Category Archives: Music Videos

and now for something comprehensive

As I have undoubtedly mentioned at some point in the last several months, I’ve devoted a lot of my filmmaking efforts in the first portion of 2012 to my senior thesis film (also known as comps at Carleton).  It’s an experimental piece called when you wish upon a star, essentially a mash-up of Lady Gaga music videos and Marlene Dietrich films with footage of myself, a (perhaps overly?) complicated and problematized exploration of persona, celebrity, gender performance, and the performance of identity in general.  It tries to be a film theory and critical analysis through film-making, a sort of “filmed theory” as I have termed it, asks questions about whether comparisons I have made and wanted to make were even acceptable.

It was truly a labor of love, and after more than four months of such loving labors, I finally completed and presented it two Fridays ago in the second round of the CAMS comps film symposium.  (For those of you who were there, thank you thank you thank you; I am of a mind that comps talks are a bit like funerals, in terms of attendance, so it was wonderful to see so many faces I love in the audience.)

Then, coincidentally, I discovered later that evening that the blog Marlene Dietrich: The Last Goddess had just published a post entitled “Lady Gaga, Marlene Dietrich, and…Anna Swanson?” — and aside from the immediate fact that it’s a massive ego-sweller to have my work as a filmmaker analyzed for the first time, I was also struck by the (for lack of a better word) accuracy with which Joseph, the blogger who wrote the piece, perceived exactly what I had intended to be taken from the film, meaning-wise.  Or rather, not ‘exactly’, but approximately, since the film is so much about the difficulty of pin-pointing meaning, and is very much intended to be interpreted through whatever lens each new viewer brings to the work.

I was particularly thrilled by Joseph’s reaction to how I was wrangling with whether to ascribe to Dietrich the mantle of queer iconography and feminism: “I can’t help but wish that all the folks who ever professed that Dietrich was their feminist icon would watch Swanson’s piece!”  And the comment thread that his reaction to my comps sparked was similarly intriguing and satisfying.  It even gets around to touching on the question of whether Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” is reductive in its treatment of gender/identity/sexuality/etc. — to which I would respond that ‘reductive’ is relative, and that this song may perhaps be the most effective (or at least the catchiest) example of strategic essentialism to be found today.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking seriously about how to exhibit and control the distribution of my work; I’ve been jokingly taken up the motto that I will require a second screening of a film immediately after its has ended, and force my audiences to watch it twice.  And in a somewhat related vein, I’ve been wondering about whether to make my work completely and publicly accessible online, which has been my M.O. for all my work in the past.  To that end, I recently decided to make the online version of when you wish upon a star private/password-protected, which I have been interested to note has been noticed by the blogger(s) at The Last Goddess — the entry on my work has a new heading:
EDITED MAY 7, 2012 TO ADD: Looks like the video has been made private. What a pity!

More flattery.  Goodness.

So, for now, while I wrestle with my (cough) burgeoning fame and (cough) burgeoning ego, I would just like to insert a shameless plug for an upcoming LIVE screening of this work of mine.  For anyone who missed my comps talk but is in the Carleton area this weekend, we will be hosting a screening of all 10 senior comps films in the Weitz Cinema at 8 pm on Sunday, May 13.  It will be a truly beautiful extravaganza of moving image pieces that have had the hearts, souls, sweat, blood, and tears of we brave artistic souls who are the graduating Carleton CAMS seniors of 2012.  I personally guarantee a good time shall be had by all.


As soon as Lady Gaga’s new single “Born This Way” came out last February, comparisons (and accusations of plagiarism) began to be made with respect to Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself.”  Along with discussions of controversy, the Internet was flooded with mash-ups of the two songs, generally attempting to prove their similarity — and admittedly there are some striking similarities between the two pieces (Gaga has gone on record saying that she is heavily influenced and inspired by Madonna).  But neither the accusations nor the mash-ups have extended beyond the singles themselves to their music videos, which leaves, for the sound studies scholar interested in such, an alluring lacuna.

