How Short Films Are Overtaking Music Videos

How Short Films Are Overtaking Music Videos

An explanation of the growing medium for artistic expression.

An explanation of the growing medium for artistic expression.

Text: Jake Viswanath

Once upon a time, there was a period in our lives when the release of a brand spankin’ new music video (in TRL terms) from one of our favorite artists was a legitimate event, one that would often lead to iconic moments that were thus ingrained in our brain forever. The music video was the medium where artists and their chosen collaborators could give visual life to the song, focusing on its meaning or creative inspirations, while simultaneously vying for the success of the single.

Nowadays, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a music video that prioritizes artistic aspirations over commercial performance. More and more videos have flat concepts that are just aesthetically appealing enough for the average person to stream it once and get the song lodged in their heads. Artistic vision and innovativeness are just not essential anymore. But not all artists are falling for this trap, instead focusing on a new medium to execute their creative vision.

Now more than ever, musicians have been making short films in order to promote their projects. This format allows them to hone in on their artistic vision more than a normal music video is able to do, without having to worry quite as much about commercial appeal. Artists can come up with full-fledged plot lines, construct more elaborate settings, give breathtaking performances, and create groundbreaking visuals inspired by their song or album, with the longer length of a short film giving their vision true justice.

In 2016 alone, Beyoncé, Florence + the Machine, and most recently, Drake, have released short films for their latest albums which completely redefine the music video and the purpose they serve. While they are still inevitably used as a promotional tool for the music, their respective short films have allowed them more room to create striking visuals, establish emotional depth, and cause unprecedented cultural impact.

Beyoncé's Emmy-nominated Lemonade is the shining example of this trend, a suspenseful look at the destruction and reformation of a sacred marriage, and an eye-opening celebration of black women in society. The incredible visual settings and emotional resonance of these messages have caused the film to permeate our culture in the way of a significant music video, spawning its own memes and catchphrases  while placing emphasis on the emotional effects of cheating. Lemonade shows a vulnerable, broken Beyoncé building back her confidence and security, exposing a rarely seen side of the legendary pop phenom, something which could not be justly shown in a music video.

Florence + the Machine took us on a similar journey in The Odyssey, a short film set to songs from their beautiful record, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Lead singer Florence Welch battles heartbreak through intricate choreography, intense fight scenes, and emotional catharsis in serene landscapes. It’s a devastatingly stunning film that breaks the emotional boundaries Florence set with previous albums and gives us a look into her destructive relationship, something which could not be done justice were it not for the short film medium.

Short films have also allowed rappers to shed an arrogant macho image and show off their vulnerable and creative sides more than any other medium could. Drake’s film Please Forgive Me, inspired by songs off his album Views, shows Drizzy on a mission for bloody revenge after a mob boss takes unnecessary advantage of his girl. As cheesy as the plot sounds on paper, the film succeeds at contextualizing the rapper outside of his self-constructed world of meme fodder and turn-up jams, establishing his unrealized artistic prowess and giving him emotional depth that he only scratches the surface of in his music.

And who could forget Kanye West’s Runaway, a 35-minute film about an unusual romantic relationship set to one single song, “Runaway.” At the time of release in 2010, it was seen by some as overly indulgent and yet another example of West’s self-centered persona. But it was a risk that paid off, allowing Kanye to carry out his wonderfully overblown ambition and show what he is truly capable of visually for the first time in his career.

One could go all the way back to 1983 and claim that Michael Jackson first took advantage of the format by turning his hit “Thriller” into the slapstick scary odyssey film that set a precedent for great pop videos. You can even vouch for the bombastic and groundbreaking videos of Lady Gaga’s eternally incomplete “Paparazzi” trilogy being short films in this vein. But this year’s short films have taken these models and truly stretched the limits of what can be considered a music video.

This is not to say that simple music videos can’t still thrill every now and again — Fergie’s “M.I.L.F. $.” and the experimental wonders of FKA twigs come to mind as recent examples. But to expect the music video to consistently satisfy aesthetically and intelligently would be unrealistic at this point, and it seems that artists are starting to take note and steer away from the format when they can. The growth of short films as a music medium is an exciting trend, one that can properly excite and create true moments like the good ol’ TRL days. There is nothing more gratifying than an artist reaching his or her true potential, visually and musically, and anything that enables them to achieve that is welcome in my book.

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