Mirror Image Maker: Looking at Music Videos of the Internet Age
It’s an audiovisual cannonball that would set the grandfather of contemporary media theory, Marshall McLuhan, rolling in his grave.
Detractors of the pop music machine would naively have you believe that “It’s all about the music, man”—or that it should be. But the relationship between a musician’s image, sound and performance has never been so simple. Industrialization of the recording process throughout the 20th century ensured that listening to a song aroused more than the ears. A model founded on the prospect of capturing and packaging the most fleeting, immaterial of artistic mediums—the moving particles and vibrations of sound—the commercial business of selling music has depended on augmenting the listening experience with profitable tactile and visual products. Musician and pop cultural thinker David Byrne explains in the November 2007 issue of Wired that:
Before recording technology existed, you could not separate music from its social context. Epic songs and ballads, troubadours, courtly entertainments, church music, shamanic chants, pub sing-alongs, ceremonial music, military music, dance music […] It was communal and often utilitarian. You couldn’t take it home, copy it, sell it as a commodity or even hear it again. Music was an experience, intimately married to your life. You could pay to hear music, but after you did, it was over, gone—a memory.
In the 1890s, as the invention of the gramophone brought sound recording technology to a music industry once defined by the sale of printed sheet music—consumers reacted in fear of the cultural change that records presented. Unlike radio, which cast out a transmission of live sound that left as soon as it occurred, the mechanization of playback of recorded sound was perceived as frightening. The first test audiences of recorded sound remarked that the experience of listening to the “voice without a face” on playback was like hearing “the devil every time.” But even as the record disembodied the voice of the individual, it significantly helped along the rise of the music celebrity, performance and public image. As the institution of selling and buying music records became standard, fledgling recording companies carved out the market by creating records that highlighted an individual’s unique performance skill, replacing “anonymous renditions of well-known pieces [with those by well-known] singers, bandleaders, and monologuists.” In the 1940s, as recording companies grew and fine-tuned industrialized production, an introduction of sleeve art design became a standard packaging process for record albums, tying the consumers’ experience of the tactile product with bold, colorful abstractions of graphic art—and putting in place a tactile-visual fetish that persists today among collectors and vinyl enthusiasts.
Though not intended for sale and as immaterial as sound itself, the traditional broadcast music video has played a vital role in further visually packaging both the music and its performer. Even as earlier commercial audiovisuals of “live” music programs in the 1950s launched performers like Elvis into superstardom with the broadcast of his image, pop critic and cultural theorist Simon Frith points out that “it was only with the emergence of cable television in the 1980s that a music television service was developed with anything like the day-to-day significance of music radio. Music television, MTV, duly aped Top 40 radio formats, with playlists, veejays, ‘hot’ releases, ‘breaking’ singles, and more.”
A century after the institution of the recording industry, a new tide of technological developments have caused us to yet again reposition the way we consume music in vastly significant ways. As the immaterial, compressed digital format of the mp3 overrides our cultural attachments and predisposal for the tactile ownership of records and CDs—facilitating the ease of pirating and sharing music without purchase and reducing sleeve art to pixelated thumbnails—the musical experience is becoming disembodied yet again: this time, from the high-production packaging that set the foundations for the recording industry one hundred years ago. As record labels struggle to maintain sales with an aging business model—their sales plummeting by more than 75% in the past decade—in the digital age of screens, one part of the traditional packaging process continues to see a growth period: the music video. Armed with a set of cutting-edge design tools specific to the Web, a new set of Internet auteurs are crafting new ways for us to look at music in the 21st century.
