Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gesamtkunstwerking to OK Go: Pop Music Videos and Synesthesia

You're going to think I'm crazy. But I think Richard Wagner would have been fascinated by Lady Gaga. Wagner, as most of you already know, spilled much ink discussing the relationship between different artistic media (dance, theater, poetry, music). Just like "the ocean binds and separates the land," he states in his essay, "The Art-Work of the Future" (1849), "so does Music bind and separate the two opposite poles of human Art, the arts of Dance and Poetry." He hoped to unify all of the arts together through theater in particular, but at this point I think Gesamtkunstwerk has come to mean a sort of total art work encompassing a wide range of art forms. Whatever we think counts as an artistic media today (architecture, graphic design, music, dance, poetry, fashion, etc.) can be coupled together to create a greater and now truly transformed work of art. Maybe it helps to think of this process in Hegelian terms? The synthesis that results out of this dialectic is a new art form.

As much as it's fun to make fun of Wagner, he and other 19th century aesthetes asked some really great and fundamental questions about music and its relationship to the arts that still resonate today. 

Case in point: Gesamtkunstwerk exists today in pop culture, even if the people who are creating it don't know that or call it such. One of the best examples of Gesamtkunstwerk - where different artistic media have come together to create a new art form - is the music video. Comprising both the audio and the visual, bringing together poetry, music, dance, the visual arts, and drama, the music video has really become its own art form since the 1980s when MTV bust onto the scene.

True, not all music videos are amazing or illuminating, but occasionally a music video will be so powerful that it transforms how we hear a song. A great music video temporarily gives us synesthesia and brings our different senses together. It proves Wagner's claim that artistic media have the power to enhance each other. Which brings me back to Lady Gaga.

Although I think many of us are understandably over Lady Gaga and her antics, I still give her credit for conquering the pop music world in 2009 with such ferocity. And what helped her to seize power for a brief window of time was her song, "Bad Romance."
What made the song so enthralling wasn't just the music itself; it was the video that accompanied it. Numerous blogs and pop culture sites wrote post after post offering readers a frame-by-frame analysis of the video and what each shot might mean. The über-snobby indie site, Pitchfork even weighed in on "Bad Romance," which they called the best pop vide of 2009. They wrote, "And the video is part of the package: Like Madonna or Prince, it's impossible to separate the song from the performer."

When we hear "Bad Romance" on the radio, I think many of us instinctively also watch the video in our minds.

Gaga's "Bad Romance" is part of a long legacy of music videos that have truly transformed our listening experiences. There are a lot of really great songs out there with great music videos, but how many have actually altered the way we perceive or understand the song?

Here are some other music videos that I think embody this synesthestic effect/fulfill Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk ideal:
Michael Jackson - "Thriller"
Isn't this where it all began? The song's going to come on at a Halloween party on Friday, and you're going to form your hands into claws and move about like a zombie. Just admit it. We see the video and mimic its dances when we hear the song.
Madonna - "Material Girl"
Already a riff on Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Madonna's "Material Girl" video makes us see pink and glitter when we hear the song on the radio.
Madonna - Vogue
Girlfriend's clearly the expert at making music videos that are transformative aesthetic experiences.
D'Angelo - "Untitled"
D'Angelo isn't just Donna's cousin on the tv show, Parks and Rec. He's also the man behind this song that made countless people blush. It almost has a Pavlovian effect on us, no? The song floats into our ears and we blush, even though we're not watching the video.
Beyonce - "Single Ladies" 
Tell me to my face that you aren't picturing women in unitards and high heels prancing when you hear this song on the radio. TELL ME TO MY FACE. 
Sia - "Chandelier" 
Please. Everyone knows that wig and beige unitard now. And actors in this SNL skit perfectly imitated the awkward gyrations that captures the joie de vivre of the dancer in the video. 
Arcarde Fire, "The Suburbs"
This one's personal. It's hard not to think about the video now when I hear this song. If you haven't seen the video before, watch it in its entirety.

I wonder what Wagner might have to say about Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda," come to think of it. On its own, the song is rather forgettable, as plenty of critics have pointed out. But the video has had people talking for months now. 

Anyway. The point is that all of these music videos go beyond simply the music. When we hear the music alone, we automatically drudge up the visual.  

This brings me to the case of OK Go. Their music, frankly, isn't all that memorable on its own. Pitchfork constantly gives their albums a "2" out of 10.  I have no desire to listen to an OK Go album by myself in a dark room. But OK Go has become a successful music group through their clever videos. In fact, it's probably the only reason they've become popular at all. Like the other examples that I've looked at, OK Go's music is now inseparable from their videos. But OK Go also represents a departure from the norm here as well. I'd argue that OK Go would not have been able to achieve their pop music status as a musical ensemble without their visual accompaniment. 
Here's their most famous video, "Here It Goes Again"
And this song is catchy in its own post-punk knock-off Franz Ferdinand-y kind of way. But songs such as "The Writing's On The Wall"? Listen to it without watching the visually dazzling video that accompanies it:
To each her own, of course, but I'm not sure how well the music stands on its own.

OK Go's music videos raise all kinds of questions about the relationship between sound and image, between text and music: are these different art forms celebrating each other in these videos? Are they even related at all? Would OK Go be so commercially successful without their visually clever videos? Do these videos meet our definitions of Gesamtkunstwerk?

And maybe that last point is worth ruminating on a little bit. In spite of my obnoxious blog post title, and in spite of the praise they've garnered for their videos (they won the best music video Grammy in 2009 for "Here It Goes Again"), I'm not really sure if OK Go's music videos fit my definition of Gesamtskunstwerk in 2014. With the main pop songs I discussed earlier ("Thriller," "Single Ladies," etc.) we hear the song and summon up an image. But do the images and the songs have such a strong bond in OK Go's videos? At least for me they don't. It's hard to recall how some of their songs sound without being near my computer to google them.

Pop music videos are so much fun to think about because they encourage us to think about the various competing/reinforcing/mutually supportive/occasionally disruptive relationships between artistic media anew. The next time a pop music video explodes onto the scene and lights our world on fire (for approximately 15 minutes), I'll be asking myself WWWT (What Would Wagner Think) the first time I watch it.

1 comment:

  1. Adorno has talked about Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk as a precursor of film, of course, and it's not hard to see how the music video would be the next logical step. Now I am having fun imagining Adorno disdainfully watching MTV.

    During the Monster's Ball tour, there was a form of leitmotif in Lady Gaga's show, although it was based on the track 'Dance in the Dark.' Little snippets from it were heard when the show transitioned from one set to another. I loved it because I think that 'Dance in the Dark' is one of her all-time best songs. That being said, I don't care for the video. It's very similar to 'Bad Romance,' which I think is much more effective. 'Dance in the Dark' has some of the same claw gestures and stuff, but less of a cohesive narrative and notably fewer bold red outfits.

    Important historical note: do you remember that Kanye and Gaga were supposed to tour TOGETHER? But Kanye pulled out, leaving Gaga to do Monster's Ball. Let's all take a moment, though, and contemplate how cuckoo bananas a tour involving Kanga would be.