Music videos have always been a great way to tell the story and enhance the emotional impact of a song, especially when singers use their facial expressions and body language to match the themes of their lyrics. Perhaps the song deals with teenage angst so the video might also have images of high schools, skateparks and the latest fashion trends. Or it could simply feature footage of the band on stage performing in front of a large crowd to emphasise their talent and promote their live shows.
Dark and muted tones might reflect a sense of loneliness and isolation whereas more vibrant colours usually signify a party atmosphere. Even the choice of props can anchor the audience’s interpretation of the track.
Since music videos are signifying processes which communicate meanings and positions to the audience, we can analyse their iconography, technical codes, and modes of address to identify the essential conventions that define the different styles.
Performance Music Videos
The television series “Top of the Pops” first aired in the UK in January 1964, opening with Dusty Springfield singing “I Only Want to be with You” in the studio and concluding with a music video of that week’s number one single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles. Unfortunately, the first episode was wiped by the BBC, but here is a recording of the band’s live performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” a month later in the US.
Dressed smartly in their signature matching suits, the charismatic fab four are on the studio floor with their screaming fans seated opposite. Microphones, guitars, and drums are the other obvious elements of the mise-en-scène.
In terms of framing, the director uses long shots of John Lennon and Paul McCartney during their harmonies with George Harrison in the middle on lead guitar. The closeups of the two singers emphasise their wonderful charm and the song’s celebration of young desire and teenage life. The camera also moves in to focus on Ringo Starr driving the rhythm on the drums. There are cuts to ecstatic members of the audience to reinforce the band’s incredible appeal.
This sort of shot sequence and iconography still forms the basis of the performance music video genre. Consider the official video for the Arctic Monkey’s “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”:
Dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, Alex Turner introduces the band like he is on an episode of an old music television programme. Then the director establishes the four musicians in a long shot. Again, closeups of the lead singer stress the intensity of his story and medium shots of the guitarists draw attention to their skills.
Music videos are a crucial part of the music industry, especially for niche and independent acts who are able to showcase their work to a global audience on YouTube and other video-sharing platforms without the need for extensive resources. Arctic Monkey’s frenetic performance inspired a substantial following on MySpace who helped launch the single to the top of the UK charts in 2005.
Although there are no musical instruments, the official video for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” is another terrific example of a performance video:
Dressed in shimmering leotards, thigh-high stockings and stilettos, the dancers’ strong and confident movements echo the sense of independence in the lyrics. The minimalist set design ensures our attention is firmly on Beyoncé and her two backup dancers as they hit every kick, flick, waist-wind, and lift in the routine.
The long shots highlight their unity and frequent closeups of Beyoncé’s facial expressions emphasise her sense of empowerment and resolve. Clever lighting and camera movement give the impression it is one continuous take, so the whole video is an effective mix of togetherness and self-expression.
“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” won MTV’s Video of Year in 2009. Another recipient of the prestigious award was Jamiroquai for “Virtual Insanity” in 1997. His dance routine is worth a look. There are no musical instruments in his video either, so it seems the most essential aspect of performance music videos is the awareness of audience – the direct mode of address.
What about setting? It can certainly help reinforce the song’s themes. For example, Common’s “Letter to the Free” was filmed in an empty prison to symbolise the struggle for freedom and justice in America and it’s no surprise Green Day opted to set their video for “Basket Case” in a psychiatric hospital full of lurid colours. However, performance videos do not need to have an obvious setting. The simple closeup in of Radiohead’s “No Surprises” shows Thom York’s relief to still be alive at the end of the video and it connects the viewer to Sinéad O’Connor’s vulnerability and heartache throughout “Nothing Compares 2 U”:
Watch U2’s “Numb” and Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” for other examples of the importance of a direct mode of address in performance music videos. Of course, wide shots can be just as dramatic, such as the gorgeous landscapes in the video for Harry Styles’ “Sign of the Times”.
Narrative Music Videos
Music television programmes such as “Top of the Pops” quickly realised they had to look beyond the basic codes of performance videos to keep viewers entertained. They needed something more cinematic. Consider this recording of Roy Orbinson’s “Pretty Woman” which first aired on “Top of the Pops” in October 1964:
Although there are no musical instruments and the singer is lip syncing without a microphone, he is still performing directly to the camera. There is one cut back to the “Top of the Pops” studio, but the audience is largely absent from the video. Interestingly, the lyrics of the song are illustrated by the closeup of the woman walking in high heels at the start and end of the video. There is now an awareness of narrative, and it wasn’t long before directors started to tell their own stories.
