Christopher Walken boogies alone in an abandoned hotel lobby. Gotye and Kimbra are slowly painted into a geometric art piece. A plasticine Peter Gabriel sledgehammers his face into a yin and yang. OK Go perform a treadmill ballet. A black-and-white Madonna strikes a Vogue pose. Psy does a horsey dance.
Where would the music world be without the music video? ACMI’s summer offering Spectacle: The Music Video Exhibition asks just that. And what it finds is that it wouldn’t be much.
Contrary to popular belief, music video has origins that far pre-date the dawn of MTV in the early 80s. Music videos have been around pretty much since the dawn of moving picture. In a way, silent films were the first music videos. Musical performances have been captured and songs have been animated since around 1924. The exhibition features Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith among the first to be captured in music video form.
Short musical films were made to play in jukeboxes in the 50s. The Kinks and The Beatles were making musical short films in the 60s, while David Bowie and Queen transformed the musical video from novelty to necessity in the 70s. Then in the 80s, MTV killed the radio star, Rage kept us up all night and 30 years later, we find ourselves in a YouTube-Vevo culture dominated by the form.
Today, the music video is king. The top five most viewed videos of all time on YouTube are music videos. In the top 30 most viewed videos of all time, only one is not a music video (“Charlie Bit My Finger – Again!” at number six). Music video streaming giant Vevo has become the MTV of the internet and has millions of views on its syndicated videos. Then there are the fan remixes, covers, redubs and parodies. The internet is rife with some serious music video love.
This exhibition reminds you just how influential and mesmerising music video has been and continues to be. The music video is not just a vehicle for a song, a marketing ploy or something to switch on and fall asleep to after a long night out. Spectacle proves that the music video can tell stories, it can make you dance, it is an art form. It is unbound by structure or rules, only music, and offers mesmerising free-form creativity and ingenuity that surprises and inspires.
Spectacle chronicles history’s most iconic videos, and the masters of experimentation and storytelling that contributed them, both artists and directors alike. I was amazed at how much the modern music video owes to directors like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Andreas Nilsson, Mike Mills and Chris Cunningham, and artists like Bjork, OK Go, Kanye West, Devo, Sigur Ros and Aphex Twin for constantly pushing the boundaries of the form.
Spectacle is a testament to the power of the music video. This is how these short films were meant to be seen, on gigantic cinema screens with state-of-the-art speakers, not through the tinny audio output of your laptop. There is an abundance to see here, full scale models of iconic videos including a comic panel from A-Ha’s Take on Me and a life-size Milky from Blur’s Coffee and TV, a series of rare interactive videos from The Arcade Fire, and more videos than you will be able to find time for. I found myself writing them all down and watching everything I missed on YouTube later.
This is a triumph of curation, and ‘spectacle’ could not be a more perfect term.
As it turns out, The Buggles’ were wrong. Video didn’t kill the radio stars. Video made them what they are.
Spectacle: The Music Video Exhibition is on at ACMI, Federation Square until 23 February 2014.