Music video is an oft-misunderstood medium. Its cultural significance is frequently overlooked, if not outright dismissed in many historical audio-visual discourses. Our contemporary popular culture exists in a post-MTV age, wherein music videos are no longer regularly shown on the cable and satellite stations that had been designated to show them exclusively. That's a pretty antiquated observation, considering you likely have older relatives who were already whining about the sudden deficit of Michael Bolton and Sting music videos on VH-1 during Thanksgiving dinner, say, circa 2001. But music videos are a far more influential artistic medium than both plebeians and popular-culture-vultures alike care to realize. Take, for instance, any discussion you might be having with said relatives on the pending 2013 Thanksgiving dinner that revolves around the reignited career of Miley Cyrus. Few arguments could be made that Cyrus's sudden pop culture significance has little to do with her recent music videos for "We Can't Stop" and "Wrecking Ball." In other words, even in this post-MTV age, music videos still have significant power to make a relevant career in pop music.
The roots of the music video medium obviously begin with the emergence of MTV in the 1980s. That history is well documented in tomes that you can no doubt find for free in your local library. Or, just read about it on Wikipedia. Rather, it is my intention to recognize and discuss the extraordinary music videos of director Jim Blashfield, for his innovative music videos were the first of their kind. Specifically, his accomplishments with music video transcended the medium, bridging the gap between pop art and "serious" art. Blashfield, a fellow Portland-based filmmaker with friend Gus Van Sant, was far from prolific in his music video directing career. Of course, when one considers how labor intensive and time consuming each of his music video productions were, his lack of contributions to the medium can certainly be forgiven. Regardless, his incredibly unique style branded the videos' songs with iconic imagery and concepts unlike anything that had come before, or that have ever been seen since. If I may be a bit more crude, one Blashfield music video is worth at least 10 Nigel Dick music videos.
Blashfield's music video work was introduced in an obscenely decadent era, between 1985-1993, where music videos were a large portion of the swollen budgets of major record labels. Previous to this period, music videos were essentially live performance clips or bizarre and incoherent narrative pieces that were conceived without enough time or artistic inspiration. One of the few exceptions were the conceptual videos produced for Michael Jackson's Thriller, which arguably, opened the floodgates for higher concept music videos. Ultimately, though, the large sums of money being thrown at music video production resulted in an increasingly cookie-cutter audio visual medium. Did that really matter? Not really, as MTV was soon dominating the popular culture of music with audiences ferociously eating these music videos up. But apart from the artists themselves, little was left to visually distinguish one music video from another. Sure, there were a few innovative deviations- most notably Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing" and A-Ha's "Take On Me."- but there seemed to be no way that the music video could be considered a serious visual art form. Especially when they often merely relied on cliched, gratuitous sexuality or pathetically mimed performances by the artists on a soundstage. Or both.
It was Talking Heads- who are at 100% for quality music videos- who commissioned Blashfield for his first music video project in 1985. The single for the video was "And She Was," a contemporary and surprisingly MOR tune from what would become Talking Heads' most straightforward pop record, Little Creatures. Prior to his work with Heads, Blashfield was well known in underground art circles for his short film Suspicious Circumstances, which was highly praised for its innovative use of "photo-cut out animation." Blashfield's trademark technique is, essentially, collage animation much akin to Terry Gilliam's iconic animation for Monty Python. Blashfield's process, however, was much more labor intensive and, well, far less silly. He would photograph subjects in his studio, frame by frame, photocopy (or, as they would say in the '80s, "Xerox") the images, and then animate them in post-production. A long, painstaking process, no doubt. However, this was a visual treatment unknown to the music video medium at the time and it's no surprise that bunch of art school students like Talking Heads wanted to be the first group to take advantage of this new vision. The video for "And She Was" is a perfect introduction to Blashfield's work, as it is entirely made up of photocopied images and represents several tropes that reoccur in his most of his music videos. Most notably, Blashfield's videos often feature a shot of the artist/s lipsynching on the front page of a newspaper, along with visuals of primitive machinery or random, kitschy tschotkes. While these are hallmarks of Blashfield's style, these visuals appropriately manage to provide both literal and interpretative representations of the songs' lyrics in each video. Literal interpretations may induce some wincing, but Blashfield's music videos somehow managed to toe the line between the obvious and the subtle. His ability to pull-off that feat makes each of his music videos completely timeless, regardless of the fact that they are bound to the time period they derived form.
The videos below feature brief analyses of Blashfield's most high profile music videos. I emphasize the term "brief," as I feel each music video is stunning in its execution and, therefore, should be experienced rather than described. Regardless, these music videos form a near-perfect viewing syllabus that makes a strong case for considering the music video as a serious art form:
Talking Heads - "And She Was" from the album Little Creatures (1985)
It has been well-documented that David Byrne wrote this song about a girl he used to know in suburban Baltimore, who used to trip on LSD by the Yoo-Hoo factory. This video manages to capture the idealistic suburban lifestyle, as the song's titular character floats above the city. We see everything from her perspective and, while I would balk at the fact that this video literally represents an LSD trip, it certainly exists in a dreamlike universe that few could conjure up.
