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Pharrell and Bob Dylan’s attempts to reinvent the music video fall flat

You can't watch Pharrell's cutting-edge video on your cutting-edge smartphone. You can’t watch Pharrell’s cutting-edge video on your cutting-edge smartphone. That’s a problem.

Last week Pharrell Williams and Bob Dylan trotted out fancy new music videos, complete with the bells and whistles that could only be dreamed off years ago.

Bob Dylan’s video lets you flick through TV channels, where all the actors happen to be lip synching the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.” Pharrell’s video for “Happy” is a full 24 hours of dancing and fun. Instead of watching it straight through, you can click around the 24 hours to find your favorite parts and the celebrity cameos. But there’s a catch.

While both are creative attempts at interactive music videos, they’re miles from the pinnacle of this form. You can’t even watch Pharrell’s video on your smartphone. Dylan’s requires you to download an app to play it on your smartphone or tablet. If you take the time to jump through that hoop, you get a watered-down version of what people on PCs are enjoying.

The attempts at innovation by Williams and Dylan totally ignore the trends in how we lead our digital lives. Smartphones outsell PCs worldwide. Americans spend more time online time on smartphones and tablets than on desktop computers.

If Williams and Dylan’s teams wanted to create a timeless innovation, they should have started their brainstorming with how to succeed on mobile. Future generations will listen to Bob Dylan’s 1965 classic song, but don’t count on the music video having the same lasting power. The best music videos of the 21st century will all work seamlessly on your smartphone.

We’ve seen artists attempt to shake up the music video space in the past. The Streets took a stab at an interactive video, a choose-your-own-adventure set of videos in which you control his morning. Arcade Fire’s video for “Wilderness Downtown” asks viewers for the address of their childhood home and incorporates Google Maps footage into a personalized video.

Want to see Bob Dylan's new video? Please bear with us... Want to see Bob Dylan’s new video? Please bear with us while this app installs.

None of these attempts at innovation can touch Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” the heavyweight champ of music videos (1.8 billion views on YouTube and counting). The experience of Gangnam Style isn’t much different from when the first music videos were watched on MTV in 1981. It’s passive. You lean back and watch a few minutes of a performance that is the same for every person viewing it.

But Psy’s video isn’t cheapened by being watched on a smartphone. And you won’t need to install apps to enjoy it. Although in a sense it’s simplistic compared to the new work of Williams and Dylan, “Gangnam Style” will never be challenged by “Happy” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

One day an artist will take advantage of the interactive nature of the Internet and create an innovative video that surpasses Gangnam Style, and makes us realize how much more can be done with music videos.

The power of video to connect musicians and fans is undeniable. Jon Bon Jovi’s 1986 song “Livin’ on a Prayer” reentered the Billboard Hot 100 this month after video of a man dancing to the song at a Boston Celtics game went viral.

As for viral interactive videos that circle the world and are watched on smartphones, the potential is there. But we’ll have to keep waiting.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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