Monday, April 09, 2007

Speak Up! Interview With Author Saul Austerlitz

In Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes, critic Saul Austerlitz provides an essential study of our favorite subject. Tracking the growth of the form from its earliest beginnings to its most modern incarnations, Austerlitz deftly navigates a sea of information by focusing on the major players who shaped video history. It's one of the only books of its kind, and thus an important step in recognizing the music video as a vital art form.

We recently had a chance to ask Mr. Austerlitz some questions about his book and the current state of the industry. What emerged was a mutual nostalgia for 90's glitz, mandatory love for Gondry and Jonze and a hopeful outlook on the future of music videos...

Obtusity: Music videos are at a transitional stage right now. Despite the popularity of videos on YouTube and the actual possibility of video sales through programs like iTunes, there is the foreboding slow-death of MTV and video television on the horizon. What where the main reasons for writing this book now, at this particular moment?

Austerlitz: I’ve always been fascinated by the music video, from adolescence forward, and wanted to write a book that treated videos seriously, because I thought they were worthy of the kind of sustained analysis that I try to make use of in “Money for Nothing.” I wrote this book to capture something of the fascination, and the allure, of the music video, before nostalgia set in permanently, or they became the half-remembered detritus of the past. I wanted to write my book before the video vanished for good. As it turned out, that ended up not being a concern, because just as the music video appeared to be on the brink of extinction, the Internet took the video under its wing, and rescued it.

Obtusity: So do you see the propagation of low-tech cheaply produced videos spreading on the Internet, as opposed to the big-budget spectacles we saw in the '90's, as a positive or negative phenomenon?

Austerlitz: I see it as an unalloyed positive phenomenon. If you had asked me a few years ago, before the recent explosion of YouTube and other streaming-video sites, I would have said that the music video had entered a death spiral, in which the lack of television support or major-label financing spelled the end of the form as we know it. What the YouTube revolution has done is that it’s returned some of the excitement that had seeped out of the music video, but instead of giving it to the superstars, it’s given it to the no-name indie bands, and the art-school graduate directors who make their videos. YouTube and MySpace are open markets of video experimentation, and while not all of it is terrific, or even watchable, let a thousand flowers bloom! The cream will rise to the top, and there are more good videos than I find myself able to keep up with.

Obtusity: As a kid I actually loved the anticipation before a big video "premiere" on MTV. Will we ever see another 7 million dollar music video like Michael and Janet Jackson's "Scream"? Or is the era of video excess over?

Austerlitz: I did too, although when I was in elementary school, my family didn’t have cable, and so I vividly remember the Fox premieres of Michael Jackson videos like “Black or White” and “Remember the Time.” Those days, unfortunately, are gone- I don’t think any record label in these lean days is going to pony up $7 million for any artist to make a video. And you can see it in the videos- even the large-scale videos, such as they are, have lost most of their juice. It would be difficult to point to more than a handful of good big-budget videos from the last few years. The Internet’s rise as a locus for music videos has also shifted the fulcrum so that low-budget videos from smaller artists are where the action is at. The big performers, by contrast, are struggling to catch up.

Obtusity: You write on a wide variety of styles and artists in your book, who are the people whom you see as the most influential in music video history?

Austerlitz: I think that if we’re talking about directors, there are two who stand head and shoulders above every other practitioner of the form: Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. I don’t think any other music-video directors can compare to Gondry and Jonze in terms of originality of approach, fluidity of style, or sustained vitality. That said, there are obviously dozens of other directors who have remarkable bodies of video work: everyone from Godley & Crème and Mary Lambert to Mark Romanek and Sam Bayer. When it comes to performers, I would highlight the Beatles and David Bowie as the essential progenitors of the music video, along with their respective directors (Richard Lester and David Mallet), followed in short order by Michael Jackson and Madonna, who are the key stars of the video era. Those four performers understood first and best what the demands of the music video would be, and used the video to their advantage by crafting a persona, and treating the video as an opportunity to play off and against that persona- a series of variations on a theme, if you will.