Paul Simon - "Boy in the Bubble" from the album Graceland (1986)
Full disclosure: This music video provided me with my introduction to Paul Simon (I was 2 when this came out). I never knew of him before and, for a while, I was not concerned with figuring out who he was outside of this song and music video. While Graceland is one of the crowning achievements of an already impressive career for Simon, "Boy in the Bubble" tends to be left out of the album's conversational praise in favor of the title track and "You Can Call Me Al." In fact, the latter song's music video is likely Simon's most popular music video, due in large part to its star, Chevy Chase. I won't spend any time arguing that "Boy in the Bubble" is a better song, but it certainly is the best music video in Paul Simon's videography. Like the best of Blashfield's work, it straddles the line of interpretive (an assassination attempt on a politician, chickens, rowboats) and literal (bombs, baby carriages and a boy in an actual bubble) imagery. This video was a leap forward for Simon, because he had never starred in a proper music video before and this was his introduction to the "MTV Generation."
Michael Jackson - "Leave Me Alone" from the album Bad (1988)
Arguably, this is Blashfield's most high-profile music video. There at least is no arguing that Michael Jackson was one of the biggest stars on the planet at the time. Music video was also a medium that Jackson had dominated in the early years of MTV. "Leave Me Alone" is probably one of the only times were the audience is introduced to a more self-deprecating Michael Jackson. Blashfield's video takes M.J. on a journey through his own tabloid stories from the past 5 years. Literally, everything, from his alleged Elizabeth Taylor shrine to him dancing with the skeleton of Joseph "John" Merrick- which Jackson allegedly purchased. It was a first for a celebrity of Jackson's caliber to subversively play with his public image, while at the same time "stick-it" to the tabloid culture that was attempting to destroy his reputation. For the first, and perhaps only time, Blashfield brought Jackson's sense of humor and humility to the public. There are also dogs in costume, which puts a slight date stamp on the video, but more on that later (SEE: Nu Shooz "I Can't Wait").
Tears For Fears - "Sowing the Seeds of Love" from the album The Seeds of Love (1989)
I know, I know, leave it to me to have yet another post that references Tears For Fears. But, truthfully, this may be the pinnacle of Blashfield's contributions to the music video medium. It's the most fully realized product of the director's vision and the artists' interpretations of the song's content. It's slightly incongruous, yet consistent, with Blashfield's previous work, as this music video features a combination of live action footage (mainly consisting of TFF duo Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith lip-synching on treadmills in front of a blue screen) and photo-cut out animation. In addition, there's actual hand-drawn animation in the music video that hearkens back to late-period Beatlesque/1960's psychedelic artwork, which is highly appropriate for the song. "Sowing the Seeds of Love" is, at least on the surface, a "Flower Power" pastiche that also signaled a new image and sound for Tears For Fears, who had been M.I.A. for over 4 years after the massive success of 1985's Songs From The Big Chair. The music video acts as a signifier for their ultra-deviation from a mostly synth-pop band to a more "serious act," but it is also the perfect visual companion to the single. This would also be Blashfield's final music video, with the exception of a Marc Cohn video that was NOT "Walking in Memphis" (1993's forgotten "Walk Through This World").
BONUS: Nu Shooz - "I Can't Wait" from the album Poolside (1986)
So much of popular culture in the 1980's is completely unexplainable. Case in point: Mid-way through the decade, everybody thought the image of a dog wearing sunglasses was brilliant. Seriously, images of dogs wearing sunglasses were almost unavoidable, whether you were searching for the perfect novelty birthday card or if you were trying to decide what suds to bring for the beer pong tourney at a frat party.
Now, the song "I Can't Wait" is rad as hell. I am actually surprised at how well this song holds up today. However, the music video appears to be a rush-job by Nu Shooz's record label. This makes sense, as I'm sure the song rose so quickly up the Billboard charts that they had to make sure they put out something. Moreover, Nu Shooz is a Portland-based band, and Portland is where Blashfield is/was based. More than likely, they were pals! That's all speculation on my part, but regardless, this still remains Blahsfield's weakest music video. And that's not to say it's inherently BAD, as it certainly has some surrealistic charm. Overall, though, it misses the mark in ways that Blashfields's other music videos totally hit the target. There's a genuine lack of focus in this music video and, for fuck's sake, it heavily features a dog wearing sunglasses, which makes this Blashfield's only truly dated music video.
Despite a very short career in the music video business (he is still a filmmaker/visual artist), Blashfield is far from being unrecognized for his contributions to the music video boom period- which I posit to have ran from 1983-1995, because I said so. Each of the high-profile music videos discussed above have been nominated for MTV VMAs and a few Grammys, with the Michael Jackson and Tears For Fears music videos each taking home several awards. Accolades aside, his distinctive work left a big impression on a medium that is somewhat marginalized in the discourse of serious media. For anybody who dismissed music video as a true art form, I would urge them to visit the brief, but exceptional and genius videography of Jim Blashfield. Now, if only we could get him to work with Kanye...
(For more information on Jim Blashfield and his work, please visit his official web site.)