The visuals might be closely tied to the lyrics and central themes of the song, but narrative music videos have their own characters, settings, and plots. A few examples will help clarify the conventions of this genre.
We are going to begin with Avicii’s video for “Broken Arrows”. The lyrics promise “it’s not too late” to overcome your regrets and despair because you have the support of a loved one who sees “the hope in your heart”. The video echoes this theme with its portrayal of a struggling athlete who is soon inspired by his acrobatic daughter to overcome his fear of failure and win the gold medal at the World Championships.
Most of the video explores the disequilibrium of the protagonist “shooting broken arrows in the dark”, such as his inability to clear the high jump bar and his unsuccessful attempt to establish a romantic relationship with the waitress. The protagonist’s self-loathing and doubt is most apparent when he turns his back on his daughter to go into the trailer alone.
Images of her relentless optimism and love are intercut with these moments representing his despair. Seeing the sadness in her eyes, the protagonist tries to teach his daughter how to high jump only for her to show him a new way of clearing the bar. In terms of Todorov’s narrative theory, this is the repair.
The athlete uses this innovative technique and regains his former glory – the new equilibrium.
The chronology of the story is driven by proairetic codes with one beat of the narrative leading naturally to the next. This reliance on action codes makes sense because music videos are short, and producers have a limited amount of time to get their message across to the audience.
The director of “Broken Arrows” also uses some symbolic codes to help structure the narrative. For example, the image of the protagonist walking barefoot on his medal connotes his emotional distance to his past and his overwhelming sense of failure in the present. Later, his daughter picks up the medal and places it back on the shelf, signifying her role in helping her father turn his life around.
This video was inspired by the real-life story of Richard Fosbury who revolutionised the sport with this backward style which became known as the Fosbury Flop. The video reminds the audience we “don’t have to walk alone” because someone will see our “beautiful scars” and we will “find the light that leads home”.
Avicii often relied on narrative codes in his music videos. Take a look at “Hey Brother” which combines idyllic scenes of two young brothers growing up in rural America with disturbing images of the Vietnam War. The continuity match of the innocent sparkler and the jet fighter explosion is particularly effective.
We are going to continue our semiotic analysis with Ariana Grande’s video for “One Last Time”. It opens with news reports about Earth’s “catastrophic” collision with the “astral debris” and “solar radiation” from the tail of a comet. We cut to an interior shot of a car where Ariana ignores her boyfriend and jumps out from the passenger seat to see the sky turning an ominous purple from electrical storms.
The two protagonists battle through the chaotic streets and buildings to reach a roof top and a full view of the meteor shower about to destroy the planet. The video ends with Ariana and her boyfriend in one final romantic embrace before the world ends.
Presented in the style of found footage popular in the sci-fi and horror genres, the camera movement and lighting suggest there is only one tracking shot and we are watching a real-life event. Again, the narrative is driven by action codes with one event leading logically to the next.
Importantly, the mode of address in both of these videos is indirect. In contrast to the musicians playing for the camera in performance videos, the characters in “Broken Arrows” and “One Last Time” do not address anyone beyond the diegesis – the world of the story. This indirect mode of address is the defining element of the narrative genre.
If you have the time, you could watch all ten videos from the Lumineers’ third album which follows the loves and lives of the fictional Sparks family. At fourteen minutes, Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” is slightly more accessible. The video for Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Sacrilege” is quite interesting because the dark and disturbing story is told in reverse chronological order. Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls” is another solid example of narrative video.
Our final narrative music video is the cinematic offering for Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death”:
The nightmarish vision depicts the world rewinding – people are walking backwards, and cars are set in reverse. However, the protagonist sees a young girl who wants to move forwards and realises he is the only one who can help free her from this broken life. This is the disruption in his character arc.
The disequilibrium sees our hero fighting against the screams of bystanders and being blown back by unseen forces of nature until he speeds against the traffic on the highway. He blasts through the brick wall – a metaphor for whatever holds us back in life – and becomes a giant with the ability to inspire the girl to move forward.
