Producing Difference

Capitalistic Spectacle and Cultural Difference in Popular Music Videos

Christian Huck (University of the Arts, London)

After presenting a short overview of the literature on music videos, I will deduce the main formal characteristics of music videos from the medial conditions in which they usually appear, and demonstrate how certain practices of filming, editing, and mis en scène are employed to capture the audience’s attention in a multi-channel environment. Then, I am going to show how spectacular visual difference can also be produced through the depiction of cultural differences. In order to do that, I will give an in-depth analysis of two videos, namely Brimful of Asha by the British-Asian band Cornershop, and Hey Ya! by the African-American Hip Hop duo Outkast. By means of these analyses, I will show how popular culture can not only subvert traditional cultural differences, but also uncover new differences behind old ones.

Writing on MTV

Music videos have a long genealogy reaching from Cinema Musicals to promotion clips for bands unwilling or indisposed to tour, or appear in the TV studio.1 However, the proper birth of the music video as a discrete genre or medium came about with the launch of MTV in 1981. It surely is no coincidence that the ascend of MTV paralleled the rise of a theory that came to reign most of the academic world during the eighties and nineties: post-modernism. Post-modern analyses of the music video and MTV soon abounded. John Fiske simply called one of his articles “MTV: Post-structural Post-modern”2, Briankle G. Chang wrote “A Hypothesis of the Screen: MTV and/as (postmodern) signs”3, Ann Kaplan spoke of “Feminism/Oedipus/Postmodernism: the Case of MTV”4. Heidi Peeters has summed up the claim against MTV in a recent article: “Music videos often have been characterized as the ultimate medium of the postmodern world. Fast. Empty. Lascivious. At least that is how the majority of the academic and educated world perceives them. Using Frederic Jameson’s terms, music videos have been defined as a schizophrenic string of isolated, discontinuous signifiers, failing to link up into a coherent sequence, as a string without a center.“5

Looking merely at the visuals and the lacking narrative coherence, such an interpretation might seem convincing. And as most scholars, who attempted an analysis of the music video, derived from film and literary studies, such a concentration on the visual narration comes as no surprise. In hindsight, postmodernism’s search for a symbolic mirror of the world’s incoherencies seems as shallow as it claimed the music video to be. Only slowly, new studies come to integrate other than visual aspects. The musical score, usually highly repetitive in rhythm and melody, defies the centrifugal powers of the visuals.6 And although the videos might lack narrative coherence, most of them centre on the presentation of the human body and invite a centripetal gaze.7 Another form of coherence appears, if the cultural analyst starts looking beyond the apparently autonomous work the music video never was in the first place. By considering the star system,8 youth and fan culture, musical traditions and genre conventions, many other elements of the video give away their apparent obscurity. Finally, many of the remaining peculiarities can be understood, if the specificity of the medium ‘Music Television’ is considered. In the following, I will attempt to situate ‘Music TV’ between the aural medium of the radio and the visual based medium of the screen.

The Medial Specificity of Music Videos

Pop music always relied on broadcasting media like the radio, and portable storage media like records or CD’s for its dissemination. Other than classical or folkloristic music, pop has no tradition of physical presence, neither as spectator nor as participant. Pop music comes to our homes, detached from its source of production. Visuals always had to be re-attached, a natural relation between signifier and signified never existed. As soon as pop music enters our homes, it is open to our free disposal. No authorial convention forces us to sit down and listen: we can have our breakfast, read the paper, kiss our loved one, do the dishes, have sex or a romantic dinner, we can discuss world politics, or, as Jody Berland has remarked accurately, “just [ ] live with it”9.

On the other hand, film, in its purest form on the cinema screen, has far less competition: no other acoustic or optical stimuli are allowed in the cinema hall. The audience surrenders to the one and only source in front of them. At first, TV audiences mimicked the behaviour they learned from going to the movies: The living room was darkened and turned into a small cinema; the program was chosen and then followed. By the 1980’ies, the time when MTV hit the screens, this situation had changed dramatically, and TV was no longer just cinemas proletarian sister, but had developed a medial specificity of its own. As soon as the number of channels rose with the addition of cable and satellite to network television, a new fight for attention begun. The TV audience took over the infrared remote control: as soon as a program failed to capture one’s attention, the button was pressed and another channel was given its chance. Zapping became the new mode of consumption.

MTV combined the two weaknesses of radio and TV and made a virtue of it. Its task was double: It had to convince the listener to an immobility of the body, and the viewer to an immobility of the thumb. In the following, I will present some of the most effective formal devices to capture the audience’s attention that evolved from the specificity of the medium. The following examples are taken from the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls; the single the video promoted topped the UK and the US charts in early 1986 and sold more than 1.5 million units worldwide.

