Donald Glover didn’t hold back when creating the music video for “This Is America,” the most recent single by his rapper alter-ego, Childish Gambino. He didn’t have to. As its name suggests, the video is emblematic of its time — blatantly political in a way that appeals to social media and its love of dissectable visuals. Consider Glover’s dancing, presumably choreographed to mimic a minstrel character; the murder of choir singers, evoking the Charleston church massacre; and death riding in on a white horse.
“It’s fun to see how people have taken to it, the interpretations,” said Larkin Seiple, the video’s cinematographer.
Political edge isn’t a new addition to the art form by any means, but it’s difficult to imagine the recent deluge of videos exploring racial and sexual identity occurring in the MTV era. Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade” kicked off a recent wave with its emotionally hefty exploration of black womanhood, followed by similarly bold videos by Frank Ocean, Janelle Monáe, Glover and more. The phenomenon is in part the result of political trends like polarization and identity politics rising to the forefront of online conversation, and movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too asserting the equality of marginalized groups. But it also owes a lot to the YouTube revolution and the freedom that video platforms grant artists.
Just ask Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt school. In response to the question of whether the purpose of music videos has evolved over the years, he chuckled.
“I’m only laughing out loud because yes, of course,” he said. “At one time, the purpose of music videos was to sell albums.”
MTV, the first-ever channel dedicated to music videos, took off after its 1981 launch, and record labels used it as a promotional mechanism for new music. The buzz surrounding videos like Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” a Vatican-condemned commentary on race and religion, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” viewed as a metaphor for sexual awakening, reminded viewers to head out and buy albums.
Television also meant advertising dollars, which translated to enormous budgets for the videos. But sometimes the money meant sacrificing creative control. The more that was at stake, according to several directors, the safer labels played it. Strict TV guidelines didn’t make things any easier.
Those who worked on Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” got a taste of this when preparing a version of the accompanying short film to air on MTV and BET in April. Sexual liberation is a theme throughout the album, especially in songs like “Pynk.” Director Emma Westenberg made sure its video, which references female anatomy through elements like Monáe’s so-called vagina pants, reflected that. “The imagery, because the song is so open and free, was so much fun to develop,” she said. “It’s already so clear what [‘Pynk’] is about that the imagery came from the lyrics.”
The “Dirty Computer” that aired on television was quite different from its online counterpart, according to Andrew Donoho. He co-directed the narrative portion and said the team had to cut shots that included nudity and stuck-up middle fingers. They even eliminated a “too long and controversial” bit of “Pynk” that featured poetry Monáe read to her on-screen love interest, played by Tessa Thompson.
“It’s definitely something that can only exist in the here and now,” Donoho said of the online cut. “There were plenty of artists in the ‘80s and ‘90s that would’ve loved to make controversial pieces or videos that pushed boundaries, but censorship and having to cater to TV networks and labels and go through all the hands and politics, I’m sure there’s a lot of art that never got made.”
“Dirty Computer” shares this “here and now” quality with Frank Ocean’s videos, especially the one for his single “Nikes.” It critiques hedonistic pleasure by contrasting shallow joy (shots of money and the titular shoes) with harsh realities (photographs of Trayvon Martin and late hip-hop artists). Dueling voices — Ocean’s and a higher-pitched version — mimic this juxtaposition, and his androgynous style along with glittery and angel-winged bodies add sexual fluidity to the conversation. (In 2012, Ocean announced on Tumblr that he fell in love with a man at 19.)
Such videos feed our culture’s demand for art shaped by politics in today’s antagonistic environment, where the stakes feel particularly high for both sides of every culture war. Music videos help artists clearly define where they stand on issues like gun violence and race relations, and Westenberg hopes this strong messaging can influence public opinion, too. She received some homophobic feedback about “Dirty Computer” in an Instagram comment but still believes the film’s celebratory feel has the ability to “change some people’s views.”
YouTube is ideal for this kind of video. It emerged as a new platform for artistic expression in 2005, ending what director Andrew Thomas Huang called the “dark period” after MTV pivoted to reality programming in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Initially devoted to amateur videos, the site began to host popular music and became an on-demand MTV of sorts. Digital downloads became more popular as CD sales declined, and both were eventually supplanted by streaming.
Zia Anger, who has directed videos for Mitski and Angel Olsen, said YouTube makes it easy to figure out exactly what fans want, giving artists a more personalized look at their base.
“There’s a certain amount of visibility involved with seeing a viewer on YouTube,” since everyone can see viewer figures and comments, Anger said. “I guess there were Nielsen ratings for MTV back in the day, but this . . . is a totally different beast.”
The ad money from the MTV era has vanished, with video budgets dropping from as high as the millions to the $50,000-100,000 range, according to Kate Miller, senior vice president of visual content at Republic Records. But technology has become cheaper and more efficient, allowing for everything from Drake’s star-studded “Nice for What” to John Mayer’s remarkably low-budget “New Light” — which he made with a company that does birthday and Bar Mitzvah videos — to end up on the same website.
“These days, with the advent of online, the power really is in the artists’ hands,” said Devin Sarno, vice president of creative services at Warner Brothers Records. “They can put out a piece of content whenever they want,” and at whatever length they want.
Beyoncé, the queen of crafting an image, surprised fans in 2016 by dropping “Lemonade” on the Jay-Z-owned streaming service Tidal and the 46-minute film version on artist-friendly HBO. “Formation,” the work’s most-discussed power anthem, calls on black women to stand together and features the singer in an abandoned plantation and atop a sinking police car, among other memorable images. The video is woven into the narrative of Beyoncé navigating an environment often hostile to women of color, which a Malcolm X voiceover expresses early on: “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman.”
Musicians have always told stories, but these albums are inextricably linked to the accompanying moving images, and are far less powerful without them. “I think a lot of artists are really educated at filmmaking and interested in it as a creative extension from music,” Miller said. “I think the curtain has been drawn back. In the ‘90s, not as many people knew how to make film, and now it’s so much more accessible.”
The short film route is tricky, as attention spans for online content always seem to be shorter. So the videos have to grab you. Viewers can’t look away from “This Is America” because of Glover’s magnetic presence the first time they watch, and the background chaos the second time. There's so much to unpack, said Seiple, the cinematographer — and that helps give the video a viral quality.
“You can’t just shoot someone performing in a cool venue, you have to make something unique or outlandish,” he added.
It’s a lot to ask for. But according to Huang, bold statements will usually do the trick.
“Artists need visuals and videos to communicate the persona they’re trying to get across more than ever,” he said. “There are certain musicians where the minute their video comes out, you want to know who [worked on] it. That’s the mark of a great musician, someone who is selective and cares very much about the entire package.”