As a musician, design writer and television viewer, I am interested out of all proportion when a graphic design appears on music television.
Given that design is all over the Internet and moving typography is all over television commericals, it seems surprising that graphics don’t make much of an appearance in music videos. Especially when you consider how many great pop songs incorporate well-written lyrics that are rendered inaudible by bombastic guitars and electronic rhythms. I’m not suggesting subtitles; just that a little typographic assistance might not go amiss.
In no place is design’s absence more apparent than at the shrine of American pop programming, MTV. The clichÃ©-ridden format of the music video provides plenty of opportunities for melancholic chanteuses to clutch their knees in empty corridors. But there are few openings for the logos and type treatments that grace the album sleeves to make televised appearances.
Perhaps this is because of the cultural gap between designers and film directors, many of whom see graphics as an expensive and luxurious addition. Or is it just that few artists have really explored design’s potential in video?
Back in 1967, DA Pennebaker made what might be considered the first pop video. A youthful Bob Dylan tossed flashcards in a back alley to the tune of Subterranean Homesick Blues. The sequence was quite brilliant. The quirkily scrawled cards added a second, mischievous voice to the song. At first, they appeared simply to correspond with certain words in the rambling hippy rap. But by the end, the willful cards had begun delivering their own version of the lyrics, punctuated finally by one marked “what?” that slipped from Dylan’s fingers as he ambled off camera.
As designer Emily Obermann puts it, on-screen type adds a “subliminally suggested voice” to a soundtrack. Obermann worked with M&Co’s founder Tibor Kalman and David Byrne of
Talking Heads on the band’s typokinetic Nothing But Flowers video. Words from the song appeared on the minimal stage set, framing members of the band, mocking them, and even projecting themselves over Byrne’s face.
For a short, fertile season, Nothing But Flowers scattered seeds of typokinetics all over the screen. Type charged through music videos, commercials, even on to poetry programmes.
Some applications were quite inventive. In the video for REM’s Everybody Hurts, directed by Jake Burns, lines of type played the role of subtitles, revealing the thoughts of drivers stuck in an apocalyptic traffic jam.
Other bands and directors paid direct homage to the aphorism art of Jenny Holzer, hurling pithy maxims on-screen, often regardless of their relevance. In Van Halen’s Right Now, directed by Mark Fenske and Scott Burn, the type provided a commentary, a melÃ©e of meaningless trivia, self- parody and shock statistics.
Oddly, the flurry of activity never made type an on-screen regular. Now, for the inventive stuff, US viewers must stay up till 1am to watch MTV’s new show Amp. Here, dance, drum and bass and techno videos from Europe (mostly the UK) are melded with a fluid, ambient graphic identity that feeds off the rich imagery around it.
“We pride ourselves on our design ethic,” says Amp producer Todd Mueller. “It seemed good to represent the [dance] genre in the most eclectic way.”
In Amp’s videos, Mueller notes a shift in pop iconography away from live action clichÃ©s. “I like to think that the graphics are replacing the outfits and personalities that people are more familiar with,” he says. “It’s the long hair, plaid dress-code, spitting on the camera ethic revised.”
Mueller has a point. There are no pop stars in dance music. This might explain the reluctance of the US music business behemoths to embrace its fresh, innovative culture.
In time, though, it must happen. Amp anticipates a TV world in which computer- generated programming is as prevalent as live action.
When interactive TV rolls into our homes with clickable messages and scrolling type, the days of the music video’s angst-ridden singer staring at the walls will be over.
Then we will be able to look back at these early days of the music video genre and recognise that a few pioneering gems lurked amid the trash.