Music video:
messages and structures

by Deborah H. Holdstein

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 1, 13
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005


"I think video plays a big part ... gives the band more of an identity ... If a band's personality comes across, they're ultimately much stronger. Bands must take performance into account nowadays when they present themselves to the public. The [video] clips make you more accessible to the fans. When they come to a performance, then they bring or wear things they've seen in the video."(1)

Featured performer in the Australian group Men at Work, Cohn Hay thus finds rock video important to the promotion of a group's image as well as its music. His views emphasize precisely how powerfully the new medium enhances the already potent chemistry of music industry mythmaking. Hay notes the need for a "sense of performance." Now that music video has pulled the record business from its worst slump in years, a star's video image could be the crucial difference between a mediocre and exciting video — and a mediocre or exciting career.

Moreover, this "sense of performance" distinguishes the more successful music videos from others — in terms of composition, lighting, mise-en-scene, and the need to use or reject the song's narrative as the foundation for the film's visual backdrop. Most important, however, artists with any amount of creative control over the content and "look" of their videos become responsible for helping to create a video artwork instead of a mere taped performance. They also can create their own screen persona — a powerful, influential presence with genre-specific and political implications.(2)

In this, music videos appear to echo the starmaking machinery of the 1930s and 1940s studio system. The major studios and stars cultivated the mythic personae with which they would be identified — elegant, witty Cary Grant; elegant, cool-if-suffering Joan Crawford. So, too, have the music stars featured in more carefully constructed videos begun to create screen and, by extension, music personalities. In the past, these personae might be left more fully to the imagination, or reinforced only through more traditional, visually substantiated forms of public display-the concert, the record album cover pose, photographs and interviews in Rolling Stone, Time, and so on. But the video image is quicker and more potent. Rather than waiting for documentaries and concert performances to record and reveal Mick Jagger's "demonic" persona, the immediacy of television brings the chosen visual personae of Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, David Bowie, and endless other stars and would-be stars through our cable and commercial channels. And for artists successful enough to assume at least some creative input — we can assume this about Jackson, Summer, and Bowie, for example — these images telescope the mythmaking process. The video images leave us with interesting implications about the star's "image" that go beyond the powers of publicists and the usual starmaking system.

Videos by Jackson, Summer, and Bowie are among the best of a very large group. Yet even within this relatively small sample, the visual and content goals of these videos seem to divide into two categories: those with allegedly explicit "political" themes, and those which revive the traditional U.S. film musical and represent its newest incarnation. Many others fall into still another category: the fantasy video, based entirely or in part on the spirit and lyrics of the song being performed. Such a format puts the group or star in a mythical, medieval, primitive/exotic or surrealistic series of images and locations.(3) These categories in no way reflect all of music video, of course. In fact many groups' videos capitalize quite blatantly on the stereotypes and situations of old and new Hollywood at its worst — exotic women savages, surrealism without Buñuel's creative savoir faire, and endless variations on computer, STAR WARS, and knight sagas of medieval times.(4)

 For the purposes of this analysis, I'll concentrate on videos by Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, and David Bowie, and the ways in which these representative tapes reveal three striking qualities:

  1. the star as fantasy "seer" or prophet;
  2. the star as political commentator or narrator;
  3. the star as mediator and point of resolution for social conflict.

Each of these qualities bears notable implications within these videos: the last has a particularly resonant parallel to the U.S. film musical. In this genre, conflicts of love and career, for example, become resolved through song and dance, most often through the initiative of one person, the star. While many videos' vision of the star-as-mediator figure finds its source — the powerful, invincible star — in the work of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, the star is transformed. The mediator, in several rock videos, has become a surreal, "fantasy" figure, involved yet deteached from the action s/he seems to resolve. And interestingly, even those videos we can call "political" find their star(s) strangely removed from what appears to be the purpose of the visual text, undercutting whatever political message it might have had to offer.(5)

(Gloria Swanson as SUNSET BOULEVARD's Norma Desmond,
has-been movie star of the silent era.)

Michael Jackson's video to his hit song, "Beat It," provides an excellent example of homage featuring a fantasy seer/mediator/star. The words of the song, while sympathetic with the visual imagery, are secondary to the storytelling visuals of the video. It doesn't need words, really. It has faces, gestures, emphasis, and a narrative one could easily follow without "Beat It" on the soundtrack.

