Let’s be honest: Who actually watches music videos with any regularity anymore? Gone are the days of TRL, the VJ, and Pop-Up Video. And yet people are still making music videos—expensive, elaborately choreographed productions that amount to no more than a flash in the pan. It takes a lot to convince our jaded selves to make the voyage to YouTube, click, load, and watch it all the way through. Artists Miley Cyrus, Erykah Badu, and M.I.A. have turned to shock value to generate buzzworthy controversy and get those all-important views.
Miley Cyrus, aka Avis Cyrus, ruffled the feathers of a few with the release of her new video for “Can't Be Tamed.” Playing off her sexed-up pole-dancing shenanigans at the Teen Choice Awards last August, the new video is dark, and a blatant attempt at being seductive, with Cyrus gyrating and squawking in a dominatrix-esque bird outfit, complete with cage and nest.
Even though the video is another permutation of the former Disney princess, the new “sexy, rebellious” video can’t help but feel stale and comparatively tame in the wake of her pop predecessors Britney, Christina, and (of course) Madonna. Cyrus's video was expected to be the inevitable rite of passage from a 12-year-old, female fanbase, to a middle-aged, scuzzy male one. It’s controversy-lite: People are shocked, but they aren’t shocked that they’re shocked. We've seen it all before, and it's hard to trump a burning cross.
Erykah Badu, by comparison, actually broke the law to film her video for “Window Seat.” Strolling through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, she casually casts aside her sweats and skivvies, until she is shot naked by a sniper, on the sidewalk where Kennedy was assassinated. The video's shoot was unannounced and unexpected (passersby stare at Badu in the nude with genuine perplexity) and the singer risked a hefty fine or jail time for indecent exposure.
It’s clear that the video has a message, but it takes a long time to make its point, and even when it does, it’s not very clear. Despite (or perhaps, because of) Badu’s exhibitionism and its violent end, the coverage of the video gave its online presence a significant boost. Even those who were unaware of the singer’s long career couldn’t avoid hearing about the video where a naked chick gets gunned down.
Rapper M.I.A. wins the prize, however, for raw shock value. The nine-minute tale set to her single “Born Free” can hardly be called a music video. Though the short film has an ostensible, vaguely political message about “ginger profiling,” any thought-provoking value is overshadowed by disturbing imagery of sex, drug use, and extreme violence. You see someone burst apart, guts and all, on a minefield. A child is senselessly shot at point-blank range. The video was too much even for the borderline-tasteless YouTube, refugee for Internet voyeurs everywhere. But in the meta-sphere that is the Internet, controversy begot pageviews, and people took note.
In each of these videos, the music really isn’t the point (has it ever been?). But violence, nudity, and hackneyed rebellion aren’t the only ways to increase viewership. Even when the song takes a backseat to the antics onscreen, the result can be quirky and intricately creative, like OK Go’s madcap Rube Goldberg machine in their video for “This Too Shall Pass,” or campy and epic, like in Lady Gaga’s infamous “Telephone” saga. But if the video does have a message, it doesn’t need to resort to easy attention tactics and cheap thrills.