The Story of a Song
A song—especially a love song—often implies a story.
Some songs, it’s true, just express a state of things: say, being in love. The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” talks about things that happen (“Someone is speaking, but she doesn’t know he’s there”)—but nothing actually changes in the song. It’s a snapshot of a relationship.
But frequently the song refers to a sequence of events, and this sequence is at least a fragment of a story. “She Loves You,” after the refrain, starts out “You think you lost your love” (addressing someone who had been in love, but they seem to have broken up). The lyric continues: “Well, I saw her yesterday” (the singer/friend brings new information)—and eventually looks to the future (“Apologize to her”). The song describes a progression in a relationship.
The Story of the Video
When the modern music video came into vogue in the 1960s, and picked up steam with the advent of MTV in 1981, a new factor was added. If the video simply showed the band performing the song, then the story implied by the song didn’t change. But if the video began to incorporate other elements, such as actors or band members acting out things that occurred in the song, then new possibilities opened up. Is the story we hear always the same as the story we see?
The pure performance video represents what we might call the null case—just the song, illustrated by imagery of the band. The next step is represented by a video that provides a sort of impressionistic imagery the illustrates themes or ideas in the song, without altering the storyline. For example, the video of Peter Cetera’s “One Good Woman” shows clips of Cetera singing the song, interspersed with roses and bottles on tables, kisses and embraces, the faces of women who might be the one referred to in the title, plus other images whose relevance is less clear (clocks, hats, a metronome, abstract shapes). The concept video for “The Great Adventure” riffs on the lyrics (“Saddle up your horses / We’ve got a trail to blaze”) with Western ranch scenery, as well as images of walls falling that express the movement of the song. For similar examples, check out “True Believers” and “Once in a Lifetime.”
Showing the Story
In the most literal sense, the video can amplify the impact of a song by simply depicting the events described in the lyrics. For example, Blake Shelton’s song “Austin” tells a rather charming tale in which a woman has gone off to Austin, but realizes from the answering-machine messages of the man she left behind that he still loves her. The video actually shows us clips of the events the song is talking about, interspersed with shots of Shelton singing, making the story more vivid.
Such a visual rendition in effect replaces our imagination of the story with a particular interpretation, in the same way that a movie makes visible in a particular way the action of the book it was based on. Of course, this runs the risk of disrupting the viewer’s appreciation, if the filmmaker’s idea is distinctly different from the viewer’s: “I didn’t picture it like that at all.” But it can also bring out the story more forcefully by providing lifelike imagery where our imaginations might not have been so vivid.
The video can also intensify the effect of a song by providing a visual mini-story that doesn’t exactly correlate with what the song is about, but reinforces it thematically. Take, for instance, Martina McBride’s “Ride,” which is about an overall attitude toward life. The video gives us a sequence about young people stuck in a traffic jam, who (watching a projection of McBride’s performance on a billboard) start having fun with each other in the spirit of the music. There’s nothing specific about traffic jams in the song, but the video sequence does add a further element of enjoyment to the effect of the song alone. Or take a look at the video of Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins,” which very effectively underlines the song’s message through images of people making their way to a celebration.
Expanding the Story
The video can also take a slightly different direction by sticking to the original storyline, but adding elements. For example, in “Mine,” Taylor Swift describes her character as “a flight risk with a fear of falling,” and her boyfriend tells her that “we’ll never make my parents’ mistakes”—but the actual backstory isn’t specific. In the video, we see footage of her parents quarreling while Swift’s character as a child looks on, and this adds weight to the fight described in the song’s bridge—and thus to the uplift of her lover’s refusal to give up: we actually see them marrying and having a baby at the end. The story has expanded.
Similarly, in the video of Gloriana’s “(Kissed You) Good Night,” we get some opening dialogue adding context that may not have been contemplated in the song itself: the boy is in the Army and leaving the next day. The titular kiss goodnight is a more definitive farewell than we could have guessed from the lyrics alone. In Dierks Bentley’s reflective “Home,” the variety of the faces of America appearing in the video add depth to the song. The music video of Brad Paisley’s “Welcome to the Future” actually incorporates brief clips of children explaining what they want to be when they grow up—reinforcing the sense of possibility and achievement that makes the song compelling.
Changing the Story
Sometimes, however, the video seems to take off in a different direction from that of the original song.