The propaganda poster in the background of some shots declares “time is the killer”. Perhaps we will never reach our full potential because we are too scared to move in the opposite direction of everyone else. It is a wonderful piece of storytelling and demonstrates how narrative music videos can communicate powerful messages to the audience through spectacular visuals.
Concept music videos do not rely on the musicians and a direct mode of address. They might not have an obvious storyline either. In fact, the visuals may have no relevance to the lyrics whatsoever. Instead, these experimental videos might incorporate more abstract and artistic elements, intertextuality, symbolism, montages, surreal imagery, and unconventional editing styles.
In the following three examples, there is no logical progression from one plot point to the next and the characters do not change, for example, from a state of disequilibrium to a new equilibrium. Perhaps concept music videos are defined by the absence of causality and an obvious character arc.
Let’s start with Fatboy Slim’s video for “Right Here, Right Now”:
The directors manage to condense the entire story of human evolution into an absurd three and a half minutes, starting from a single-celled organism and concluding with the man sitting on the park bench. In the denouement, the camera tilts up to reveal the constellation of Orion to suggest our next evolutionary step will take us to the stars.
The DJ’s videos for “Weapon of Choice” and “Praise You” both feature interesting dance routines, but we are going to turn our attention to Shia LaBeouf and Maddie Zeigler’s controversial performance in Sia’s “Elastic Heart”:
Dressed in leotards smeared with dirt, the actors interpret the lyrics through their aggressive dancing and contortions in an intense cage match. Sia explained on social media the characters were actually the two warring sides of her identity and her intention was to create a representation of her emotional state. The result was one of the most watched videos on YouTube in 2015.
With Queen and David Bowie locked into touring commitments, the director of “Under Pressure” created a vivid montage by combining stock footage with clips from 1920’s silent films to represent the feelings of dread we all experience in our lives:
The video begins with images of commuters on the way to work intercut with clips of famous monsters from early cinema, including the vampire from “Nosferatu”. The juxtaposition suggests we should be afraid of the blood-sucking capitalist system. This message is reinforced by scenes from the Great Depression in America and “people on the streets” suffering from the financial ruin.
The series of imploding buildings connotes the need for society to change – footage of riots and terrorism suggest that call for change could soon turn violent. The video does offer a more optimistic vision of lovers kissing and people enjoying themselves at a music festival, but we all need to “give love one more chance” before we end up on the scrapheap.
We tried to identify the essential codes of three styles of music videos: performance, narrative, and concept. Musicians use performance videos to raise their personal profiles because they give the audience a chance to see the faces and personalities behind the music. We might already be familiar with the artists, so we are more likely to watch their latest offering. An entertaining narrative has the potential to deepen our emotional connection to the song, and unique visuals can make the video stand out by shocking and surprising the viewer.
It makes sense then to combine these different styles into new and exciting hybrid forms to engage the audience on different levels. That is why the vast majority of videos will consist of mixture of the conventions.
For instance, Katy Perry sings to the camera from a rooftop in Budapest in her video for “Firework” and then as she walks through the streets of the city. There are plenty of closeups of her gazing directly to the audience with her message of resilience and hope. It is a performance video:
The video also contains glimpses into the lives of different characters: two children trying to block out the sound of their parents arguing; a young woman who refuses to jump into the swimming pool at the party; a cancer patient alone in the dark in hospital; and a young man reluctant to approach someone he loves. This is their disequilibrium.
Katy Perry reaches the chorus and fireworks burst from her body. She tells the viewer to “ignite the light and let it shine”. Her strength reminds the characters they are “not a waste of space” and they too have the power to repair their lack in their lives. Inspired, the son breaks through his quarrelling parents, the young woman overcomes her inhibitions and leaps into the pool, the young man finds the courage to kiss his friend, and the cancer patient discovers her own fireworks outside the hospital.
Todorov and Weinstein (1969) believed the “complete minimum plot consists of the passage from one balance to another”. Since these characters do move from disequilibrium to a new equilibrium, we can label “Firework” as a hybrid between performance and narrative modes.
In the following video for “Hurt”, Johnny Cash sings directly to camera and we see him strumming his guitar and playing the piano:
His voice is full of sadness and remorse, and we can feel that deep pain of “broken thoughts” in the closeups of his face. When he asks “what have I become” in the second chorus, it is a very moving appeal to his wife who is standing over his shoulder in a long shot.
