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What Has Kanye West Done to the Music Video?

Arts & Culture | November 17, 2010

The music video is an incredibly odd medium for artistic expression. In its most basic form, it is a short film, but the music video more closely resembles a commercial than any other type of art. Movies, books, and musical albums are all products to be sold and consumed by the public, but the music video is just an advertisement and nothing more. We don’t buy them. We just watch them.

And because of this lack of direct profitability, music videos carry a weight of irrelevance. They have become four-minute slices of egocentric branding, comprised of a series of close-up shots of a particular artist’s face and body.  There is often no plot, no acting, and most importantly, no artistic risk taking.

If one were to go a bit further and focus this analysis on only hip-hop music videos, it becomes even clearer just how trivial the art form is. Think of all the hip-hop dances that were popular due to music videos over the past few years: Lean Back, the Cupid Shuffle, The Soulja Boy Dance, and recently, the Dougie, each dance just as mindless and catchy as the one before it. Yet, nobody does any of these dances anymore, because now they are obsolete and uncool, especially when there are videos on YouTube of grandmothers trying to “superman that ho.”

This happens to be a perfect segue into the gender sexism often on display in these videos. You know what I am referencing—scantily clad women whose big, stylish sunglasses usually cover more skin than their boy shorts do. This topic of misogyny in hip-hop has been overcooked thanks to the massive amounts of articles and books put forth in the past few years, which, in my opinion, have actually been effective in limiting the blatant misogynistic sexuality in these videos. But it all boils down to the function of the music video. There is nothing visually appealing about watching an artist stand around and rap a song for four minutes. There is no narrative for the viewer to take pleasure in. Throw in some sex,  however, and it suddenly becomes a lot more watchable, even if it remains artistically hollow. This notion of the music video as an empty sexual advertisement for an artist and his (or rarely her) song has become commonplace in the hip-hop community, and to a larger extent, the music industry as a whole.

Enter Kanye West, who in the past has had no problem challenging convention regardless of the consequences. He is most conveniently described as arrogant, brash, and abrasive, but how about as an artistic genius? After the release of Kanye’s 35-minute music video Runaway (which masquerades as a short film), people may need to start reevaluating the same man who stole the microphone away from Taylor Swift. What makes Runaway such a valuable piece of art is the way it takes the medium of the music video seriously.

Undoubtedly, Kanye took a risk. Not only is he the main actor of Runaway, but also the director and creator of the story, an impressive feat considering he is a man with little to no experience behind the camera. It would have been safe for him to dance around for four minutes, rap his lyrics, and push out a typical music video, but Runaway is anything but. Instead of using only one song, it incorporates most of his upcoming album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. There are some cheesy special effects, some sparse dialogue, and even a lesson to be learned at the end: a phoenix must rise from the ashes (symbolism anyone?). This is not just a commercial for the Kanye brand; this is a work of art.

What truly separates this from other music videos, even the ones that try to be short films, such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Justin Timberlake’s What Goes Around Comes Around, is the artistic composition. Kanye has a knack for visual tone and a color palette that we rarely see in any music video. For example, the opening scene of Runaway features Kanye sprinting toward the camera in a forest with a hazy reddish fog behind him. The color red is prominent throughout the short film, often associated with the phoenix and scenes of passion. Yet, the best representation of the music video’s visual success comes halfway through, with a set piece that includes Kanye singing on top of a white piano as a troupe of ballerinas dance behind a pastel green wall. The song playing during this scene is “Runaway,” which was created as a musical apology to Taylor Swift for the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards fiasco.  The camera pans out to capture the entirety of the action before cutting to various angles of the dancers moving gracefully. The scene is elegant and fascinating, and effectively expresses the vulnerability of a man who has hidden behind a cocky public persona for far too long.

However, while the artistry of the music video is outstanding, its main narrative is sophomoric. The plot centers on Kanye and a half-female, half-phoenix supermodel he falls in love with. It’s mostly about overcoming differences and ignoring members of society who either do not understand individuality or seek to repress it. And yes, reread that sentence, because the video’s message is as preachy as it sounds. Hype Williams, a veteran music video director (and not a screenwriter), wrote the dialogue for Runaway, and managed to make Michael Bay look like Quentin Tarantino. Furthermore, Kanye’s love interest, played by model Selita Ebanks, is covered in small amounts of body paint, and other than her large phoenix feathers attached to her back, is practically naked. Her appearance is distracting and could be construed as typical hip-hop sexism, even if it is not meant to be.

That being said, I present the flaws of Runaway to show why it is a significant work of art. It tries, and it fails, and at times, it fails miserably, but it always tries to be more than a typical music video. It pushes the boundaries of what we, as viewers, expect from the visual representation of a song. For example, the blatant sexuality of Ebanks’ phoenix character is perplexing. On one hand, it clearly uses sex to attract viewers, but the film also portrays her with a certain quality of sensuality that is more akin to a 19th century nude painting than to a curvy, underdressed woman dancing behind Lil Wayne in a random music video.

With the ambitious Kanye as director and creator, Runaway does not hold back. The way in which it takes artistic risks could influence the vision of future music videos. Maybe there will be more meaningful videos coming forward, because with enough money and creative hubris, an artist can take an otherwise boring medium of expression and turn it into something spectacular.