The visuals open before the ominous double chords of the song's opening measures, a fitting, vivid start to the scene's attempt at ON THE WATERFRONT seamy naturalism. We see several men, who we will learn are members of a gang about to meet their rivals for a "rumble." They rise from their seats at a coffee shop. Visually, the men are tightly framed on the far right-hand side of the screen, hemmed in by the long counter and chairs of the cafe as they leave. The tinkling of glasses and silverware in the background helps set the realism of the scene; not until the men slam the door behind them do the chords begin. By the second set of the minor-key chords, we've crosscut twice: First, there is a lineup of one gang's members, their bodies effectively hidden in shadow, their faces in the high-key lighting suited to Bergman's Death figure. Second, we see a sleazy pool hall where the other gang gathers its members.

As we hear Jackson's voice, we've witnessed the somewhat suspenseful line that creates the entire video's narrative and purpose. The camera focuses on each gang leader at a slightly low angle. The crosscutting continues, alternating between one gang piling on a truck, presumably to the rumble's location, and the other gang, walking. Of course, the suspense of "who'll get there first," and "what'll happen when they get there" is heightened even in the first few seconds of this video by a question: Where's Michael Jackson, and what role will he play in all of this?

Even before Jackson's entrance — to the line "the fire's in their eyes, and their words are really clear! So beat it, just beat it" — we've witnessed WEST SIDE STORY revisited. One gang even lines up its members facing the camera for our inspection; then, each member of the group turns, yelling his call to action. But Jackson's role? After the series of shots that unfolds the narrative, intercut with the fearful, guarded reactions of bystanders, we come upon Jackson in still a third location — the bedroom of his apartment, lying on his bed. Somehow, Jackson instinctively, prophetically knows there will be trouble. As if to foreshadow the ways in which his powers to reconcile the fighters will have their effect, he wears a white t-shirt decorated with a piano keyboard and music notation as he literally dances from his room to find the warring factions. But our original suspense continues: while we may wonder how Jackson 'knew' there was reason to leave his room, we still wonder what his part will be in the potential violence.

A strikingly lit longshot frames Jackson as he leaves his apartment through a dark hall, highlighting his feet — the mechanism for reconcilliation — and his newly-chic white socks. The video continues crosscutting between the gangs, one marching from right to left, the other from left to right, as Jackson searches in vain through the poolhall which one of the gangs abandoned earlier. This serves, however, to highlight Jackson's considerable dancing abilities as he lip-syncs the lyrics with the conviction of a pacifist preacher:

"Show them how funky,
strong is your fight ...
It doesn't matter
who's wrong or right,
so beat it ...
beat it, beat  it, beat it."

Meanwhile, the rivals line up (shot at extreme low angles) for battle; each gang leader is reaffirmed for the viewer through a medium close up at low angle. But their power doesn't last very long. Jackson has somehow arrived as the two leaders begin their choreographed knife-threat, and the visual power shift begins. As the two men dance around one another, threatening one another with knives, we suddenly see them at high angle, almost from a bird's eye point of view. Jackson, on the other hand, is shot at the lowest angle yet, his dominance and supremacy established as he physically separates the two men. And he makes them toe the line — the chorus line, resolving the conflict through his song and a tough, gymnastic dance that eventually brings the entire garageful of gang members into Broadway unison. And the fight is averted.

Michael Jackson's "Beat It," therefore, reestablishes many of the principles of the U.S. musical film that Jackson's audience would most likely reject in the film genre's classic AMERICAN IN PARIS or WEST SIDE STORY form. Jackson's image is carefully cultivated. Magically, he has "seen," somehow, that the fight will take place, and his are the only powers that can prevent hurt and destruction. Of course, song and dance "work" as the way to avoid conflict, opening this video to the same criticism which its classic forebears met, that of realism's deception and pretense when it is conveyed through what is, in effect, fantasy.

As entertainment, "Beat It" is fascinating, beautifully edited, lit, composed, and choreographed. And unlike the elegant, cool Fred Astaire or the athletic Gene Kelly, our "hero," Michael Jackson, seems unlikely. Although in his early twenties, Jackson seems a thin, wiry "childman," perhaps broadening our restricted images of a star to a more "everyperson" status.