Obtusity: Speaking of current trends, what are some of your favorite videos from the last year or last couple years? What directors or artists are you most excited about in terms of their videos or visual aesthetics?

Austerlitz: I absolutely loved Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” directed by Sam Bayer. Politics are often verboten in videos, as they are in mainstream film, so I’m always glad to see them crop up. I thought “Wake Me Up” had more to say about the war in Iraq than 50 hours of CNN-Fox News blather, and was beautifully, lavishly made, to boot. In the same vein, I enjoyed Juvenile’s “Get Ya Hustle On,” which captured the essence of the anger and anguish of post-Katrina New Orleans. There have been so many other wonderful videos from the past year or two, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Most importantly, a new generation of talented directors have emerged- filmmakers like Chris Milk, Brent Chesanek, and Marc Webb. I also am happy to see that performers are still embracing videomaking as an aspect of their stardom, and taking music video in intriguing directions. Bands like Green Day and My Chemical Romance, Outkast and Missy Elliott, are keeping the mainstream video flame alive.

Obtusity: Many times videos are more directly tied with pop culture and celebrity gossip than a certain song or idea. How important are videos in developing image for an artist, and why do people latch onto them so strongly in this context?

Austerlitz: I’d actually say that music videos’ link to image maintenance is weaker now than it ever has been. Music videos are increasingly about the videos themselves, and the links to the performers are more about magnetic attraction- cool attracting cool, if you will- than anything else. Sure, the Justin Timberlakes of the world still make videos, but videos are no longer essential to the unveiling of their image in the way they were for Michael Jackson or Madonna in the 1980s. Instead, the real energy in music video is found among indie or no-name groups who are willing to subsume their identity beneath that of the video, and that of the director. The rise of the Internet as the locus of the music video has shifted attention away from performers and toward the videos themselves, and the performers who have benefited from it, perversely enough, are the ones who are low-maintenance, image-wise. The performers who still need to be front and center in every frame of their videos are not the ones who are benefiting from the resurgence of interest in videos.

Obtusity: What makes a video more than a commercial? And is there a problem if it isn't?

Austerlitz: Of course music videos are a commercial enterprise- they never pretend to be otherwise. They are advertisements for their songs, and their intention is to sell. They sell the song, sure, but they also sell a persona, a look, even a lifestyle. Music videos shill, and I don’t think that the grubby hands of the marketplace dirty the aura of the video. I suppose the distinction is between “commercial” and “purely commercial”- videos are undoubtedly commercial, but “purely commercial”? I’d have to say they aren’t. Music videos are short films. It takes creativity and ingenuity to make them, and the success of music-video directors in film and television is testament to the creativity of their enterprise. But they are undoubtedly built to sell- bands and labels wouldn’t pay for them otherwise. Music videos require the presence of two equal and moderately opposing notions- commerce and art. At their worst, they only represent the interests of the former; at their best, they adhere to the highest aspirations of the latter. But being true to commerce does not mean being false to art, or vice versa; they are interlocking mechanisms, and music video depends on the presence of both.

Obtusity: What is the future of music video criticism? Are there plans for writing further books on the subject?

Austerlitz: It would be wonderful if music videos could be included in the curriculum of film studies departments- I think that my book is just a first step, and there’s a lot of other interesting work that can be done in the field. I think that music video criticism is dependent on the health of music videos- if they continue to flourish, as I believe they have in the past few years, then there will be a call for worthwhile music video criticism. Without that, the impetus falls away. But I do think that there’s room for much more to be written about the form, especially genre and international videos. I avoided talking about international (especially foreign-language) videos in my book because I didn’t want to thoroughly embarrass myself, but I’d love to read a history of the German- or French- or Hindi-language music video, because it would be fascinating to compare and contrast.

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and critic living in New York. He writes a monthly column on music videos for the Boston Globe, and also writes about film, music, and books for the Globe, as well as a number of other publications.

Buy the book on Amazon!

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