Music videos are an inherently odd concept, and one, I feel, that has taken time to find its place, at least artistically. In the 30-plus years that music videos have been a regular part of the release cycle for a musician/band, they have changed beyond recognition. While they were once hastily put together on studio lots in the ’80s, they soon became ostentatious and cocaine-fueled in the ‘90s, before waning in importance in the ’00s; however, they’ve been revived recently thanks to the increased importance of YouTube and the proliferation of cheap filmmaking equipment. Through it all, though, one trope has managed to survive each of these incarnations—in music videos, we take to the streets. Once there, we dance.
This is perhaps unsurprising when we consider the cinematic movement that music videos followed, that of independent cinema. In the post-war era, you had filmmakers beginning to eschew the artifice of sound stages and moving to more urban settings, in order to create an idea of realism or authenticity. And yes, they did do that, in Scorsese movies or in the French New Wave, but when you’ve got artists breaking the fourth wall, singing into the camera, music coming from nowhere, realism isn’t really the order of the day—much of the time, it’s quite the opposite, as with David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s 1985 “Dancing in the Street,” the archetypal street dancing music video.
If you haven’t watched this video in a while, I really suggest you take a few minutes out of your day to do it now, because it’s definitely weirder than you remember. The street in question isn’t a bustling block party, the kind you imagine Marvin Gaye was thinking about when he wrote it, but instead, various car parks and patches of concrete around an empty warehouse, as well as the warehouse itself. There is absolutely nothing to feed off here, the whole scenario looks like a drug drop-off, but that doesn’t stop them from dancing like two drunk dads at a wedding, Jagger wearing tracksuit bottoms and a teal top that looks like it’s made from tissue paper, Bowie in a trench coat with knee pads on his wallpaper-patterned suit. There’s a bit after Jagger says the line “Don’t forget the Motor City,” where he does a comedy steering wheel motion with his hand, while Bowie does high kicks from behind a door. (These two are widely considered two of the coolest men in music history, by the way.) It took five years of MTV for all that to be undone in three minutes, which you’d have to say is very impressive.
The dynamic of the central performers going in hard while life carries on as normal (broadly speaking) around them is the main common denominator of street videos. There are exceptions of course. In “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Lauryn Hill stands in time traveling split screen while two separate block parties go off around her; in “Bittersweet Symphony,” Richard Ashcroft swaggers into businessmen for the duration of the video without missing a beat or losing his cool. Then there are the exceptions that go the other way, when the vibrancy of the central performance isn’t balanced by the street but is instead buoyed, as in the case of Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet.”
Björk plays with the trope of the outlandish street music video by only allowing the outlandishness to start when all the music kicks in. At first, everything seems fairly normal, Björk emerging from a squalid bathroom into a gaudy, technicolor showroom, strolling casually along the shop floor, before the chorus gets announced with a similarly gaudy horn section, and Björk goes full Veruca Salt. The pattern repeats, everyone on the street acting normal while Björk ssh’s her way through the verse, then bursting into elaborate Umbrellas of Cherbourg-style dance routines for the chorus. Rather than performer playing to an audience, she’s more of a leading lady with a supporting cast, a deity with disciples, and when she rises up at the end of the video, dance routine continuing beneath her, the message is clear: This is Björk’s world, we’ve just been invited in.
Beyoncé, who maybe more than any of her contemporaries has embraced the music video as an art form, took a similar tack to Björk on “Hold Up,” the second track from Lemonade. She, too, announces herself into a commonplace scene, a city street corner, and sets about remaking it in her own image, causing wanton destruction with a baseball bat, which triggers even more chaos around her—explosions, wheelie-ing quad bikes, hoards of kids led Pied Piper-like into an impromptu block party. The bat becomes a kind of magic wand as she takes ownership over her environment, and coming early in the album, ownership over the narrative, as well.
A nice companion to “Hold Up,” albeit one from a different musical world, is Frazey Ford’s “Done,” a joyously celebratory song about leaving a bad relationship, that has a joyously celebratory video. Frazey, accompanied by kids, pregnant women, backing singers, and friends, gets shit done in this video—that shit being: laundry, filling up the car, buying records, all the while wearing brilliant outfits and throwing shapes. Both “Hold Up”and”Done” are songs that take place at a fractious point in a relationship—in “Hold Up,” you sense that Bey is willing to give her man another chance, whilst very keen not to let him forget what he did, while in “Done,” Frazey is as the title says. There is a shared joy across both, however, not so much in the lyrical content—which is more defiant than joyful—but in how the worlds are built around their central characters. Ideas of community and friendship abound a sense of getting through bad times together, or everyone coming together to support one person. In some “breakup” songs, the tendency is to move inward, to stay isolated and alone, here there is the conscious decision to be outside, to take up space.
It is not just space on the street being taken up. Now, this precedes attempts to take up space in the music industry in general. We’re a long way from MTV. MTV is a long way from MTV, but music videos retain their importance, and in some respects, we are experiencing the music videos’ own “independent cinema” movement—new artists being broken with innovative ideas, low budgets, urban environments, and outside of the mainstream channels. Grime—a U.K. rap music born out of Jamaican sound system culture and underground U.K. dance music that emerged in the early noughties—has always had the street, particularly housing estates, as a core part of its aesthetic.
As the genre has become more commercially successful, thanks in part to endorsements from the likes of Drake and Kanye West, it has retained this aesthetic, as with Skepta’s “Shutdown” taking over the brutalist architecture over London’s Barbican, a controversial building designed as a kind of social housing experiment for the middle class. Journalist Anna Leskiewicz, who presented a piece on the iconography of brutalist architecture, with specific reference to the Barbican, in music videos at MOPOP’s annual Pop Conference in 2017, sees Skepta’s choice of location as referencing the genre’s roots, whilst acknowledging that it is now ready to take over the mainstream, regardless of who might object to that. She writes: “The cast seem genuinely at home here, which is both a performed declaration of Skepta’s roots in estate culture, and a challenge to those who see him as an outsider, or too underground, for Britain’s elite cultural spaces.”
There is confidence in the streets, and being able to make them your own. It’s there in all of these videos, and more besides—Lorde’s magnetic dance moves in “Green Light,” SZA’s playful jaywalking in “Drew Barrymore,” The Lumineers singing in the rain in “Ophelia.” There’s also ownership, defiance, independence, control—music videos, by their very nature, break the fourth wall, performing directly to the audience, through the lens of the camera. Here, the other three walls are torn away, too, revealing a huge, varied, iconic canvas—an unspoiled artistic well, ready to be tapped.