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Last December, Masashi Kawamura, a self-described “art director/film director/creative director/whatever” catapulted his childhood friends in Sour, a relatively obscure indie rock band from Japan, as main contenders in the mega micro-blogosphere publicity ring with the viral music video, “Mirror.” Instead of barraging the network with a slew of Tweets to gain a following, Kawamura encroached upon the entire application altogether—pulling the cloth from beneath the table and using it as an overarching canvas for the entire project. The result was so self-reflexively postmodern and visually complex, it put writers of the Observer’s Very Short List at a loss for words. Days after the video’s launch, the VSL—a daily email digest known for combing the Web for its most astounding cultural ephemera and parsing it with succinct wit—admitted, “We’ve spent the whole weekend scrambling for words to describe it.”
The concept of forming one’s identity through the visual bits and pieces of social media outlets was a central source of Kawamura’s inspiration for “Mirror,” a song that sings, “Everything that I see with these eyes / Are the reflections of my heart … If I can’t see through the frosted glass / I should keep on polishing my soul.” Sourcing preexisting imagery of the viewer from Google, Twitter and Facebook’s APIs, Kawamura and his Web wiz team draw in attention with both a glorification and a self-reflexive commentary of what social media best promotes: the act of voluntary display and the underlying desire to find connectivity in all of the minute, disparate instances of self-broadcasting. Using a trifecta of the most popular social platforms, “Mirror” both questions and celebrates the quotidian set of tools used to construct online identities.
After the video finishes loading, it splices us into a sub-reality by showing us a picture of a screen within our screen. A Google homepage appears and, without command, types the viewer’s name into the search engine. As the results draw to a page of images, the thumbnails storm into a formation of a stick figure, who then proceeds to walk across the screen against a scroll of visuals that include a Google Map of the viewer’s location, his Facebook profile and his Twitter user page. Traveling through the web’s portal of space and time, the stick figure’s journey has the viewer’s online life flash before his very eyes.
In a 21st-century rendition of Impressionistic portraiture, the video reflects back an image of the viewer through a cobbled collage of avatars, status updates and images. Whereas the 19th-century painters depicted scenes of life through the capture of colorful refractions of light, Kawamura creates the image with all of the self-projected fragments of the viewer’s own self-constructed online identity. But far from serene, the digital mash-up of images is disquieting, even grotesque.
Members of Sour are shown performing in a variety of screen configurations: first within a video framed within a 300 by 250 pixel ad space of a Twitter page; in a YouTube video frame and, finally, within a Hockney-esque collage of animated browser windows. With the gaze of imagery reversed, somehow the act of rock star idolatry here feels secondary. The band’s performance and song—which, one quickly forgets, is the reason this video exists at all—are quickly shoved out of the limelight by the video’s real star. The viewer, pictured on the screen in a Chuck Close-like portrait that employs a grid of minute avatars, is reduced to pixelated pastiche.
It’s an audiovisual cannonball that, at just three minutes and fifty-two seconds in length, would set the grandfather of contemporary media theory, Marshall McLuhan, rolling in his grave. His 1964 writings on technology could not have struck more prophetic in describing the circumstances of postmodern life. In his magnum opus, Understanding Media, McLuhan writes, “With the arrival of electric technology, man extended, or set outside himself, a live model of the central nervous system itself […] too violent and superstimulated a social experience for the central nervous system to endure.”
If director Chris Milk’s “Wilderness Downtown” video for Arcade Fire provokes a wistful nostalgia, here, the sight inspires a surreal horror—not so much for the pronounced visual metaphor of our online social lives as a mirror of our personal identities, but for the arresting reality that in all of free-flowing, self-absorbed, self-broadcasting, we are ironically, innocently unaware through it all that someone could be watching. In this very instance, someone is watching. That someone is you. A Rear Window scenario of the 21st century, the video turns the gaze back onto the viewer, making him acutely sentient of the sheer magnitude of personal data outputted by regular users of these social media networks. Gathering together all the minutiae broadcast by the individual onto the World Wide Web, the set of personal images and data Kawamura reflects back onto a viewer is an overwhelming fulfillment of McLuhan’s prophetic statement: a portrait of internal neuroses splayed thin upon the vast social media circuit.