Yet Jackson's fantasy persona becomes reinforced through another successful video, this time to accompany "Billie Jean." The setting is a surrealistic street. Every time Jackson's pursuer — a detective following him — tries to take a photograph, Jackson's image never shows up on the final print. Every time Jackson walks down the street, a square block of concrete lights up (magically) under his feet. And at the denouement of the video, Jackson disappears entirely, magically, as his pursuer is captured by the police. Freeze frames of Jackson in dancing poses throughout the video seem to make him a human artwork — a beautiful, magical, powerful star, invincible in his abilities to resolve human conflict or escape his oppressors.

Michael Jackson's videos are exemplary in their use of (homage to?) tried-and-true aspects of the U.S. musical (particularly WEST SIDE STORY) and as models of editing techniques to create suspense: crosscutting, movement, lighting, and, simply, the refusal to answer "what will happen next?" until the very end. But as our "new" videos rely on older models, we might note the ways in which stars like Jackson carefully design their images. It brings up that age-old musical question, "Can song and dance really do all that?" Since Jackson is indeed the fantasy mediator, the video unintentionally reaffirms the negative politics of promoting fantasy solutions to social conflicts. But the video allows another political view to emerge. Through Jackson's direct involvement at the end of the action, he blurs class, financial, and social distinctions in a gesture of unity. His involvement contrasts to the Donna Summer video, where the star seems strangely detached from the subject matter her narrative seems to support.


Donna Summer's hit, "She Works Hard for the Money," would appear to be a song championing working class women's rights and sentiments as they find little financial or spiritual satisfaction in their work or personal lives:

"She works hard for the money ...
So hard for it, honey ...
She works hard for the money,
so you better treat her right.

The lyrics of the hard-driving, rhythmic song find their ostensible parallel in the video. The pulsing introduction accompanies the visual image of a dancer in slow-motion, spinning in a flowing gown. As the regular rhythm of the song begins, the visual track cuts quickly to a woman in her thirties waking up to an alarm, telling us that the slow-motion images belonged to the woman and were part of a dream. This woman is NOT Donna Summer, but a woman who will be the video's Everywoman. She is seen as a waitress, a seamstress in a sweatshop, a scrubwoman in an office building, and at home with her children. The narrative allows us to presume that she is also a single mother with two rather uncooperative, unruly, unappreciative offspring. We see the featured woman in a variety of sexist and physically grueling scenarios: men's patting her behind as she waitresses, her bowing and raising her head in unison with other seamstresses bent over their sewing machines, her being besieged by dirty cups and saucers; men's chewing food, some of which is half-outside their mouths; and her being stiffed with measly tips or none at all.

Yet the narrative reveals a certain nobility, through the woman's communion with fellow workers as she goes in to clean offices before the rest of the world is awake. After a dissolve and pan from the woman's bed to a New York street, the first part of the video seems to break down structurally into three parts. These are integrated through crosscutting, with the same woman as their focus: first, our heroine is washing a floor; next, waitressing; finally, working as a seamstress. The second part shows us her home life. A shot of her walking towards the camera carrying two bags of groceries emphasizes the difficulty of her existence. Wearing high heels, she stumbles over the dirt and rocks near train tracks; a telescopic lens makes her every movement seem fruitless or at best difficult. The third part quickens the editing pace, intercutting shots of the roughness of her work in each place and at home.

Where, you might ask, is Donna Summer in all of this? Donna Summer appears in the video, but as the lofty narrator. Hers are all glamour close ups as she lip-syncs her song. Even though she occasionally appears within the same frame with and often rushes to the aid of our real heroine, she is in no way a participant in the action. In effect, the film's blatantly political message is undercut by Summer's rather prima donna stance. Doesn't Summer work hard for her money? It's difficult to tell. While the song sounds as if she sang her heart out during the recording session, Summer barely opens her mouth to sync the lyrics. In fact, her gestures, what few there are, seem so laconic that they visually deny the truths of the song and the rest of the video. We see Summer draped over a time clock in the factory where our heroine works as a seamstress, as a client fingering a cup of coffee in the cafe where our heroine works as a waitress. All the time Summer convinces us that she is a star in that word's most traditional and distasteful sense — the woman of leisure who can feel politically justified by the video's theme, but who distances herself from other women's plight. All Summer's video does is to reaffirm unfortunate class distinctions. While the intentional content of the video is admirable, Summer's inaction and rather blatant glamour "stance" undercuts whatever political strengths the film might have communicated.