As a final project for one of courses this term, Sound Studies, I delved into a lot of really fascinating music video theory, and ended up creating the piece “Express Yourself This Way” (above).   It plays with this opportunity for both visual and aural mash-up in order to interrogate, empirically, how sound and image in music-video map onto one another in a such a way that “the inherent qualities found in the sound and the moving images are interchangeable, so that the audio resounds the moving image, and the moving image visualises the audio”(18, Strand) — namely, to test ideas around the concept of aural visuality.

As Carol Vernallis says, “music video editing is strongly responsive to music”(xi, Vernallis), and Andrew Goodwin, Strand, and Vernallis all agree (as do I) that unlike film, sound comes first in music video as the song precedes the the creation of the clip.  Each of them makes similar but slightly differently-nuanced arguments for how it occurs, but the general consensus is that the sound of the music (not necessarily lyrics) inspires the image, finding aural-visual corollaries in things like color, visual microrhythms (as termed so by Michel Chion), form/flow, and contour that bring the image and sound together a particular ‘joins’ — almost reminiscent of Walter Murch’s metaphor of the dance of the edited lines of a film.  Thus, according to Strand, “by using the song and the aural qualities inherent within its audio space as a starting point, visuals are created that correlate to the phenomenological qualities of the sound in such a way that the images become the sound, undulating and streaming around the viewers, pulsing and reverberating through them”(39, Strand).

Thus, one of the primary questions asked by the video I have crafted: if arguments about aural visuality and the expression of image through music from the starting point of sound, hold true, should the images of the songs resonate similarly if “Express Yourself” and “Born This Way” sound so much alike?  My methodology in exploring was therefore to match the audio of each song with video from the other’s music video (they were both, minus the expository ‘para-song’ section at the beginning of Gaga’s video) almost exactly five minutes.  Even at this stage it was a bit uncanny how well the new image/sound pairings seemed to ‘work’.  In music video, Carol Vernallis has identified “the fundamental unit [as] the musical section, rather the scene or the shot”(170, Vernallis), as it would be in film.   Thus, “treating the form of the song as the analytical ground for the video better reflects its semantic and formal structure”(171, Vernallis), so I proceeded to segment each of the new aduio/visual pairings into their segments (intros, verses, choruses, bridges), and then created a hybrid ‘standard song form’ which I used as a framework to reconstruct a total music video by alternating sections from each in order through the framework, which is textually highlighted at the beginning of each major cut in the piece.

As I mentioned, there is an uncanny workability to the overlaid image/sound pairings that suggests that there are indeed aural similarities, and that because the theories of aural visuality seem to hold true, this creates a similar intertextual reversibillity between music videos themselves, over and above the intratextual reversibility (in the Sobchack sense) of image and sound.

Although my experiment doesn’t yet address what can be determined culturally from this more formal, critical aural-visual interrogation of a widespread accusation of ‘plagiarism’, it does also allude to the question of whether there is perhaps an inherent synchronicity of cultural concern between the two artists and their intended meanings in the songs that supports their ultimate similarity, in both sound and music video.  I am certainly not passing judgment as to whether Gaga has paid an extended homage or has completely ripped off Madonna — both artists operate within highly post-modern practices and discourses, where traces abound and ‘true originality’ is impossible.  Borrowing, both deliberate and inadvertent, is bound to happen.  But while the songs seem clearly intended (on Gaga’s part) to have some similarities, the interchangeabillity — the similar aural translational qualities — of the two music-videos suggest that an inadvertent similarity has emerged in the flow of images, precisely because Strand, Vernallis, and Goodwin are right: sound is always the impetus for the music-video, and aural visuality (and cinesthetic montage) entails that images that “work” for one song will “work” for a song that has been almost objectively determined as sounding the same.

Works Referenced

Goodwin, Andrew.  Dancing in the Distraction Factory.  Taylor & Francis, 1993.
Lady Gaga.  Music video. “Born This Way.” dir. Nick Knight.  2011.
Madonna.  Music video.  “Express Yourself.” dir. David Fincher. 1989.
Strand, Joachim Wichman.  Thesis, MCA in Screen Arts.  The Cinesthetic
Montage of Music-video: hearing the image and seeing the sound
Submitted to the Department of Media and Information Faculty of Media,
Society and Culture, Curtin University of Technology July 2006.
Vernallis, Carol.  Experiencing Music Video.  New York: Columbia University
Press, 2004.
Vernallis, Carol.  “The Aesthetics of Music-video: an analysis of Madonna’s
‘Cherish’.” Popular Music (1998) Volume 17/2.  United Kingdon: Cambridge
University Press, 1998.  p. 153-85.

