Song as Story: The Music Video

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 Everywheretalks 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?

Steven Curtis Chapman, from The Great Adventure music video
“The Great Adventure”

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

“Austin”

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

“Mine”

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 Know You’re Out There Somewhere”

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.

“Heaven is a Place on Earth”

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.

“I Got You”

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.

Conclusion

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.

The Highest Form of Humor

Puns are of course the highest form of humor.  But why?

A Mixed Rep

I am deliberately flouting the usual claim, of course, that puns are the lowest form of humor.  (That judgment seems to have been traced back to several sources, including Samuel Johnson.)  The appropriate response to a really good pun is considered to be not a laugh, but a groan:  the better the pun, the louder the groan.

On the other hand, the use of the pun has weighty, even punderous, examples on its side.  The art of punning goes back into ancient times.  Shakespeare himself is estimated to have used over 3,000 puns in his plays.  Even Jesus, as is frequently noted, founded his church on a pun:  “We read in Matthew 16:18: ‘Thou art Peter (Greek Petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra), I will build my Church.’”

In Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, bluff Captain Jack Aubrey is frequently derided by more sophisticated characters for his delight in puns.  I recently ran across a mention in Treason’s Harbour, ch. 2 (p. 45):

. . . Meares, who was only a commander.  A brilliant play upon this name occurred to Jack, but he did not give it voice:  not long before this, on learning that an officer’s father was a Canon of Windsor he had flashed out a remark to the effect that no one could be more welcome aboard a ship that prided herself upon her artillery-practice than the son of a gun, only to find the officer receive it coldly, with no more than a pinched, obligatory smile.

Treason's Harbour coverPersonally, I thought the “Canon” joke both funny and clever; but then, I’m not the one being called a son of a gun.  The attraction to puns is characteristic of Jack Aubrey, though, given his innocent enjoyment of simple pleasures and general good humor (badly represented in the movie version).  I note that even Wikipedia cites an Aubrey pun as an example.

Chain Puns

Those with agile minds can have great fun ‘running a topic’ with rapid-fire pun volleys.  I recall staying up late one night on a high-school retreat with some buddies and Father Bill LaFratta, who outdid us all in puns on a subject like ‘cars’ (and may be responsible, or reprehensible, for my subsequent descent into pundom).  Our family has occasionally gotten into text message exchanges that build off one another, on topics like, for example, Dungeons & Dragons.

David:  Come to think of it, Marx could work as an orcish name . . . and orcs could serve well as the meanies of production.

Rick:  “Keep your head down . . . there’s an orcish Marxman over there, I just saw an arrow go by.”

David:  He was just advocating for an equitable distribution of health.

Rick:  Or death.

David:  And the archmage leading the orcish jacobins could be robes-pierre.

Rick:  And hoping the audience gets the point of his argument.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon coverScience fiction writer Spider Robinson is extraordinarily fond of (and good at) wordplay.  At Callahan’s Place, the fictional bar in his series of stories, Tuesday night is set aside for trading ever more appalling puns on a given topic.  I’m not even going to attempt to reproduce Robinson’s groan-worthy inventiveness; check the stories out for yourself!

Shaggy Dogs and Feghoots

Then there’s the story that ends, after an elaborate build-up, with a pun—a variant of the shaggy dog story.  Snoopy, at his typewriter, occasionally indulges in one of these, as in a recent Peanuts reprint (8/3/2020).  Ideally the pun-ch line will include multiple puns, so as to make a fitting topper for the build-up.  I fondly recall the quintuple pun about immortal porpoises, presented in different forms here, here, and (under the rubric of “dad jokes,” naturally) here.  As in that case, getting the punch line may require knowing some particular phrase or quotation, on which the conclusion of the story is a takeoff, and thus become dated; for example, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  (On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the original phrase in the porpoise pun:  the joke version makes clear enough what the original would have been—at least for comic, as opposed to legal, porpoises.)

The Compleat Feghoot, coverThere’s an entire category for short stories whose conclusion is a pun:  “Feghoots,” named for a series of science fiction stories by Reginald Bretnor, “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot.”  A favorite of mine that isn’t mentioned in the Feghoot article is “The Holes Around Mars,” by Jerome Bixby, who was also (incongruously) responsible for the chilling story “It’s a Good Life,” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode.  The “Mars” story, however, is just good fun all the way through, featuring a spaceship captain addicted to puns, and ending with—Well, I see the text of the story is available at Project Gutenberg, so I’ll let you find out for yourself (if you dare).

Tom Swifties

Tom Swift and his Diving Seacopter, coverTom Swift was the lesser-known science-fictional counterpart to the young detectives Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  All three series were ghost-written by various authors under the auspices of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.  Given the provenance, the books were, let us say, not esteemed for their literary style.  In particular, the Tom Swift books were prone to using adverbs, especially adverbs ending in “-ly,” to decorate the supposed plainness of simply using “said” in dialogue.  There’s an example of such dialogue at the Wikipedia page.

A “Tom Swiftie” is a pun in which a speech adverb of this sort is used to make a pun on the rest of the sentence.  By convention, the speaker is always “Tom.”  Hence:

“Close the refrigerator door,” said Tom coldly.

“The man is dead,” said Tom gravely.

But we can get more inventive than that.

“Let’s invite Greg and Gary!” said Tom gregariously.

“We’ve arrived at the camp,” said Tom attentively.

As a dedicated reader of the “Tom Swift, Jr.” series in the 1960s, I’ve always been fond of this variant.

Puns of Opportunity

But we may get the greatest satisfaction from hitting upon a pun unexpectedly.  When a never-before-heard pun evolves naturally out of a conversation, surprise adds to the fun of the sudden (in)congruity.

