directors and artists that use the video as a vehicle to express something beyond the original music and lyrics. I believe this form is of value and should be studied. Music videos have the power to tap into our love of music and storytelling which are uniquely human traits and since the form has roots in various film traditions it has the ability to adapt to society. Music preference says a lot about a person and in a world that is increasingly preoccupied with getting information and pleasure at a fast rate music video has the potential to influence culture well into the future.

*Other noteworthy contenders include the Soundgarden’s grunge ballad, “Black Hole Sun,” The Smashing Pumpkins’ classically-styled video for “Tonight Tonight” which was inspired by Georges Méliès’s silent film A Trip to the Moon and the video that sparked my fascination with the form, The White Stripes “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.”


Black, Johhny. The Greatest Songs Ever. Blender. September 2002.

Burns, Gary. “Music Television.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications. []

Carlsson, Sven E. Muskiikin Sunta: Special issue in English on Music videos, The Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology, University of Helsinki, Finland 1999. []

Eisenstein, Sergei. Alexander Nevsky (1938) The Criterion Collection: Online Cinematheque []. (Synopsis)

Lanham, Tom. “Catching up with Shirley Manson and her bandmates.” Oakland Tribune, Apr 8, 2005. []

McCourt, Tom, and Nabeel Zuberi. “Music on Television.” The Museum of Broadcast Communications. []


Garbage, “Cherry Lips,” beautifulgarbage. Directed by Joseph Kahn. Interscope, 2001. []

Marcy Playground, “Sex and Candy,” Marcy Playground. Directed by Jamie Caliri. Capitol Records, 1998. []

Nine Inch Nails, “Closer,” The Downward Spiral. Directed by Mark Romanek. Interscope, 1994. Uncut: []
Edited: []

Nirvana, “Heart Shaped Box,” In Utero. Directed by Anton Corbijn. DGC, 1993. []

No Doubt, “I’m Just a Girl,” Tragic Kingdom. Directed by Mark Kohr. Trauma/Interscope, 1995. []

Pearl Jam, “Jeremy,” Ten. Directed by Mark Pellington. Epic, 1992. []

Originally Written: Film Theory and Criticism December 11, 2008

Please credit blastedgoat with the above words and screen captures. All videos belong to their makers and owners. This post is for entertainment and educational purposes only and contains only my opinions. Feel free to link. Add questions or comments below and check back, this section is ever-expanding.

5 thoughts on “Music Videos 101

  1. Pingback: Nails Turning Black · NAILS.TECH

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  3. Pingback: Female Identities in Popular Music « blastedgoat

  4. Pingback: Music Video History Project « blastedgoat


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