Supporting the message of the song, the signifiers of the rotting fruit and flowers are a reminder of the “stains of time” and how “everyone I know goes away in the end”. The lavish setting suggests success and wealth are only an “empire of dirt” compared to his love for his “sweetest friend”. Johnny Cash never moves from this state of disequilibrium so there is no clear narrative.
However, the director cuts to B-roll footage taken in the singer’s derelict museum in Nashville, clips which celebrate his career in the spotlight, and various images with religious significance. Similar to the video for “Under Pressure”, this montage conceptualises the main themes of the song – the transience of life and the importance of being true to yourself.
The video is a hybrid between performance and concept genres.
Some music videos imitate and mock the conventions of genre by exaggerating the iconography and technical codes. Perhaps the director wants to subvert our expectations for comedic effect, or they want to provide a critical position on the features. For example, The Roots poked fun at the “rap video manual” in “What They Do” to highlight how the “principals of true hip hop have been forsaken” and the industry is now about “money-making”:
The satire plays with the stereotypes, such as the images of a bikini-clad dancer feeling sore after waist-winding and the ridiculous amount of champaign on display throughout the video. The Roots are warning the audience not to fall for the “false representation” in hip hop videos.
Similarly, Blink 182 mocked the typical visuals of pop videos in “All the Small Things”:
You may not remember the references, but the video steals images from some of the most famous pop artists at the time, such as Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. However, instead of dancing in the rain with its typical connotation of freedom, Mark Hoppus is getting soaked by a hosepipe and sponge, and we realise Tom DeLonge is actually sitting on the toilet when the camera pulls back from the closeup of his white shirt blowing in the wind.
In his analysis of genre in Hollywood cinema, Thomas Schatz (1981) described how conventions were established and refined until there was a “pattern of increasing self-consciousness” in the films. Once music video genres developed through their own process of repetition and variation, it was inevitable that directors would parody the codes. Who knows where the cycle will take us next.
Music videos are an amazing fusion of music, art, and technology created by producers who are always finding fresh and innovative ways to communicate complex themes to the audience. Is it really possible to define the different styles? First, take a look at 2Pac’s “California Love”:
We argued performance videos had a direct mode of address. Dr Dre delivers the first verse straight to the camera, welcoming the audience to the “wild, wild west” and “the state where you never find the dance floor empty”. 2Pac “serenades the streets of LA” in the second verse. Dressed in leather and metal armour, they might be playing characters living a post-apocalyptic version of Oakland, but it is still a performance for the audience watching on their screens. It is a performance video.
The director’s vision of a flamboyant party in the middle of a wasteland is spectacular. It looks and feels like a cinematic blockbuster. However, Dr Dre and 2Pac do not recognise a disequilibrium or go in search of a repair to reach a new equilibrium. There is no plot so we should not classify “California Love” as a narrative video or hybrid.
Blur’s video for “Coffee and TV” opens with a family stricken by grief because their son is missing. The hero is a milk carton who goes on an adventure to repair this lack, meeting some weird and wonderful characters on his journey. At the end of the narrative, the son reunites with his family and a new equilibrium is established.
The song was written by Graham Coxon and describes his struggles with this “big bad world” and alcoholism. The guitarist would often miss rehearsal sessions and meetings because of his addiction.
Although the band are in the video performing the song, is it a performance video? Notice how they don’t break the fourth wall and look at the camera to address the audience directly. Since they are part of the diegesis, the video should be classified as narrative rather than hybrid.
The fact the protagonist is a milk carton with human characteristics could point to the concept mode of music video, but the representation is actually part of the narrative. Similarly, look at how Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat sing and dance their way through the Grammy Award winning video for “Opposites Attract”:
The cartoon cat is an integral part of the performance so there is no need to label the video a hybrid between performance and concept modes. By contrast, we would argue Seal’s video for “Kiss from a Rose” is a mixture of performance and concept modes because it contains clips from “Batman Forever” which are not connected to his performance or offer a clear narrative.
Do we label the video for The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” a performance video because it features a representation of the duo with the usual closeups and medium shots typical of the genre? Is it a concept video because the representations are abstract rather than distortions of reality? These questions are not always easy to answer.
It is important to remember that music video genres are not fixed forms, but we can still develop our understanding of how producers encode their messages by analysing the common structural elements and patterns in the texts.