Recently I have been on a bit of a music video kick, and I felt the intense need to explain just what exactly constitutes a good music video, in the hopes that this advice will be headed by directors and artists around the world. First we'll take a journey through a variety of music videos and critique them, and then we will try to nail down the formula for music video success.
Egyptian Lover by Space Cowboy feat. Nadia Oh
This list will ramble in a vaguely upward direction, seeking sollace after an overdosing of mediocrity, so a wise reader should indeed be concerned about the quality of this video.
The primary role of a music video is to be a vehicle for a piece of music, and it is at that initial point where Egyptian Lover fails. You can't make a great music video for a song this bad. However, you can take several steps to prevent your video from abject failure:
Do not add appropriate sound affects such as a dog's woof after lyrics like "I'll be your dog." (Obviously, the first step to writing a good song is to avoid lyrics like... "I'll be your dog.")
Dancing is a key secret to a pop or rap music video's success, but it doesn't help your video much if the first descriptive phrase that pops into your head is "drunken girl at a bar."
Adding more low-quality computer generated images to an already poor quality video makes things worse, not better.
Attractive women are, like dancing, a key ingredient for a successful music video, but when the video is nothing but an attractive woman, then it looks desperate.
This video is bad enough to attain a kind of campy appeal to it, but the end point is that a video cannot survive solely on the assets of its vocalist.
Tekito Lover by Emyli feat. Verbal1
This song isn't noticably better than Egyptian Lover, but the music video is a definite step up. The first thing it does right is that it includes more than two people in the video, and does a much better job of sharing screentime.
Egyptian Lover showed only the female singer for 90% of the video, before ended with a few shots of a random guy wailing on a guitar shooting out magic stars, and thats boring. Part of the point of a music video is to create something that the viewers want to see, and then whet it out to them in small pieces. The less of the good stuff the viewers get the more they will watch the music video, and the more exposure they will have to the music itself. If your "good stuff" is a hot woman singing, then it doesn't really help to have her front and center for the entire video, because viewers are going to lose interest more quickly (also, it makes any plausible excuse for watching the video exceedingly lame).
Tekito Lover does a much better job of sharing screen time between Emyli (and four backup dancers) and the featured rapper: Verbal. This added dynamicism makes it much easier to sit down and watch the video.
Another thing it does is add extra people to the video, so it has six people shown in the video instead of only two. This is more visually stimulating, but without being excessive. However, the problem with Tekito Lover is that its "good stuff" still isn't very good.
The plan for the video can be boiled down into two frequently repeated steps:
Show attractive women dancing.
Show the featured guest rapping.
Music videos have succeeded with exactly this simple plan, but this one suffers from its implementation, particularly with the dancing. The dancing isn't well coordinated to the music itself, and tends to be unnecessarily spastic filled with abrupt movements instead of flowing ones.
The point here is that attractive women dancing are an important aspect to most music videos, but the quality and synchronization of the dancing to the music makes the dancing either hypnotizing or awkward. When its hypnotizing its a foundation of a successful music video, but when its awkward it just makes the suffering worse.
Love Comes And Goes by m-flo (featuring a bunch of other people)
This is a really interesting video that doesn't fit well into the simple pop/rap video mold, but still makes for a fun watch. The most impressive part is that the video is pretty interesting despite the song being kind of awful.
The song itself is fractured in a number of highly distinct sections, and the video does a great job of recognizing that by switching focus to different groups of people for each different distinct segment of the music.
The video doesn't tell a story, but it does create an interesting scene to watch with lots of movement. Basically its a shoot for a video or a tv show, and there are people coming in and getting ready. Thats all there is to it.
The dancing in this video is pretty limited, and not at all good (one suspects that it is intentionally bad), but the video is interesting enough on its own to hold the viewer's interest.
A special bonus is that Emlyi, the singer/dancer from the previous video, is featured in this video as well, and her dancing is spastic to the point of being either quite awkward to watch, or an intentional ironic statement about the appearance of her dancing in other videos... but I have no idea which of those possibilities more closely resembles the truth.
Take Control by Amerie
So, what if you got a good song, a beautiful singer, and some good dancing, would that be enough to make a music video great? Yes, no, well maybe: it depends. If you reduced a music video to only those three things, then it would probably be a very solid video indeed, but when you add to that formula sometimes you find yourself somewhere you don't want to be.
One of the most dangerous things you can add to a music video is a story. Its exceedingly hard to tell a compelling story in three minutes, but it gets even harder when the narrator is a pop or rap song. Usually the best a music video is going to get is to convey a feeling or a situation, and occasionally a music video with an appropriately suited song will be able to tell a situation and a resolution. But that really needs the song lyrics to help narrate the action. When the song lyrics are not active enough in telling the story, or worse are completely unrelated, you get a music video like Take Control by Amerie.
Its a video with a lot of great pieces, but with a totally unrelated story superimposed on-top. Amerie is singing about someone turning her on when they kiss her in public, but instead she is killing a senator and trying to conceal the evidence.
I don't get it. I don't get it. I don't get it.