The final sequence underscores this distancing's unfortunate effects. Dancers in various uniforms representing a variety of professions perform in unison on a New York street — our heroine having joined them — we learn she'd been a dancer before her present existence. Physically and spiritually Summer stands above them in the mise-en-scene. She is photographed at low angle, and is posed on a fire escape above the dancers in the street. How could we possibly believe, then, the allegedly political message of Summer's song and video when the star remains more than a star, detached from the action, separated from the working class people in her mise-en-scene, reaffirming class and social distinctions that undercut the entire narrative? In effect, Summer has separated herself not only from the issues she purports to expose but from other women as well. This allegedly political video, then, has a distressing, unintentional political message.


The video to David Bowie's "Let's Dance" merges several interesting structures and categories. While not as obliged to the traditional musical as Jackson and Summer's videos, Bowie's tries to make a political statement about the permeation of capitalism, particularly as it both seduces and then rejects those outside the mainstream of society, people for whom there may never be a place, with or without the American Express card featured in the narrative. Unlike Jackson and Summer's videos, "Let's Dance" does not create its visuals from the lyrics of the song. If anything, the visuals completely contradict the deceptively simplistic words:

"Let's Dance.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.
Let's Dance.
To the sound that's playing on the radio.
Let's sway.
While color lights up your face ..."

The setting is Australia, presumably outside of Sidney. Bowie, the performer/narrator of this apparently political video, performs in a bar filled mostly with Aborigines, people who haven't had a share in Australian culture or its financial spoils. The red shoes prove to be the video's central symbol of capitalism and white culture. As a young Aborigine man and woman dance in the bar, we crosscut to the same couple with friends or family. They find the red shoes in the dirt on a mountaintop overlooking the city. She puts them on, and they begin to dance, accepting the material seduction of capitalism and the promise of a "better life if one works hard."

Then come images that reinforce exactly what the red shoes mean to the narrative. The young man is suddenly a factory worker, as Bowie, in the guise of the manager, walks in with a woman associate who's wearing the red shoes. Bowie evidently speaks harshly to the young man (as well as his gesture and facial expression can indicate and dominate the lyrics of the song). The woman's red shoes visually represent capitalism and its oppression of the young man's people. We next crosscut to the young woman, scrubbing the front porch of a wealthy white woman, who walks by the young woman wearing — what else — the red shoes, as the Aborigine woman looks after her longingly. Alternating surreal images of the young man's pulling heavy machinery through Sidney traffic, and the young woman's trying to scrub clean the city's streets, Bowie undercuts his own stardom, his own capitalism, his own success. These images tell us not only of the Aborigines' oppression at the hands of people like Bowie, but also that their desire to give in to the seduction of capitalism and the promise of a more comfortable existence won't work.

Bowie illustrates this with yet another example. The young man and woman are now in a shopping center in Sidney where they purchase things  — a necklace, a fancy dinner — with an American Express card, probably the most visible worldwide symbol of the dominant culture. After they've had this fling, however, we have reason to both applaud the Aborigines and hate ourselves for oppressing them. The young woman takes off the red shoes and stomps them in the dirt, a decision to reject the dominant culture and to preserve her own. Unfortunately, however, this rejection keeps the Aborigines at the fringes of a world they deserve to share. A final series of shots places them high atop a mountain overlooking the city, distant from the life they can't have. The final shot is three-part in nature with Bowie at the center, the Aborigine couple at the left, and visions of elegant Sidney on the right. The rock star visually and narratively becomes the "bridge" between the dominant and oppressed cultures, partly with the capitalists, partly with the oppressed. He reveals the multilayered complexities of keeping one's culture while participating with another, and the essential problem of the Aborigines' being able to participate at all in a white-dominated world.

