“Thriller.” “Baby, One More Time.” “Supa Dupa Fly.” “Rhythm Nation.” “Bad Romance.” “Untitled (How Does It Feel).”
Unless you’re inclined to be contrarian, you’ve more than likely pictured a scene from the videos for these hits. You might even remember the feeling you had when you first saw them, when the song stopped being just a song and bloomed into an entire world.
Although music can conjure up a host of feelings and emotions, a visual accompaniment is an artist’s chance to show you what was on their mind at the moment of creation.
What started as a marketing tool became another medium of creating art. Up until the 1980s, there weren’t many music videos and there wasn’t a real platform for them to be showcased on. Then came MTV, a network that played videos 24 hours a day, and soon videos became prevalent in entertainment. In the late '80s and throughout the '90s, artists spent anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars on their videos, and it began to be understood as a necessary element of the album. Michael Jackson’s “Scream” tops most lists as the most expensive video made, at $10.8 million dollars. Music videos started getting their own awards. Viewers would gather around to watch Making the Video just to see how these incredible videos were made. Some people have become celebrities because of their appearance in a video.
So where has the excitement for music videos gone?
Beyoncé brought it back with LEMONADE.
In the span of an hour, Beyoncé proved that it's not only important to hear music, but to see it.
LEMONADE, an opus on infidelity, forgiveness and black womanhood, is relentless and unforgiving in its purpose. The imagery is arresting, the symbolism is blatant, the music is fresh. Each cameo stirs excitement and each scene leaves viewers thirsting. And for critics that chalk up its success to being a Beyoncé project, LEMONADE stands as a great body of work on its own without her. This is not the first or the second time she’s done this.
When she released Beyoncé in 2013, she produced a video for every song and one for “Grown Woman” and did the same in 2006 with B’Day Anthology Video Album; an album of 13 videos for the tracks on B’Day. Beyoncé has consistently been pushing the envelope and making videos that are memorable. While the industry has been shifting to creating catchy singles, she continued to create albums and put just as much focus on the visual.
This time around, she might have even put more focus on the visual component. She recruited old collaborators (Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Jonas Åkerlund, Todd Tourso) and newcomers (Mark Romanek, Khalil Joseph).
The release is probably the most important and critical part of her last two projects. Beyoncé came almost literally like a thief in the night, and LEMONADE was presented as an event airing for free on HBO. With her unconventional releases, she built curiosity, suspense and shock. Beyoncé is one of the biggest pop stars in the world, who has followed a tried and true way of creating and releasing music. Deviating from that path and still putting out quality work puts all eyes on her. And like major artists before her can attest, we wait and expect to be wowed.
Over the past decade, visuals have been underwhelming and the good ones get lost in the noise. “Hotline Bling,” “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “Never Gonna Catch Me” made their marks, but in the time between MTV getting rid of its music programming and YouTube finding its footing as a platform for music videos, it seems tougher to get people to watch a video. Instead of being a form of art, it was beginning to feel like videos devolved and fell back into the marketing ploys. “The label’s budgets aren’t what they used to be in the early 2000s,” Director X said in an interview with Forbes. With sales down, there’s no money to produce million-dollar videos and spectacle anymore (though you don’t need a whole lot of money to make a great video, as OK Go proved). MTV and VH1, networks where scores of videos premiered, stopped playing videos and focused on other programming. Over half of the programming on MTV in the 80s and 90s was music-centric. At the start of the millennium, reality shows began taking over. Since 2000, there have been more than 100 unscripted shows and a handful of music shows. The importance of the music video just disappeared and, after a while, it seemed as if videos were released with low expectations.
Brian Petchers, music video director and contributor for Forbes, wrote that there’s a lot of music on the internet and it can be daunting to sift through it all. This is where the videos come in, aiding in making music stand out. But just as the internet is saturated with music, it’s also up to its brim with videos and visuals. Director X echoes that sentiment saying, “The industry is going more into the creativity aspect. You really have to make something people pay attention to. You really have to go for it, man. If you want people to notice, you have to go that extra mile.
In a world where we are constantly visually stimulated, creating something eye-catching is just good business. Wander into Instagram’s explore page and you’ll find something you’ve never seen.
But while there are a lot of really interesting things to look at, anyone and everyone can take a Tumblr aesthetic photo.
The art for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly set a tone for the album, and the video for “Alright” captures the song’s sentiment. “Chandelier” and “Elastic Heart” perfectly portrayed Sia’s emotional balladeering, Kanye West’s "Runaway" breaks new ground with its arthouse aesthetic and FKA Twigs’ "M3LI55X" showed women wielding their sexuality and femininity as their power . These videos showed how important a video is to the success of a song and driving home its point.
And this project is no different. LEMONADE isn’t pedestrian in its pursuit. The music serves as a score for the film, and without context, the chronology of songs might not make sense. HBO already submitted LEMONADE for an Emmy. In the moments following its release, nearly anyone with a social media account scoured the film for signs, symbols, meanings and message. From Beyoncé channeling the Yoruba orisha goddess, Oshun in “Hold Up” (which might partly explain Ibeyi’s cameo and Laolu Senbanjo’s artwork), Quvenzhané Wallis and Blue Ivy being the only ones holding hands as a symbol of black girl unity going into the future, to Serena Williams — one of best athletes in the world who is constantly mocked for her body — twerking all over the set, being as bad as she wanna be.
She even breathed life back into the spoken word. The words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire and Malcolm X, sleek and smooth, stroll throughout. The words are soft and piercing, quiet and damning, strong and redeeming.
Though she’s not the first to build a narrative in an album, Beyoncé is leading the charge in ushering back the art of music videos, possibly starting a new trend (Florence and the Machine released their video album, Odyssey, two days later).
We are also in a time where it’s become important that we see what is happening around us. Part of the successes of “Alright,” "M3LI55X," and LEMONADE is that they spoke to the times. With racial tensions and notions of identity reaching a fever pitch, artists from those communities are discussing it by showing it. Green Day’s American Idiot videos did the same when they took American politics and the Bush Administration to task. As controversial and political as these discussions are, Beyoncé walked into the middle of those waters and created waves for camaraderie and healing.
And it has been glorious.