The first formal consequence of the medial setting can be seen in editing. To keep the viewer alert, the editing is done at an enormous speed at the beginning of the video, and the continuity principle, which “makes sure that the filmic space and time appear as realistic and coherent as possible”10 in realist cinema, is self-confidently abandoned as a string of unconnected images follow each other on the screen. (Please double-click on the video.) The second consequence of the medial environment can be seen in the depicted images themselves. Against the narrative closure of classical cinema, which would hinder the repeatability of the video, which in turn is necessary for effective promotion, the music video sets a high degree of ambivalence – a traditional avant-garde technique, which was once thought to resist capitalism and is now used to sustain it:11 What are these dolls about?

Who is this third person?

Why is the second band member only half-visible?

A similar effect is reached through the use of quasi-documentary material. As many other videos, this one features relatively unmotivated shots of street life, very often filmed while driving or walking past, showing a reality that can be linked to sound and narration in various ways, and open it to the polysemy of everyday life. (Please double-click on the video.)

While these devices keep the audience alert, and involve the viewer by inviting him or her to construct meaning, vagueness alone would soon be tiresome. Amidst the speed of change and the ambiguity of the pictures that made MTV (in)famous, the music video places a rock that seems to even surpass the immediacy of the human voice blaring from the wireless: the personal or direct address.12 No form of mass mediated communication has spoken to its audience more directly than the music video. While cinema has adopted the heterodiegetic narratee of the novelistic tradition, “pop songs are often performed through a direct and/or first-person mode of address, thus breaking with the illusionism of the ‘fourth wall’ of naturalistic cinema and television.”13 The singer in the video talks to you even more directly as the performer on the stage could ever do.

Such direct address is not only compelling the viewer to watch, but places the speaker at the centre of an otherwise floating universe: he or she seems to be the only one with a stable identity, resisting the unstable visual environment. (Please double-click on the video.)

The performer becomes a model, a Vor-bild, an image after which the viewer can model his or her own identity in order to resist the insecurities and unsteadiness of puberty and the post-modern world in general.

As the goal of the record companies is to sell their records, one could reason that videos have to produce comforting mirror images of its viewers, or rather, images of what the viewers would like to be like. But who is out there? One thing is for sure: Despite the millions invested in market research, the companies are unable to manufacture what the ‘people’ want to see, and hear; as a matter of fact, 90% of all releases fail to make a profit. Therefore, so the cultural critic fears, the companies play it safe and resume to reproducing cultural stereotypes.

MTV, as the epitome of capitalistic mass media, has to cater as many as possible, and in order to do that they have to cook according to the lowest common denominator: the result, again, according to some critics, may be colourful, but always tastes the same: Coca Cola and McDonald’s to everyone’s eyes and ears. I will not argue with the fact that MTV is a commercial institution that tries to reach as many teenagers and young adults as possible. But I doubt that generalization, homogenisation, and abstracting from the particular is the only way to achieve this goal, and the only effect of mass media and popular culture in general. Parallel to these equalizing tendencies, music videos produce spectacular differences – and these differences will occupy me in the remainder of this article. I will try to show in the following that the subversion of cultural stereotypes is used to create a visual spectacle that captures the audience’s attention. In order to do this, I come to my first example now.

The Winning Formula

What do you need to produce a successful video for a black American artist? And by successful I mean a song that topped the US, UK and German single charts for several weeks, arguably the biggest world-wide hit in 2004. So what do you need? To everyone who watched MTV in the last couple of years, the formula is all too obvious: You need a number of girls ready to shake it. (Please double-click on the video.)

You need some boys wanting to “ehm”. (Please double-click on the video.)

And you have to present some and some relief at the end. (Please double-click on the video.)

An opening, readiness, conclusion.14 Well, there ain’t much more stereotypes you can repeat in 4 minutes.


Funnily enough, the most successful video of a black artist before this was everything else than a humourless boy meets girl story. And again, by successful I mean 8 weeks on top of the Billboard Charts, only to be followed by another of their songs – something that hasn’t happened since, well, yes, the Beatles in 1964. The band in question is Outkast, and their hit single Hey Ya! – and the video is nothing else than a spoof on the Beatles taking over America as seen on the legendary Ed Sullivan show. (Please double-click on the video.)

Compare this to the Beatles. (Please double-click on the video.)