Bowie deserves credit for participating in the oppressive side of the video's action. A performer known for taking risks, he doesn't pretend that "Let's Dance" can represent a panacea for all the world — say, in the way that the dances in "Beat It" pretend to resolve all social conflict. David Bowie's "Let's Dance" video, then, reconciles the two extremes we've seen in Jackson and Summer. While he acts as the instrument through which the "problem" is presented, he doesn't pretend that he alone can or will solve the problem. He is both the musician in the Aborigine bar and the capitalist industrialist who, however indirectly, helps to oppress people. While the final image might appear to "detach" Bowie in the way that Summer's detachment throughout her video undercuts her pretense of participation, Bowie has kept the narrative's structure and purpose valid through his own appearance in a variety of roles. For David Bowie, there are no simple solutions; we can't solve the problem of the world in a six-minute video. But Bowie's one of the only performers who appears to be willing to acknowledge this where others won't.(6)


All three of these videos — "Beat It," "She Works Hard for the Money," and "Let's Dance" — are well-produced and visually interesting. Structurally, they form an interesting triad: Jackson, the seer/prophet, resolving the world's conflicts through dance; Summer, the glamorous narrator, who apparently undercuts her own plea for social equity by her detachment and contrast to her subject; Bowie, the political narrator/ participant, who relies less on the traditional musical and follows through on his ostensibly political tale by undercutting his own pretenses and the simplistic notion that "Let's Dance" will solve the world's problems. Bowie not only seems to bridge the need to reconcile issues of dominant versus oppressed cultures, but also dares to raise the issues credibly in the first place.

Rock videos are crucial promotional tools for the music industry, and their varieties in structure and purpose could easily be the subject of several analyses. Through my own readings, I don't pretend to have covered the entire range of formats, content, and visual styles. However, as more and more music videos borrow their formats from Hollywood films, as more and more pretend to be "mere entertainment" while featuring the personality, appearance, and sexuality of one performer, observers of this "new" form of entertainment are rewarded with new political frontiers on which to practice their skills as careful viewers.


1. Cohn Hay was featured in a "Private Reel" segment on the NBC weekly series, Friday Night Videos, August 26, 1983. This quote was excerpted from that interview.

2. There is a serious theoretical problem in rock videos: one might view the structure of these brief "films" as a dream structure, given the often sadomasochistic and surrealistic overtones which many feature. For the purposes of this article, however, I've selected videos from commercially-available sources — that is, network television programming, more readily accessible to more people. These videos are selected by networks for their "broad" appeal. While sexuality is by no means a criterion for not selecting a video for national television, sadomasochism and the videos which feature them (many by the Rolling Stones, for example) lie within the provinces of cable/pay sources. I address in this article, therefore, those types of videos which more people are likely to see and those which provide a framework for an introductory discussion. Moreover, various articles have pointed to the racism of cable-TV companies' programming that tends to feature mostly white groups or performers. It appears that commercial television is more "careful" in its selections. The four or so weeks I studied the NBC show brought a variety of black performers to my attention (Sunnier, Jackson, Prince, Eddy Grant, etc.). I note this to acknowledge accusations of MTV's racism, and to acknowledge its serious implications.

3. Examples of these inc videos by the Eurythmics, a group known for their song, "Sweet Dreams Are Made of These," Rather feature the fine song to advantage, the video utilizes rather cheap surrealist techniques — a bull circling an office table as the two featured members of the group lie head-to-head on the oval table; numerous close-ups of eyeballs; and members of the band sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, in "mystical" trances.

4. A particularly distasteful video is, unfortunately, one of the most popular. "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran features the lead singer on a hunt in "darkest Africa" (in its most stereotyped sense), where black women are painted to resemble and act like savages. Stevie Nicks, late of Fleetwood Mac, cultivates a 17th century, mystical persona. Her videos remind one of the scene in SINGING IN THE RAIN where Gene Kelly shows Debbie Reynolds exactly how fake the machinery of Hollywood can be. Nicks dresses herself in flowing, medieval-appearing gowns with extensive, concentrated use of wind machines to give her that "innocent-yet-witchy" look.

5. It is also important to note that the videos' pace and editing are strikingly like that of TV commercials. And the purpose is also the same: the selling of both product and image, in this case, the "star."

6. My research has turned up few analytic articles on music video. One interesting article on "The New British Invasion," written by Patrick Goldstein, appeared in American Film, 8, No. 7 (May 1983), 17-19. Goldstein discusses the fact that today's best rock videos are directed by people from England. It's difficult, however, to give credit where credit is due. In viewing the music videos I used for this particular analysis, I was unable to locate any record of the films' technicians, directors or writers. Perhaps it is believed that to offer film credits would break the "magic" of music video. In any event, we regretfully cannot know the people to credit or critique.