A writer can enjoy the same effect when they come up with an unplanned witticism.  The unexpectedness may not be evident to the reader, who may assume the author carefully set up the line, but the writer knows better.

Japanese painting of a carp

Utagawa Hiroshige, Suidō Bridge and Surugadai (1857)

I remember the delight with which I happened upon a clinching line for a scene in The World Around the Corner.  In their online game, the characters have come upon an underground pool inhabited by a talking fish, the Carp of Doom.  (I think I chose “carp” based on a hazy recollection that carp were renowned for wisdom in some Asiatic mythologies.)  The fish gives them directions for the next stage of their quest, which, naturally, starts out by taking a tunnel from the underground cavern.

“Clear directions for once.” Badon gave a cheer. “I like it. Onward, up the carpal tunnel!”

Dana wished very much that Badon were physically present. She’d like to throw something solid at him…

 

The Virtues of Puns

So, puns are fun.  Why am I motivated to call them a high form of humor?

I locate the root of humor in incongruity—things don’t fit together as we expect them to—with the proviso that when things do fit together in an unexpected way, more neatly than we would have supposed, that in itself is a kind of incongruity:  as a child might laugh with pleasure in discovering how puzzle pieces make a picture.  Puns fit this basic concept.  When words don’t work the way we anticipated, but make a new whole (the connection between the two meanings) in an entirely different way, we do tend to laugh with glee—unless we’ve been socially conditioned to regard the proper response as a groan, of course.

Puns are clever.  They reward inventiveness and agility of mind.  (In this respect, they share common ground with creative problem-solving and “thinking outside the box.”)  They’re also playful; they take words lightly and turn them topsy-turvy.  We might consider puns and other wordplay as the intellectual equivalent of kids playing on a jungle gym, turning and stretching and going upside-down.

There’s an interpersonal aspect as well.  In chain punning or following a subject, the participants play off each other.  As in other forms of witty banter, one person’s last remark is the jumping-off place for another person’s next remark.  Thus, there’s a certain form of cooperation involved, like that of a volley in tennis—and, just as in the tennis match, an opportunity for one-upmanship and “counting coup” as well.  I love hearing someone else make a good pun, but I can’t deny that I’m also immediately searching for a “Can you top this?” response.

Geniality

Charlie Chaplin's Little TrampThere’s a subtler factor too.  A great deal of humor involves a kind of overt or covert meanness.  Puncturing human dignity and pompousness is a classic formula for humor; but doing so tends to involve some degree of pain or humiliation.  When someone—especially a well-dressed man in a top hat—slips on a banana peel, we laugh at the incongruity but ignore the bruised hip and the embarrassment.  Sophie Kinsella’s romantic comedies are great fun; but they frequently involve her heroines in extraordinarily embarrassing situationsCharlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character combined humor with pathos.

I would not go so far as Michael Valentine Smith, of Stranger in a Strange Land, who finally comprehends the laughter of Earth people as a response to pain (ch. 29):  “I’ve found out why people laugh.  They laugh because it hurts . . . because it’s the only thing that’ll make it stop hurting.”  Pain isn’t essential to laughter; maybe to rueful or ironic humor, but not all humor.  Still, Mike has his finger on this much truth:  humor often does play off pain.

Puns, though, are innocent of this painful aspect.  Only words are harmed or abused.  No people have to be embarrassed for a pun to succeed; it’s only language that gets twisted and skewed and made to do unnatural things.  Even when a pun responds to a “straight line,” it doesn’t normally reflect badly on the previous speaker.  The pun is recognizable as a flight of fancy based on a perfectly innocent phrase, not on the human being who uttered it.  And when people are volleying puns back and forth, each line serves as the straight line for the next flight.  It brings to mind the reference to a nonhuman species of habitual jokesters in David Brin’s The Uplift War (ch. 85):  “To a Tymbrimi, the best jokes were those that caught the joker, as well as everybody else.”

The Downsides

Still, a pun is not always entirely harmless.  The punster’s affectionate ‘abuse of words’ can lead to excess.

For one thing, as with other forms of wordplay, punning requires familiarity with the language.  Wikipedia, discussing the rhetorical use of puns, observes:  “A major difficulty in using puns in this manner is that the meaning of a pun can be interpreted very differently according to the audience’s background and can significantly subtract from a message.”  For the same reason, puns are likely to be untranslatable.  The connections between words, their similarities in sound or written form, will not be the same in another language.  This kind of problem occurs in translation generally, as noted by my critique buddy Blandcorp in a recent blog post.  It affects puns along with all forms of art that depend on the specific nuances of words.

It’s also possible for puns to be abused in social situations.  I learned early on, when I took up punning as an avocation, that simply responding to people’s remarks with a stream of puns wears out its welcome pretty quickly.  (In extreme cases, one might find one’s conversational partners inclined to take punitive measures.)

The reason is that a pun, by its nature, derails the conversation.  It diverts our attention from the meaning of a previous remark to its verbal form.  A momentary side trip of this sort may be entertaining, depending on the context.  But if I keep repeatedly making these side trips, I’m getting in the way of the conversation other people are trying to have.  I would be frustrating those who are trying to talk, because the puns interfere with making sense in the language.

It’s one thing, then, to pause with like-minded friends to engage in a pun war (or pun festival).  In ordinary conversation, though, puns are best used sparingly, like seasoning in a dinner dish.  (A pun out of season goeth before a fall, we might say, or even before a winter of discontent.)

In other words, we should pun with moderation, as in all things—even in the highest form of humor.