The MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) held on 28 August were boring as predicted except for two interesting developments, both of them involving Beyonce Knowles Carter. The first was Beyonce’s incendiary 16-minute performance that further established her as the reigning queen of pop music. Running through the highlights from her critically acclaimed audio-visual masterpiece Lemonade, Beyonce delivered one of the most imperious, exciting and politically charged performances in award show history. From Travon Martyn references and samples of London-based Somali poet Warsan Shire’s spoken word, to smashing a video camera with a baseball bat, the mini-concert injected a much needed sense of frisson into an otherwise embarrassingly anodyne event.

The other development was the decision to bring back an award only handed out once before—the unimaginatively named Breakthrough Long Form Video, first given to Madonna for The Immaculate Collection in 1991. At first glance, it seems like the award was revived as a special honour for Beyonce, whose 2016 visual album Lemonade—featuring directors Kahlil Joseph, Jonas Akerlund and a star cast of cinematographers weaving dance numbers, found footage, home videos and elaborate video set pieces into a complex narrative about black womanhood and race relations in America—is already being hailed as one of the biggest pop culture moments of the decade. But take a look at the list of nominations. There’s Justin Beiber’s bad-guy-gone-good video album Purpose: The Movement, Vincent Haycock’s eponymous 47-minute short film accompaniment to The Odyssey, and Chris Brown’s self-directed ‘victim complex on film’ music videos for Royalty. Too late to be eligible for the awards, we also have Frank Ocean’s recently-released endurance performance art project/visual album Endless. Even Drake is hinting at an upcoming visual album for Views. Maybe what we’re looking at here is not a flash in the pan, but the resurrection of a largely forgotten audio-visual format variously called the video album or more recently, the visual album.

Beyonce delivered one of the most imperious, exciting and politically charged performances at MTV Video Music Awards. Photo: AP
Beyonce delivered one of the most imperious, exciting and politically charged performances at MTV Video Music Awards. Photo: AP

Depending on how you define it, the visual album has existed since the 1960s, when pop artists started looking at film as a medium to complement and expand on their musical vision. One of the early frontrunners is The Beatles’ 1964 comedy A Hard Day’s Night, which featured the then-new technique of cutting images to the beat, used for the Can’t Buy Me Love segment. Often considered as the precursor to the modern music video, A Hard Day’s Night was one of a spate of pop musicals and films tied to music albums by artists as wide-ranging as Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, David Bowie, and the undisputed master of the form, Prince. But the video album really took off—and moved closer to its current form as one half of a cohesive narrative work alongside the music—in the 1980s, with the rise of MTV and the music video.

It seemed like every major pop star tried their hands at a musical feature film or a collection of inter-linked music videos for an entire album at least once. There was Blondie’s mood-piece-meets-performance-footage film Eat To The Beat, Elton John’s Visions and Love Songs, Duran Duran’s Girls On Film, ABC’s Man Trap and many more. We even had Miami Vice star Don Johnson’s hilariously over-the-top action-musical Heartbeat, which probably helped usher the format to an early death. By the late ’90s however, video albums were dropped in favour of less unwieldy, self-contained music videos as the pop music industry dropped pop stars with grand artistic visions for a new generation of hit factory products churning out mass produced bubblegum pop and ballads-by-numbers. Yes, I’m looking at you Boyz II Men and Backstreet Boys.

After spending over a decade in history’s garbage bin, interest in the video album revived in the late 2000s, with Animal Collective leading the charge. In 2010, the experimental pop act released the visual album ODDSAC (incidentally, they are often credited with the term “visual album"), a 53-minute film you had to watch to be able to listen to the music, which was never released independently. The same year Kanye West released Runway, a short film accompanying his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy which was originally conceived as a full visual album. The Dirty Projectors experimented with the form with their 2012 visual album Hi Custodians, which set surreal visuals to remixed and rearranged songs from their album Swing Lo Magellan. But it’s Beyonce who has become the visual album’s foremost champion, first with her groundbreaking 2013 visual album Beyonce and now with the released-on-HBO extravaganza Lemonade.

Part of this resurgence lies in the fact that hip-hop and R&B are having a cultural moment in 2016, similar to the 1980s post-punk era when pop stars were important and believed their music had the power to change things. They didn’t shy away from grand artistic statements and used their status and popularity to sneak in avant-garde film and art into the hit-obsessed pop industry. After two lost decades starting from the mid 90s, when it seemed like pop music had been straitjacketed, recent years have seen pop artists—predominantly black artists—use their status to create complex, challenging and political works that grapple with the current zeitgeist in American culture. Think Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, Kanye West and Drake. Experimenting with the visual form is a natural extension of their artistic visions at a time when visuals dominate popular culture.

Technology has also played an important part in this process, as artists finally start to go deeper than the surface of the opportunities provided by the rise of cheap and accessible streaming, as well as digital music. No longer limited by physical limitations, artists are experimenting with the notion of what an album could be in a constantly changing music industry. While streaming’s initial impact on the industry has been a trend towards the bite-sized instant gratification of singles, artists like Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce and Frank Ocean are rebelling against it with albums that tell intricate, inter-linked stories. And one of the convenient ways of getting people to listen to the album as a cohesive document rather than a collection of singles is to put them together in visual form. Lemonade needs to be watched as well as listened to, the spoken word interstitials and visual references acting as a non negotiable part of the experience. Meanwhile Ocean’s Endless, a 45-minute video which features discombobulating music set to three Frank Oceans building a stairway doesn’t even make sense as an album. It’s an experimental audio-visual art project that must be consumed as such. The video album then, is both a means to and symbolic of, these artists’ push-back against the strictures of a bean-counting pop industry that only looks at them as the goose that will lay the next golden hit.

Of course, there’s always the risk that these attempts to push pop music forward can quickly become self-indulgent and bloated. That’s what happened in the 1980s. But for now, the visual album is fresh and invigorating, a form being deployed by a wave of pop artists at their creative peak. In a video on her Facebook page dubbed Self-Titled, Part 1, announcing the new album, Beyonce said “I see music." Maybe in a few years, we’ll all be ‘seeing’ music too.

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