In fact, I didn't even like the song for a while, until I heard it without watching the video, and suddenly the song came together for me. This is a music video with a lot of good portions, but whose baffling storyline makes the music feel worse.
But there are some good points: the dancing is fairly good, and there is a good level of variety in the angles, shots and people. Some of the actions and dancing line up with the music exceptionally well. Its a real shame that the story, which someone was probably really excited about and spread their enthusiasm to everyone else involved, lowers the quality of the video.
1 Thing by Amerie
To prove the point I just made, here is a video with another great song, good dancing, and a beautiful singer. Much of the details are held constant between the Take Control and 1 Thing videos: Amerie is the singer in both, both songs were singles off of her cds, and both were produced by excellent producers.
The difference though is that the music video for 1 Thing really sold the song for me, whereas the video for Take Control made the song worse. Its roughly the same quality of dancing (although I'd say that the dancing in 1 Thing is a bit better), the same singer, the same quality music (again, personally I prefer 1 Thing, but they are both singles), and they have only one really important difference: 1 Thing doesn't try to tell a story.
Music videos don't have to only worry about adding stuff, but they have to be careful to keep the wrong stuff out as well.
Hello by Amuro Namie
Those three points:
a good song,
an attractive singer,
and good dancing,
all come together in Hello by Amuro Namie. This is a music video which has no story, and lots of dancing, but really makes it work because the dancing is good and well choreographed to the music.
The video has a few interesting props (a recording booth that uses cellphones as mics), and a simple gimick (showing the word "Hello" in various places), and doesn't need anything else to be good.
A good music video doesn't require more than those three points and the occasional relish.
Selfish by Koda Kumi
This video emphasizes the first point of the Big Three, even overt sexuality and dancing can't outweigh an unenjoyable song. Making music videos for bad songs is providing fan service for people who already like a particular artist, but it doesn't bring new listeners into the fold.
For an already established singer (Britney Spears being a good example), then it doesn't really matter if they don't appeal to new audiences, because they already have a large enough base of fans to be financially lucrative. Koda Kumi's handlers seem to have fixed onto that strategy, because her music is uniformly painful to listen to.
Ok by Meg
Here is another video that, like Love Comes And Goes, does a lot with a simple setup. The real key to this video is that it keeps a very tight grip on its "good stuff", and only lets it out in small doses. It throws in a lot of extraneous fluffly and cute scenes, and very occasionally flashes to a particularly attractive shot of the singer.
That is what really makes the music video successful. The dancing is kind of gimmicky and silly (I think intentionally campy, in some kind of retro 80's style), and the majority of the video is fluff, but it doesn't matter since it provides such a small trickle of the "good stuff".
I suppose it helps slightly that the song is pretty good--although not astounding--as well.
SexyBack by Justin Timberlake
Another video that tells a totally irrelevant story, and it is actually a very similar story to the one told in Take Control by Amerie, but it fairs a little bit better because it compensates with raw sexuality.
And then it makes it awkward to watch because it appears that Timberlake might be having sex with a spy trying to kill him against her will.. but then it isn't against her will... or it wasn't against her will... or... um... did she just reach for a gun? What the hell is going on?
Fortunately the story's awkward climax is at the end of the video, so it doesn't push the viewer away before they have heard most of the song, but its still an unquestionably weird moment.
Music videos need to enrapture the watcher (which usually means jacked up sexuality), but they also need to make the viewer comfortable (or at least not uncomfortable). That can be a fine line to walk sometimes, and I think this video happens to cross it in the wrong direction.
Do What U Gotta Do by Zeebra
This is an amazing video. Four different singers/rappers taking turns running the song and holding the spotlight, a lot of energy, and generally embarrassing insanity wholeheartedly. The song is great, the dancing is okay, and the people are attractive. However, its still not a great music video because it doesn't know when to quit.
This video is about two minutes too long for its complete lack of a story. It doesn't create a situation, it doesn't create a particularly vivid emotion either (It makes me happy?), and it certainly doesn't have any characters or evolution occurring. Its just a song about having a good time, featuring people having a good time.
Is there anything wrong with that? No. Some of the best music videos boil down to that simple essence, but you can't hold a viewer captive for six minutes without some kind of story, it just ain't working.
Collecting Our Lessons
Non-quirky or unique rap and pop videos balance on a simple tripod:
and good dancing.
When any one of those poles are knocked over, then the video just doesn't come together well.
Videos longer than 3 or 4 minutes need to have stories to keep the viewers interested, but the stories need to--at minimum--not be working against the music itself. In general its safer and easier to cut down the length of a video and avoid story elements than it is to add story elements to make a video more interesting. If you do add story elements, try not to make the viewer feel dirty for watching them, and--yes--I am looking at you Justin.
And the final lesson is that even if a music video is mostly awful, as long as it has at least one really good aspect--and only gives the viewers a small taste at a time--then it can still be just as successful as an uniformly great video. Music videos are really about creating demand, and you don't have to have wide-sweeping excellence to do that, you just have to be really good at something.
Anyway, now I think I'll take off my analyst's hat for a while.