The strange relationship between art, commerce and technology is nothing new. Early burlesque performers probably had no idea what they were getting themselves into the first time someone asked to point one of those newfangled motion picture cameras at them. Then they discovered that men might not be willing to pay top dollar for a real, live woman when they could see the next best thing projected on a screen at the nickelodeon. Plus, film loops don’t require food or lodging and they never get tired so long as the sprocket holes last. When technology threatens a business, the business has to find a way of delivering something that technology can’t and so… the lap-dance was born.
Early stand-ups comics learned the same lesson. There was a time when a comic could spend an entire career perfecting a tight fifteen minutes worth of material and put his kids through college in the process. Then, comedians started getting booked on television. Getting a spot on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” was many a comedian’s big break. It also meant that in one fell swoop, half the country knew all his best material. In the immortal words of Chris Rock, Sting can play the same songs in concert for twenty years. If fact, the audience will get mad at him if he doesn’t play those songs, but God forbid a comedian tell the same joke that was funny last year. Hence after Louis CK performs a joke in a televised special, he retires it. The artist has adapted to the technology.
Large corporations typically fear and resist the very technology they will soon come to embrace. The movies thought they’d be ruined by television. Nowadays, television (in the form of home video, video on demand and cable rights) is what makes most box office bombs ultimately profitable. Then the television networks went before congress to try to stop the mass marketing of Video Cassette Recorders, fearing that it would encourage piracy of their intellectual property. We can thank Fred Rogers of “Mister Rodgers Neighborhood” whose testimony before congress, about the benefits of parents recording a show like his to watch with their children, helped usher in the home video revolution which would ultimately begat the DVD player, Tivo, and the DVR. Boxed sets of TV series became huge money makers, which would have been unheard of just a few years prior. The newfound permanence of the formerly ephemeral art form gave way to a need breed of television show that would stand up to and even reward repeated viewing. Hence shows like “Arrested Development” and “The Wire.”
Of course, the most technophobic industry has been the music. Dubbing an album from one analog cassette to another seems positively quaint in the iTunes era, but those of us old enough to remember when this was state of the art technology probably also remember when blank cassettes and dual cassette decks were the bane of record companies’ existence. So much so, they tried to get a tax applied to the sales of blank tapes that would kick back to them to offset the revenue they’d lose when people copied their music.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the subject of music video. When MTV debuted in the early 80s, people doubted that there was or would be enough visual content to justify a 24 hour music network. Within a few years, record companies were proving that content to the tune of hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars a pop. A new breed a visually savvy pop star emerged, bringing with them a new breed of young filmmaker. Perhaps no artist/director collaboration typified this more than the one between Madonna and a then unknown David Fincher.
But then the digital revolution happened. Songs could be downloaded for free from sites like Napster and its brethren. Kids who had once watched MTV for hours waiting for their favorite video to come on, could now get it at a moment’s notice on YouTube. MTV traded in music videos for whatever it is MTV plays now (I’m 40, so I have no idea). Record companies were tightening their belts due to lost revenue and at the same time they realized that they no longer had to make videos that looked good on a 27 inch TV screen, only videos that look good enough on a smart-phone or a widow within a window on a laptop.
That’s how we went from a multi-million dollar production of Michael and Janet Jackson recreating the Mikhail Baryshnikov / Gregory Hines dance-off from “White Nights” in a Kubrickian space station…
…to Beyoncé and a couple of back-up dancers in front of a white wall.
In a world where a cat riding a Roomba or a young woman sitting a toilet has just as good a chance of going viral as the products of most major record labels, artists have had to find new ways to cut through the clutter. OK Go cracked this nut with their intricately choreographed video for “Here it Goes Again,” but they also pigeonholed themselves as a band know for its intricately choreographed videos more than for its music.
This brings me (finally) to them man who, until this summer, I knew primarily as Alan Thicke’s son and Paula Patton’s husband. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is the first music video I was compelled to watch through word-of-mouth since Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” (still the greatest music video ever produced by the medium, in my humble opinion), but what Thicke discovered was that you don’t need a big budget, a dying music icon or an intricately choreographed stunt to get a buzz. All you need is the oldest special effect in the book: Hot Naked Ladies.
I’m not going to discuss the political ramifications of this video. The fact that it was directed by a woman, Dian Martin, who claims that her use of women’s bodies here is subtly subversive, and the fact that Thicke has claimed to enjoy “degrading” the models in the video, makes that subject worthy of its own conversation.
I’m simply pondering what “Blurred Lines” means for music video as an art form (and yes it IS an art form, or at least it was). For me, it symbolizes the end.
Of course there are hundreds of awful rap videos that are a thousand times worse than “Blurred Lines, but for reasons related to both race and musical genre, those videos never enter the mainstream consciousness the way this video by a safe, white, pop-R&B artist has. (As an aside, though, I remain convinced that long after Nelly’s music has been forgotten, his enduring legacy will be the music video “Tip Drill” which will live on in Women’s Studies texts as the apex of misogyny in the music industry.)
“Blurred Lines” director, Martin, says she was inspired by the work of fashion photographer Helmut Newton, of whom I’m a big fan, but I think the video is much more evocative of Terry Richardson. For those who don’t know, Richardson is a hack photographer who took the magazine world by storm with his porn influenced, poorly composed, over exposed, harshly lit, snapshots of clothed men and naked women in front of bare white walls. Watching “Blurred Lines” for the first time, I actually thought he might have been the director. For my money, Richardson is to Helmut Newton what Robin Thicke is to Marvin Gaye.
At the end of the day, I don’t knock Robin Thicke’s hustle. His gambit was successful. The man I knew as Paula Patton’s husband is now a household name. So much so that it was my 61-year-old girlfriend who neither watches TV nor listens to pop radio, who convinced me to watch the video. Thicke is just another in a long line of artists adapting to technology’s effect on his market place, although probably more in the tradition of a stripper giving a lap-dance than Louis CK or the creators of “The Wire.”