And the references become even more obvious. Look at this comment here on John Lennon:

And now compare this one here:

Here, clearly, the empire sings back and takes over a white middle class institution: the song, a classical pop song more than everything else, re-opens the view on the hybrid roots of rock’n’roll which used to be a mixed business until rock turned white and black turned hip hop. The video doubles this opening: not only is black music richer than just R’n’B and Hip Hop, but the history of blackness is much more colourful than what is normally shown on MTV. On the empire’s stage, Outkast perform neither a mirror nor an upside-down image of the former master, but a multifaceted and kaleidoscopical vision. The singer of the song slips into eight different roles, representing different parts of the black experience: At least symbolically, through the affirmative power of pop music, various ways of living are made to form a whole: the sleazy seventies style of the blaxploitation era

and the intellectual goatee and beret chic,

the neo-colonial couture of Marcus Garvey15

and the folk singer of the sixties16

the hypermasculinity of nineties R’n’B

and the mimicry and the straightened hair of the fifties

The easy to repeat difference between white and black musical culture is exchanged here for a variety of differences that challenge the simplistic dualism of black and white, and the presumed homogeneity of the other.17 As a consequence, the video strikes every viewer as being different.


Before I draw my conclusions from this, let me introduce a similarly humoristic example from this side of the Atlantic: Cornershop’s Brimful of Asha. (Please double-click on the video.) After a first viewing, the video seems to be nothing more than a three-minute advertisement, working along the lines Ann Kaplan formulated: “MTV […] sells the music and the band featured in the videos. Here the signifiers that address desire (for sex, […], freedom, love) are fastened onto the commodity that is, in this case, the band and their music contained in the purchasable album. The desire is displaced onto the album, which then promises to satisfy it”18. And there is no denying that one function of the video is the selling of the Cornershop’s new album.

However, a closer viewing, and above all, a closer listening will reveal a number of cracks in the apparently desirable surface. Who is “Sadi Rani”, who is “Asha Boshle”? Why are there Indian instruments to see – a sitar and a tanpura – when no such sounds are audible? And why are the European members of the band playing the Indian instruments, while the only one who appears to be of Asian descend is playing the guitar? What is the story behind “Solid State Radio” and “Two in One’s”?

And what about the lyrics? What is it really that is desired here?

Cornershop was formed in 1992 in Preston, home to one of the biggest Asian communities in Britain. The band’s name already suggests an ironic relation to the British-Asian background of the singer and songwriter of the band, Tijinder Singh. Their first single, which was released in January 1993 and which is one of the singles the young girl in the video listens to, played with this peculiar double or hybrid heritage:

The song titles on this and their second single constantly refer to a British-Asian experience: “Kawasaki (more heat than chapati)”, “Breaking Every Rule Language English”, but also to reflections on this experience: “Hanif Kureishi Scene”.

Now, “A Brimful of Asha”, released in August 1997, carries on the occupation with India and Pop.19 Asha Bhosle and Sadi Rani, as well as the later mentioned Mohammed Ruffi and Lata Mangeshka, Asha’s sister, are all enormously popular artists in India, famous mostly for their work as background singers in Bollywood movies. Asha Bhosle, it is estimated, has sung more than 20 000 songs and sold more than 40 million records. The form of escapism that these records provided for is celebrated rather than condemned: “And singing, illuminate the main streets and the cinema aisles. We don't care about no government warning, about the promotion of the simple life and the dams they are building.” The ever-repeated refrain describes the need for comfort, and it names the medium that can provide such comfort, that is the record-single played on 45 rounds-per-minute: “Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow, mine’s on the 45.” This little story of pop’s power to transcend the daily drag is embedded into a history of the media. Only through the transition from valve-based amplifiers to transistorised amplifiers, the so-called “solid-state radios” became available to the masses, and music could find its way into everyone’s home. The “two-in-one”, that is, the radio-cum-cassette player, gave control to the listener, who now no longer had to rely on the play-lists of the radio stations, but was able to listen to whatever he or she wanted wherever he or she was. Asha became the consumer’s choice, in contrast to whatever the educational or cultural programmes of the state might have in mind for the “promotion of the simple life”.

However, all this would have remained a nice supplement to pop’s main business – great fodder for the academic to burst about the self-reflexivity of pop, but without any relevance to the masses as the single failed to enter the Top 40. Had it not been for Norman Cook. He remixed the original version, and the re-release, which is the version played in the video, propelled to the top of the pop charts in February 1998; the accompanying video went on MTV’s heavy rotation. The video takes up the bands peculiar position between Britain and Asia, pop and traditional culture, the demanding and the comforting. Several distinctions that sustain the world of pop are turned upside-down here. Exotica, for example, where always important in pop, but only as background, as attachment: the Beatles had Ravi Shankar, but the singers remained white and kept the centre of the stage. In a similar vein, rock music, that is guitar-based music centred on the human voice, is traditionally a white, heterosexual business, whereas dance music is traditionally a black or gay genre. Taken up by those who were kept away from the centre, dance music always undermined the hierarchies of the pop song: melody over rhythm, voice over sound, mind over matter, etc. For what it’s worth, Tijinder Singh resists the equation of formal and ethnic otherness, and takes up the guitar, and the voice, and the centre; and Norman Cook, the epitome of white, middle-class ladism, remixes from the unseen. But not only are the ethnic foundations of pop shaken. Nothing is marked more masculine than the record collector, who orders and preserves, that is: who masters, what others, the female or homosexual dancers, only consume. Here, the black, young female is all at once: collector, listener, dancer.