無題: my very first mash-up

For the longest time, I’ve expressed my fascination with and desire to create music video mash-ups/re-mixes/found-footage-films — and now I’ve finally created one!  Part of the impetus was that I am on break, so technically I can do whatever the hell I want with my time, so as a CAMS major, I of course end up spending a day playing with Final Cut…but the theoretical and artistic impetus is the desire to express something without words — it’s nearly impossible to escape textual anchoring (this introduction being my case-in-point), but my goal for the video was to communicate without language (although, as an only-partly-skeptical student of post-structural thought, I would certainly make the case that aural instrumentation and video and images have their own semiotics).  The idea that the world of YouTube is like a set symbols, an alphabet of potential meaning, that we as 21st century visual culturists are free to co-opt and make speak for us (with or without ‘words’) is quite exciting.

So, if you are so inclined, you can witness my first piece of mashed-up video craft.  Source materials include my own photography and HD footage of Paris and Barcelona, three music videos, a couple of travel advertisements, and a recording by a friend…I’ll give anyone who identifies all three music videos a gold star, or something of equal fake internet value. 🙂

tv on the internet: a few thoughts inspired by rac105

One thing that struck me right away in Barcelona was the predominance of chart-topping American pop music — I could hear it pumping from this booth outside El Corte Ingles every day when I went to class, it played in tiendas and supermercats all over the city, and on my first evening in the area, I distinctly heard some Justin Bieber flowing out of the club Razzmatazz near our housing in Poble Nou.  (This is in opposition to Paris, where I was during spring break, and where I was constantly hearing very mediocre American hip-hop/R&B that I had never before…  Also while in Paris, my friend Clare introduced me to the videos of the French artist Yelle, who is beyond the scope of this current post but merits further consideration.  I think there is something distinctly French about French music videos.)

As may have been implied in my post on remix, one of my favorite focuses of visual culture is the music video.  But music videos on TV – Spain has a channel called RAC105, which is what MTV would be (what MTV should be, at the risk of inciting argument…) had it not become predominated by reality TV and other programming that seems to have forgotten its roots in avant-garde video and, oh yeah, music.  My beef with MTV aside, RAC105 was fascinating in its selection of videos: almost all American pop, plus some local Spanish color, and one random house single from Eastern Europe called Mr. Saxobeat by Alexandra Stan.  Pop songs and music videos tend to have a shelf-life in the context of radio-play and MTV-play (when MTV gets around to playing music videos…), but RAC105 defied a lot of my expectations about what would get played — it was not uncommon to have Miley Cyrus’  “Party in the U.S.A.” followed by “Born This Way” followed by something Annie Lennox recorded in the 80s.  It reminded me, in its programming and ordering, of the often-eclecticness of KRLX, my beloved home college radio station (where, incidentally, I DJ when I am on campus).  Maybe this connection is related to the relative lack of commercials on RAC105, such that it, like college radio, can sort of play whatever it wants – or rather, whatever it is that it thins Spain wants, which seems to be this intriguing mélange of American music (plus the token Romanian house stuff…).

There are also definitely videos that I saw for the first time on RAC105 (Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me”, in which the relevance of Rocky Horror and Tommy references elude the best of us…).  The channel was on most of the time we were all in our lounge/kitchen, and was very popular with my fellow study abroad students, but we would often ask each other, is this popular in the U.S.?  Is this what Spain thinks is popular in the U.S.?  I never had definitive answer for either of those questions.  Nonetheless, I find it fascinating to consider how music videos that may or may not reflect our culture and its values are being received abroad – what is catching on in Spain, and what, through the lens of Spanish TV, we can assume is catching on at home while we are away.