Theorizing Music Videos of the Late 2010s

PDF Theorizing Music Videos of the Late 2010s 2022.03.30

Book author
  1. J.B. Metzler
  2. Leo Feisthauer
9783662650486 w300

The work formulates a status quo of the music video medium in the late 2010s and shows which trends, aesthetics and (new) standards have established themselves. Particularly the role of the prosumer amidst evolved technical conditions is highlighted in this context, which strongly influences the evolution of music video in this period. Moreover, the author understands music videos as socio-political actors and examines the resulting questions of their interaction with culture.


I have always been fascinated by music videos. Born in the early 1990 s, I still got to experience MTV in its latest state of being a hot spot in music and popular culture. At the same time, mobile phones acquired the ability to display videos and USB sticks could be handed around to share bigger files. I remember watching Sum 41 and Blink 182-clips on schoolyards and collecting music videos on a folder on my desktop.

Some years later, I started making short films on my own and music videos for other bands. My perspective got augmented from just being a consumer to seeing things as a producer: I became—typical for my generation—a prosumer, something that I will discuss at length as one of the main arguments of this work. Most of the time, there was initially no or only a very limited budget available for the productions. Nevertheless, my team members and I always had great ambitions regarding the dimensions of the video. We were regularly inspired by new music videos and tried to use the technical, human, and financial resources available to us as efficiently as possible. We were often forced to rely on DIY methods and the free cooperation of technical companies, pyrotechnicians, location owners, and many more. To our satisfaction, we were very often rewarded by success and a growing network. \

Although the videos did not go viral, they always represented a success for us for our own further work and also in the audience, who appreciated the handwriting of the videos and gave us a lot of support.

At university, I studied music and took up making music videos seriously, and now, this research on music videos in their current form offers me an opportunity to take a step back and to address the topic from an academic viewpoint. So I must disclaim that the point of view from which I write this work is thus shaped by my own biography and my experience in the field of producing music videos.

This PhD dissertation is based on theory formation. Its goal is to formulate a status quo of the music video medium in the late 2010 s and analyze if mentionable stylistic trends or innovations are establishing and if so, if these findings demand new impulses for the scholarly debate so far. I am thus investigating methods and structures that routinely create order for social and cultural phenomena in practical activities—in my case, in music videos. Following a wide array of disciplines, perspectives and approaches, this work is designed to contribute to a developing understanding of the medium and its evolution.

Next to musical and cinematic analyses that are both descriptive and hermeneutic, the study is methodologically located in the interpretative paradigm1, which includes social constructivism, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and has its roots in the Chicago School. Their shared basic assumption is that people act towards things based on the meaning that these things have for them. This meaning is created in an interpretative process with other actors and can be changed, varied, and stabilized. To reconstruct the creation of meaning (and thus reality), a subject-oriented view of the actors and content is required. One could argue that music videos are interpretative methods themselves that make sense of the world of the social entity’s members. Trying to understand music videos, in our case, and explaining their meanings is the method that ethnomethodology employs.2 Rather than a theory that announces in advance what is true or correct (which a priori would be pointless and downright impossible, concerning the high pace at which the medium is evolving), I find it more fruitful to theorize ‘without guarantees’3 and with a ‘necessary modesty of theory’4, as Stuart Hall put it.

Since I have a personal history as a musician and both a consumer and producer of music videos, this subject-oriented view on the topic, or in other words—understanding music videos in their context through the experiences of the researcher—shall be the fundament of my academic practice. Moreover, this personal experience or personal empiricism is also the particular feature of this work, compared with other academia on the topic, which was often written with a purely theoretical background. Although I am not analyzing my own artistic work, a producer’s perspective shall be profitable for the scientific debate.

I will show that since from around the year 2014, music videos have been going through a significant evolution, a Renaissance, as I call it. Just as European culture of the 15th and 16th century was reviving the artistic achievements and style of Roman and Greek antiquity, the current music video market also revives its past golden age, which can be set during the 1980 s and 90 s. After a period of stagnation and disinterest in the early 2000 s, music videos nowadays are much more than just an advertisement for a specific song and even more than just a visual product to accompany music. The music video has become an independent art form with a vast and interactive audience, making it a, if not the most, democratic one. Traditional art forms have somewhat hierarchical standards of aesthetics, which then enforce traditional notions of power and the ‘conventional hermeneutic pecking order’, as J. Maggio calls it5. However, in the music video world, every artist, from high-selling popstars to independent, local bands, mainly deals with the same platform of distribution and the same task to create a combination of sound and image worth watching (see Setion 3.4).

Furthermore, I want to analyze the interaction of culture and music videos and their role as a supertextual6 constant in an ever-growing multi-media world.

This diagnosis entails an array of consequences music videos pose in their cultural environment: The most important one is that they represent something I would like to call a ‘cultural melting-pot’ that offers a field of research of various cultural aspects in a concentrated and somewhat definable form. I will analyze and discuss this argument in chapter 5 to theorize music videos’ impact on media and society. Music is said to be a universal language7 that can express emotions across disparate cultures. That term goes back to like Henry Longfellow, Arthur Schopenhauer, and E.T.A Hoffmann8 and has been controversial ever since9. However, I find it exciting to conceptually transfer art forms into other forms (such as understanding music as text) and then find new impulses for the discussion. In this context, I want to propose the perception of music videos as a tool and a language of pop- and internet culture that is vividly negotiating its technical and cultural environment and everything internet culture brings forth. I base this on the understanding of language as a communication system used by a particular community.10 If viewed as a structural system where signs are governed by specific rules of combination to communicate meaning, it becomes plausible that certain codes such as aesthetics, narration, pictures, symbols, etc. in combination with itself or the music, convey meaning. However, unlike in the traditional structuralist model, the sign’s meaning does not necessarily need to be fixed; it might also be negotiable. How this interdisciplinary perception of music videos might be fruitful for the discourse, I will theorize more deeply in later chapters.

The third focus of this work will be the closer analysis of the prosumer’s role in current music videos. The ‘prosumer’ is a term blending the words producer and consumer and was first introduced back in 1980 by futurologist Alvin Toffler11 and later picked up by various scholars, mainly in the context of IT issues as in ‘The Digital Economy’ from 1994 by Don Tapscott. In chapter 4, I spend time with the concept of prosumerism, which I will show to be central to today’s music video world.

I notice that academia yet struggles to cover music videos adequately. Even Mathias Bonde Korsgaard says in his book from 2017 that scientific literature has yet to keep up with the ever-evolving development of music videos, which has become one of the most important online media.12 Statements like these encouraged me to make music videos the subject of my scholarly work, expanding my own experience as both consumer and producer into an academic framework.

I must clarify that one cannot speak of any kind of unity regarding ‘the contemporary music video’ that could be compared to that of another period. There have been progressive and influential videos at any point of music video’s history. And today—just as there have been back in the days—there also is an immense number of videos that deliver no evolution, progression or interesting phenomena whatsoever. Already in 1987, E. Ann Kaplan noticed the problems with analyzing music videos appearing in an ever-growing plurality13. Since then, the situation has by no means become easier to overview. All one can do is describe their own views and experiences and refer to existing literature that discusses similar observations. This is why my analyses and the findings focus mainly on the medium music video rather than particular videos.​
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