Have you done the Harlem Shake? It’s the dance craze sweeping the planet. At its height, 4,000 videos a day were being posted on YouTube. To the sound of Baauer’s eponymous bass-heavy track, one person jiggles. Madly. Seconds later, everybody else in the shot joins in. Wildly. Folks in Harlem think it’s a travesty: dry-humping air with no sense of rhythm. The phenomenon probably jumped the shark when The Simpsons did a version. Those amateur videos, however, have made chart history in the US.
Last month, Billboard changed its rules to acknowledge “the different ways a song can be a hit”. Along with radio airplay, streaming data from Spotify et al and fuddy-duddy sales, the chart compiler now measures YouTube views. “Harlem Shake”, the single, thus debuted at number one. More than 30 years after video was to have killed the radio star, it’s achieved a kind of purchasing parity, without money even changing hands – although the fact Baauer failed to clear the samples for his track’s vocal hooks means it soon will. But that’s another story.
It’s an opportune time to consider the state of the music promo. People who remember the 1980s might cite Duran Duran’s “Rio” – the first hurrah of the have-yachts – or Michael Jackson’s game-changing “Thriller” as especially memorable. The latter, a 14-minute mini-movie of ghoulish goings-on, cost $500,000 when the typical budget was $100,000. Today, it’s more about viral success than aping cinema. Billboard recognises fan-made videos that use authorised audio as well as official promos. That’s how “Harlem Shake” got 103m views in a week.
Reflecting on these trends, and the origins of the medium, is The Art of the Pop Video, an exhibition at Fact (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool. Initially devised for Cologne’s Museum of Applied Arts, it brings together some slightly stodgy art-speak – Gesamtkunstwerk inevitably appears in the catalogue – with an abundance of retina-stinging visuals. The earliest material is particularly striking. The New Zealand-born Len Lye, a new name to me, created “Rainbow Dance”, a fizzy confection of abstract effects and silhouetted hoofing, as an advertisement for the UK’s General Post Office in 1936. It echoes the pioneering work on “absolute film” being done by Oskar Fischinger, who strove for a visual equivalent to music. His “Komposition in Blau”, a sort of colour-block ballet, is shown next to Michel Gondry’s animated Lego video for the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl”. Is the 1935 piece straightforwardly influential on that of 2001? It’s not entirely clear. Also among the 111 exhibits is a clip of Fred Astaire in Top Hat-vaudeville tradition dazzling on the silver screen. A direct line to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone”? Perhaps. If this is evolution, it’s in fits and starts, possible borrowings and jump cuts.
The curators, Michael P. Aust and Daniel Kothenschulte, want the pop video to follow the path of photography to art-world acceptance. At present, no canon of important works has yet been established, and little thought is given to preservation. “I’m sure there must be an original 16mm negative of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ surviving somewhere,” says Kothenschulte of The Beatles’ 1967 film, “but I’ve never seen a proper restoration.” The pair believe the promo is an art form in its own right that has outgrown its commercial role, noting that the restrictions on length and subject matter that held sway when videos were made specifically for television no longer apply.
The exhibition is intended to “open this debate” about whether the pop video is “really art”. When Aust and Kothenschulte discuss it, however, their references are more those of film-making – “the music video is a genre just as the documentary, the travelogue or the sitcom: you can approach it from various levels, high or low” – than of fine art. Visual artists such as Pipilotti Rist figure in the show, but to my mind they are piggybacking on the provenance of pop videos rather than making promos per se – which is not to detract from the interest of either, simply to suggest they have different ends.
When promos took off in the 1980s and MTV had hours to fill, it was “a very technical and secret way of film-making,” says Tom Bird, creative director at Mercury Records. Shooting on film took time and required large crews. The apogee in budgetary terms was actually the mid-1990s. Michael Jackson’s $7m “Scream”, in which MJ and sister Janet go stir crazy aboard an orbiting spaceship, became the most expensive video ever. Then downloading began to bite, and things were never the same again. Curiously, though, the late 1990s and early noughties were a golden age for video directors, with auteurs such as Gondry and Chris Cunningham at their promo peak – before switching, respectively, into movies and more gallery-based work.
Promo-making today is a “very different process”, says Bird. Digital technology has made production as cheap as chips, relatively speaking. Instead of doing one promo, major labels will make several – say, one conceptual, one live, one acoustic, one behind-the-scenes: all will find an audience, such is the demand for content. New platforms have also emerged since the power of monolithic “music television” has waned. Take Noisey, launched last February by the edgy magazine Vice as one of Google’s “original channels”; it co-produces videos, such as MIA’s “Bad Girls”, and dives into the conversation around music by, for example, having “cute kids” review records.
The editor of Promo News and the man behind BUG, the British Film Institute’s pop-video showcase, David Knight keeps a weather eye on the scene. “As time has gone on, you’ve been able to do more [creatively] with less money,” he says. “Videos have also become less bombastic, with various exceptions.” Anybody with a laptop and the appropriate software can be a director, but the amateur aesthetic doesn’t always have to tickle the funny bone. One of Knight’s favourite videos of 2012 was Grimes’s “Oblivion”. Professionally directed by Emily Kai Bock, it’s mostly shot in guerrilla fashion at a gridiron game and a motocross rally. The sheer joy of music shines through. “It’s a very simple idea, but incredibly engaging in a way that makes most pop videos look redundant,” Knight adds.
Putting pop videos in a gallery invites a scrutiny not all of them can bear. Some warrant greater attention, others are signifying, well, not very much beyond visual exuberance or technical flair. Still, the promo’s popularity as a medium is not in doubt. The political segment of The Art of the Pop Video – including imprisoned Russians Pussy Riot and the exiled Iranian band Blurred Vision – attests to its potency as a disseminator of information. At its best, though, the form is inherently allusive, footloose and insurgent. Its immediate, immersive buzz may approach what Len Lye once envisaged as the “cinema of sensation”. Pity that old innovator couldn’t have done his own Harlem Shake. How many “likes” would it get?
See the curators’ top 10 pop videos from the Beatles to Radiohead