Last month marked the 30-year anniversary of MTV, or what used to be known more descriptively as “Music Television.” Once a 24-hour smorgasbord of the day’s most popular music videos, the network has since hit an artistic rough patch. Pregnant teenagers, over-greased Jersey meatheads and rapper redemption shows have supplanted the once-proud bastion of contemporary music. But we shouldn’t forget that MTV used to live up to its title, and its content used to come from some of the film industry’s biggest names.
David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Antoine Fuqua and even Michael Bay all got their starts shooting music videos. For some of these directors, it was the launching pad for a career of stylistic innovations (see: Fincher’s Madonna hits). For others — well, we should have seen the signs (Michael Bay and Meat Loaf should never be allowed in the same room again). But to say that music videos are somehow beneath Hollywood’s finest names would be misguided.
Hot off his success with “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee took the reins on the music video for a then-popular Public Enemy song. What followed was the politically charged, documentary-style music video for “Fight the Power” — probably P.E.’s best and most stirring song. And even the great Marty Scorsese has dabbled in music, directing the (heavily) “West Side Story”-inspired video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”
But there are still those who argue against the music video as an art form, and they have a lot of evidence to work with. After all, it’s hard to find talent, or even basic storytelling, in most commercial hits nowadays (see: Ke$ha’s “Blow”).
The truly great music videos tell compelling stories entirely through images, with an economy that would make Hitchcock proud. They envelope you in addictive lyrics and keep you engaged from the opening hook to the last chorus. If a music video can turn you on to an entire album, then it’s done its job well.
Michael Jackson’s classic, “Thriller,” accomplished all of these goals and set the standard for the form, blurring the line between film and song in the process. It was directed by John Landis (see: “Animal House”).
The King of Pop’s vocals make the song (and the entire album) immortal, but if you ask anyone to think about the success of “Thriller,” it’s the video that’s remembered. Tight choreography, gripping makeup and textbook suspense helped the song live up to its name and solidified its position as possibly the most iconic music video of all time — its rival wouldn’t come along for nearly 30 years.
Enter: Mr. Kanye West.
The controversial rapper unleashed “Runaway,” a 35-minute tour-de-force of stunning image after stunning image after stunning image, equal parts artsy and arrogant. Interestingly enough, the message behind the film isn’t particularly fresh. (The world is repressive to artists named Kanye West, according to Kanye West.) But the sheer scope, imagination and ambition behind “Runaway” have effectively stolen John Landis’ and Michael Jackson’s torches. (“Yo, Michael, I’m really happy for you, and I’mma let you finish, but I had one of the best videos of all time!”)
But to be fair, “Thriller” is just one song, while “Runaway” is a compilation. So perhaps West, rather than smothering Jackson’s classic, has created the next logical plank in the bridge between music video and cinema. Or maybe all West did was produce a short musical, of the same mold as “Annie,” “Across the Universe,” and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.”
I like to think there’s a difference. After all, the music video is a song set to a story; it’s not a story set to a collection of songs, and to understand it as such would be a grave misunderstanding. Michael Jackson knew it. And so does Kanye West. And so do scores of famous film directors who’ve sacrificed the old grandeur of the big screen for the youthful glory of the small one.