A Different Difference

Surely, one could retort that traditional cultural differences are merely subverted for the sake of distinguishing these songs from other pop songs so that they might sell better – and it is hard to defy this argument. Nevertheless, it seems at least noteworthy to me that of all differences that could have been employed to set apart these songs from other songs, and thereby produce enough spectacle to capture the attention of the viewer, those seem most successful that have a wide cultural resonance. Those differences, which pop employs to make a difference and create such spectacle, are exactly those inequities between man and woman, black and white, straight and queer, which are still at work after equality between these groups has officially been established. Popular culture, while often repeating and strengthening cultural differences, is at the same time subverting these differences: for the simple reason that it cannot stand still, but has to remain transitory, because it is too shallow for any foundations. The music video both relies on stereotypes and on the subversion of these stereotypes.

(All extract from the videos are cited purely for academic purposes; if anyone should object to such usage, please inform the webmaster of this page and we will be happy to remove any of the images.)

1 For a short history of the video clip see Neil Feinemann: “Introduction” in Reiss, Steven: Thirty Frames per Second: The Visionary Art of the Music Video (New York: 2000), 10-29.

2 John Fiske: “MTV: Post-structural Post-modern”, Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 1 (1986), 74-79.

3 Briankle G. Chang: “A Hypothesis of the Screen: MTV and/as (postmodern) signs”, Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 1 (1986), 70-73.

4 E. Ann Kaplan: “Feminism/Oedipus/Postmodernism: the Case of MTV” in: Postmodern After-Images: A Reader in Film, Television and Video, ed. Peter Brooker and Will Brooker (London et al.: Arnold, 1997), 233-47.

5 Heidi Peeters: “The Semiotics of Music Videos: It must be written in the Stars” in: Image & Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative, Issue 8: Mélanges / Miscellaneous (Mai 2004), without pagination. [, 02.11.2004]

6 See Andrew Goodwin: Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture (Minneapolis: 1992), and Alf Björnberg: “Structural Relationships of Music and Images in Music Video”, Popular Culture, 13:1 (Jan 1994), 51-74.

7 See Paul McDonald, "Feeling and Fun: Romance, Dance, and the Performing Male Body in the Take That Videos" in Sexing the Groove: Popular Music and Gender, ed. Shiela Whitely (New York: Routledge, 1997), 277- 294.

8 See Heidi Peeters: “The Semiotics of Music Videos: It must be written in the Stars” in: Image & Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative, Issue 8: Mélanges / Miscellaneous (Mai 2004), without pagination. [02.11.2004]

9 Jody Berland: “Sound, Image and Social Space: Music Video and Media Reconstruction” in: Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin and Lawrence Grossberg (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 25-43.

10 Peeters: “The Semiotics of Music Videos: It must be written in the Stars”, without pagination.

11 Cf. Robart Pahlavi Bowie: “Rock Video ‘According to Fredric Jameson’” in: Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture: Film, TV and the Popular, 1:2 (1987), without pagination. [, 08.10.2004]; Feinemann: “Introduction”, 11.

12 Cf. Sally Stockbridge: „Music Video: Questions of Performance, Pleasure and Address“ in: Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media and Culture: Film, TV and the Popular, 1:2 (1987), without pagination. [, 08.10.2004]

13 Andrew Goodwin: “Fatal Distractions: MTV meets Postmodern Theory” in: Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin and Lawrence Grossberg (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 45-66.

14 These clips are taken from Usher’s Yeah, obviously.

15 Marcus Gravey was part of the 1920’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.

16 Bob Moses, Ralph Abernassy, and many others, who picked up a guitar in protest, are forgotten now: liberal and liberating folk music is a white business, black music of the sixties is Motown soul.

17 Outkast represent another evolution inside Hip Hop: After the killings of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. the concentration on East Coast and West Coast waned; Missy Elliot from Portsmouth, Nelly from St. Louis, Bubba Sparxx from rural Georgia, and Outkast from Atlanta show that Hip Hop is not a metropolitan phenomenon, but part of all the U.S.

18 E. Ann Kaplan, Rocking around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture (New York & London: Methuen, 1987), 19.

19 For an interpretation of the song, which highlight’s the playful re-writing of history in the song, see Claus-Ulrich Viol, „Br-Asian Overground: Marginal Mainstream, Mixing, and the Role of Memory in British Asian Popular Music“, Journal for the Study of British Cultures, 8:2, 73-90.