I’m fond of the late Moody Blues song “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” (1988). (In fact, I have a sketch for a novel partly inspired by the song, but that’s another story.) As the title suggests, the lyrics depict a man searching for the girl he once loved. The video isn’t entirely inconsistent with that idea: the singer is clearly looking back to a love affair in the ’60s. But the singer is depicted in his actual persona, as a budding rock star, hustled away from her by the demands of the music business. As a result, we see much more of her longing for him than of him longing for her. The regret is mutual, but the emphasis is different.
Taking the discrepancy further, Céline Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” evokes a pair of lovers who had broken up but are now getting back together. At least, that’s what the lyric sounds like to me. But in the video it appears that Céline’s lover rode off on a motorcycle and died in an accident. Unless she’s being visited by a very substantial ghost—which would actually fit the rather Gothic tone of the video—they don’t actually seem to be reunited at all. (It gets weirder: according to the notes at the bottom of the lyrics page, the song was actually written for a play based on the Peter Pan story, and the lyrics were inspired by Wuthering Heights. As for the motorcycle, who knows where that came from.)
Gary Allan’s “Every Storm Runs Out of Rain” appears to be addressed to someone who’s lost their love, encouraging them to last through their pain and find someone new (“And walk out that door, go find a new rose, don’t be afraid of the thorns”). The video features a woman who’s clearly suffering (in a rainstorm), but at the end her soldier husband comes back. They were separated, true, but she’s not finding a “new rose,” just watering (as it were) one that was drooping.
Adding a Comic Note
The temptation to make the music video more of a humorous riff on the original song—a spoof of itself—must be strong. In a number of cases, the video makers seem to have decided just to have fun with the concept.
We started with the Beatles; their movies A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) consist largely of song performances, but the accompanying video clip often has little to do with the subject of the song; sometimes it’s simply surreal. There’s a similar feel to the video of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” which opens with a bunch of masked children carrying lighted globes. We see these globes, apparently inspired by the mention of “Earth” in the title, splashing into water, or lying on a dark reflective surface. There are also shots of Carlisle singing and embracing a lover, but we keep coming back to these kids and their globes. Often they appear to be running in place. If that means something deep, I’m missing it.
“Shadows of the Night,” best known for a Pat Benatar recording in 1982, is one of those songs in which a pair of lovers is escaping into the darkness from some unspecified amorous angst. Might be an interesting story, though the lyric doesn’t provide much detail. Apparently it was actually composed for a movie about two young runaways in New York City, as discussed here, here, and here, and what seem to be the original lyrics were distinctly different. None of them, however, refer to anything like what we see in Benatar’s wacky music video, in which she seems to be playing the part of a World War II aviator/spy—or perhaps Rosie the Riveter, daydreaming.
The filmmakers for Thompson Square’s “I Got You” decided to take off on the fact that the song has almost the same title as, and develops the same theme as, Sonny & Cher’s iconic hit “I Got You Babe.” The duo is performing the song on a TV variety show hosted by themselves dressed up like Sonny & Cher. The video has fun with the gap between the two time periods: the pair hands “Sonny & Cher” their CD, but since that format didn’t exist in the ’60s, the hosts have no idea what to do with it, biting it like a donut, using it as a mirror, finally employing it as a coaster.
The video of “Take On Me,” by a-ha, starts with drawings of a motorcycle race, apparently part of a graphic book a girl sitting in a diner is reading. When the boy in the drawing reaches out a three-dimensional sketched hand to her, she takes it, and is literally pulled into the story as a line drawing. As far as I can see, the video has nothing to do with the song, but it is good wacky fun.
At times it isn’t clear whether the humor is intended or inadvertent. Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a fine song, but the video takes the Gothic further than Céline and the random further than Carlisle. We see stained-glass windows, doves fluttering, Tyler looking out at the moon. A man walks in, and, apparently because Tyler’s backup singer refers to her as “Bright Eyes,” the man has literally glowing eyes. Boys sit in a classroom and toast around a table. Dancers with wings cavort around the singer. There’s literally an invasion of ninjas; at least, I think that’s what they are. The effect is so surreal that someone called “dascottjr” did a “literal video” version, having a woman sing lyrics that actually describe what’s happening on-camera. It’s hilarious.
The music video is a distinct art form, building on music but adding a new dimension. The two aspects may cohere, collide, or simply spin off in different directions. The result is a combination that we can enjoy on its own merits.