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‘You could have a steam train if you’d just lay down your tracks,’ preaches Peter Gabriel in his 1986 hit Sledgehammer. The lyrics are confident and sexy. There’s a feeling that anything is possible. In the music video, objects seamlessly appear and disappear. Characters magically duplicate and stand in multiple places at once. Images crossfade and are superimposed on top of one another. The laws of nature become irrelevant, and realism crumbles into a surrealist dream in which anything really is possible.

Realism crumbles into a surrealist dream in which anything really is possible

It seems music videos are rarely talked about with the same artistic prestige as cinema and television. Filmmaking is riddled with hierarchies and pretensions. At the Golden Globes the film actors sit in the front and centre where the cameras can see them, while the TV actors are squeezed in at the back. The Oscars don’t even bother to give out awards for television. It’s easy to imagine how, a few rungs further down the ladder, music videos are simply tossed aside.

Recently Harry Styles threw out the high-budget studios and cameras and made a budget video with James Corden for a Late Late Show segment: a prime example of why people often take music videos less seriously. It was a mishmash of cliché party and bathtub scenes - an ode to the teenage girl. A testament to the belief that anything will look good with some music over it.

For me, the genre arguably houses some of the most liberated cinematic expression. Unlike a feature-length film, a music video only has a couple of minutes to impress. The time constraint might seem like a setback, but often it is a great strength. Music videos do not have to sustain a coherent narrative for hours. Storyline is usurped by style and aesthetic. Directors can set aside the believability of their visual world and play around with editing, SFX and colour like never before.

Nowhere else is the viewer so open to accepting wacky and outlandish things. Michael Jackson can shape-shift into a wolf. Benee can chase after her cartoon imaginary friend, and Harry Styles can ride through the streets of London in a giant bed with no questions asked. A fictional world is entered and the lines between reality and imagination become blurry. The more provocative and absurd the image the better. The genre is a surrealist’s wet dream, and a filmmaker’s playground.

Wolf Alice’s catalogue of music videos captures a snapshot of contemporary urban life. In Don’t Delete the Kisses, the London underground is a reliable backdrop to changing, growing relationships. You fall in love on it and you fight until you burst into tears on it. In Delicious Things, the Uber back home from a night out is a more interesting place to be than the party itself. In Safe from Heartbreak (if you never fall in love), you sulk in the stalls at the periphery of a nightclub. All the images combine the fast-paced nature of modern-city life with its underbelly of alienation, loneliness and heartbreak. Their videos are just as valuable and illustrative of the band’s message as their songs are. They are more than just gimmicky accompaniments to the music.

More than just gimmicky accompaniments to the music

Directed by Hiro Murai, Childish Gambino’s This is America holds a mirror up to contemporary society. Its surrealism symbolises the anarchy of real-life America. He sings about partying, Gucci, and money, and then he shocks the viewer with a church massacre or a school shooting. He dances in the foreground while riots take place behind him. More than being just a straightforward illustration of the music, the visuals create counterpoints to the song. Lyrics about Gucci are juxtaposed with images of violence and distraction by brute reality.


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The world Murai created may be as chaotic and creative as a playground, but it is not the kind of playground we were talking about earlier. It’s America’s playground, where entertainment and violence live together like an old married couple. To a government preaching ‘make America great again,’ this video asks which America are you looking at? 'This is America'.

These music videos have real cinematic value, and they deserve critical acclaim. Once a merely promotional tactic, the form has evolved into being as highly coveted as the songs themselves. Gone should be the days of melodramatic blue-tinted, bathtub scenes underscored by Adele. In their place, we should be welcoming exciting, provocative images like Gambino’s and Gabriel’s.