So what would be classified as an alternative music video? To be honest there is no definitive definition BUT it wouldn’t necessarily follow a story (although it might but loosely), it could be a series of artistic images with a recurring theme, it could be a performance based video with a unique added visual element.
An Alternative Music Video can be a multitude of things that are categorised through visual approach, themes, content or editing. 4 music videos I think helps illustrate the many elements that make an alternative video would be:
- ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (Talking Heads) Directed by Toni Basil,
- ‘Heartbeats’ (The Knife) Directed by Andreas Nilsson,
- ‘Video Games’ (Lana Del Rey) Directed by Lana Del Rey
- and ‘Feel to Follow’ (The Maccabees) Directed by James Caddick.
‘Once in a Lifetime’ (Talking Heads) Directed by Toni Basil
At first glance this great song is marred by a crazy performance and insane almost trippy visuals. Of course upon closer inspection this video is so much more and has a lot of thought behind it.
First off this video is very physical. It is not just alternative in terms of the visuals but also through David Byrne’s performance. This was influenced by the movements of a marionette, a man attached to strings controlled by a puppeteer creating unnatural jerky movements as if his appendages are independent of his body.
He could have stood still, he could have danced but instead he chose to perform this way creating a sense of intrigue into why, above all other methods and types of performance, he chose this one.
The second half of his physical performance is based on suffering an epileptic fit which can be seen through his more unpredictable movements that resemble physical spasms. Does this have anything to do with the song? Not really, but at the same time it lends something to it.
This is also an early example of blue screen filming, which by today’s standards isn’t that great, but at the time was pretty badass. Traditionally there would be a beautiful image behind the subject, not for this video. Instead we get a plain off-white background with multiple David Byrne’s creating a sense of uniformity, a hauntingly agreeable image of a sea of what looks like genes or brief glimpses of indigenous cultural imagery.
So what makes this alternative? The fact that the physical performance is not what you’d expect or even think of. Something that in itself is considered an expression of art.
‘Heartbeats’ (The Knife) Directed by Andreas Nilsson
At first glance you could mistake this for a home video that someone added a track to until the animations kick in then assume that someone has slipped something into your drink.
This video is particularly mesmerising through its courageous creativity and application of ideas. The glue that holds this all together is the use of found footage of the kids skateboarding down the road which is reminiscent of the famous documentary ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’ Directed by Stacy Peralta.
The quality of the footage, the fact that it was shot from a moving vehicle and the rhythmic skating all work in unison with the track and when put alongside the lyrics creates a sense of mystery.
Why these images? Why these kids? Why this era? What gives the footage a greater sense of intrigue is the repetitive nature giving you a chance to see the same shot again and again and again allowing you to spot something you didn’t the last time.
The comfort of seeing the familiar is given an edge with the near miss between the two boys in the striped shirts, even now after all these viewings I still flinch just before it happens (or in this case doesn’t happen). In a way, presenting the footage like this tells its own story.
The second element to this video, which isn’t as intriguing or satisfying as the found footage, is the animated sequences. No they don’t tell a story; they’re not referencing anything in particular it’s just artistic expression.
One important observation is that the first frame of the animations are taken from a VHS freeze frame which becomes a bird or a train that goes off on its own adventure, one thing becomes another. Standout techniques would be the genius choice in footage and the incredible use of repetition that does not feel repetitive.
‘Video Games’ (Lana Del Rey) Directed by Lana Del Rey
A richly colourful image of the end of the world, a candid home video shot of Lana, a girl zooms past the camera holding on for dear life as she rides on the back of a moped.
These are the obscure opening images of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’. Yes like ‘Heartbeats’ this is another music video based on a compilation of images but the presentation is very different.
Ignoring the obvious first and instead focusing on the framing and rhythm you’ll notice Lana does some very interesting things here. Wide shots, cropped shots, letter boxes. Of course some of these are symptomatic of the found footage but it’s the way they are used which impresses me.
They don’t seem out of place, in fact it adds something to it, it gives a sense of history illustrating that this shot is from another time. Old movie grain, shorter frame rate and extreme punched in shots helps to guide where our attention should lie within a (foux at times) sense of history.
The pace of editing works well with the rhythm of the track and the melodies of the harps. Utilizing selected moments to break from rhythm making them stick out without seeming out of place.
What intrigues me most isn’t the editing however; it’s the choice of images. We see moments of joy, action, beauty wonder and dare I say scandal? The old video footage and old video grain on the new footage creates a sense of history, as if we’re looking back at the past from a different time.
These aren’t just any images, they’re connected. They represent an insight, a perspective into a lifestyle. Paparazzi, patriotism, old movies and even skateboarding all combined to convey Lana Del Rey’s Hollywood.
Not your Hollywood, not mine, not Brad Pitt’s, Lana Del Rey’s. All elements in the video, though different, are presented with a great sense of cohesion because it’s coming from one perspective, one format, one voice.
You can ask yourself why these images? The answer is simple; this is how she sees things and you are being given an insight.
‘Feel to Follow’ (The Maccabees) Directed by James Caddick.
You’re in a quiet countryside village. What’s that? Look closer. Something’s not quite right. James Caddick creates a darkly disturbing video through a series of stylised images that builds an atmosphere of mystery, intrigue and unease.
Yes I’ve shown that alternative videos come in many forms through the visuals’ presentation but this one is alternative through its use of narrative.
There’s a story there, it’s not so obvious to get just by looking at the surface but at the same time you don’t have to dig too deep to get an idea of it. There’s something going on with the town. Is it witchcraft? A curse? Or something even more sinister. It’s not definitive (although I do have my suspicions).
The content is already a good set up for a video although it is how the story is presented which is by far the most impressive element. There’s a beginning (sort of), a middle (kinda) and an end (when you think about it). The story isn’t laid out in bite sized chunks to be spoon fed to the viewer, no, this is a more abstract telling of the story.
The low key lit shots are ominous and carefully selected as if they’re taken from a movie and what we are watching is the trailer. As a gamer the delivery instantly reminds me of the trailers for ‘Silent Hill’; obscure and dark with limited exposition. From the little moments you see people going about their lives under an air of mystery and the macabre; it really gives you a sense of the environment and a building tension because we have no idea where we are going. However, it is the recurring characters and images that really compound the idea that there is a story.
The offbeat imagery digs up thoughts of ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Storm of the Century’ all featuring town with a dark secret taken over by an entity or an idea. The grainy handheld camerawork with the use of lens flares and obscure voyeuristic angles creates a sense that this is not a glossy Hollywood movie, this could be real footage! Adds to the threat, love it.
What’s brilliant here is that James Caddick could have either written a story then filmed it abstractly or used the abstract images to create a story. By the end the video is so psychedelic that by the time we think we’ve seen it all we completely leave the planet. Genius? Insanity? Both?
‘Feel to follow’ is a prime and modern example of alternative music videos not just through its presentation of narrative but ALSO through its unique ability to spark debate based on the questions it creates. Is there a singular evil taking over the town? Who’s in charge here? Is the bearded man a resident or an outsider? Is that woman a victim or an instigator? Was that a flying person in the distance? Is any of this for real or not?
Tai Campbell, Creative Director @EpikMusicVideos