Visual albums keep artists’ creativity alive

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey says that film could be the best way to understand a musician’s vision

11 October 2018 09:19

He’s laid flat on his back; gaze piercing directly into a camera zoomed in tight on his face. A single tear rolls down his left cheek. His muscles don’t crumple. Slowly, the camera zooms out and the viewer floats upwards, hovering above him. They see he’s lying on a concrete floor. A few more seconds reveal he’s on the roof of a skyscraper, in the middle of a barren plain. He doesn’t lip sync along to his lyrics. He just blinks. Maybe there’s another tear.

I watched the music video for Daniel Caesar’s ‘We Find Love’ for the first time last night, and it turns out he opted for an alternative creative direction to this. But, having not realised that there was already a visual accompaniment to the song, that’s how I’ve always envisioned the song’s music video opening. I’m not a director and what I just described is probably so clichéd it made your eyes roll all the way back into your head, but it plays in my mind every time I hear those opening chords. I did get the single tear right, though – it’s just on the wrong cheek, and the wrong person.

Most people must do this; go Spielberg on the music that hits their emotional core, inspires an involuntary toe tap, or has a criminally funky bass line. In a world that’s so visual, surely it can’t be helped. If anything, we’ve become accustomed to hearing music accompanied by visuals, through television and its advertisements, movies and, of course, groundbreaking videos for songs like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. Music can exist without film, but visual storytelling rarely exists without music: elaborate ballets, operas and musicals have all been born out of a desire to tie narratives to songs people love. It’s impossible to soundtrack our world, so we create new ones to temporarily escape to instead. Music comes to life on stage, on screen and in our heads.

'Hold Up' by Beyoncé, taken from 'Lemonade' (2016)

It’s common knowledge to anyone who did an English Literature degree that a writer relinquishes their authority over their own work once it’s let loose into the world – so states Roland Barthe’s The Death of the Author. Yet I believe that musicians suffer a greater plight for creative control once they’re out of the recording studio and, consequently, an extension of their art form suddenly becomes more necessary. For example, if Childish Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ had been released without its music video, fewer people would have understood its message. Instead, it might’ve just become a misunderstood summer bop, or worse, a total flop. It’s obvious that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) is a commentary on marriage in the 1800s, but Gambino’s lyrics are more ambiguous.

When Beyoncé’s eponymous visual album appeared unannounced on iTunes in December 2013, fans all over the world went crazy. The scale of the project and the devotion of those involved to keeping it a secret made it one of the best pop culture surprises in recent history, but really, no-one should have been surprised by the fact that this was the direction she chose to crank her stardom up a notch. The Beatles, Prince, Daft Punk and Kanye West, to name a few, had all already tinkered with the concept; it was only a matter of time before Beyoncé tried her hand at it to secure her Queen Bey title. ‘I see music. It’s more than just what I hear,’ she explained at the time. ‘I wanted people to hear the songs with the story that’s in my head, ‘cause it’s what makes it mine. That vision in my brain is what I want people to experience the first time.’

In 2013, Beyoncé’s visions were essentially a string of brilliant yet fundamentally conventional music videos. Her 2016 follow up Lemonade was of more epic proportions. Fans didn’t just get to experience her vision; they saw her and her husband’s marriage laid bare, and all of the baggage that comes with it. There was no mistaking its message. Jay-Z had been unfaithful and Lemonade was her catharsis. Beyoncé claimed authorship of their family narrative and she refused to be killed off by speculative theorists.

'Sorry' by Beyoncé, taken from 'Lemonade' (2016)

‘I tried to make a home out of you, but doors lead to trap doors; stairs lead to nothing,’ she narrated in the first chapter of the album ‘Intuition’. Meanwhile, that same summer, Frank Ocean released Endless, a visual album in which 45 minutes of footage document him building a staircase that he never completes. An experimental piece of filmmaking that wouldn’t look out of place projected onto a wall at the Tate Modern, at least when compared to Lemonade, Ocean’s work reveals less about himself and more about his creative process. Disappointing as this may have been for fans that’d waited four years for his follow-up to Channel Orange; as a furiously private artist, it was still one of the biggest insights into the inner workings of his mind that we’ve had outside of his music. We learnt that Ocean’s pursuit of creative perfection is tireless and forever ongoing, which is probably why it took him so long to release new music in the first place. After years of near silence, he revealed to the world what he’d been doing: working.

When I listen to Endless without its visuals, I can’t picture anything else other than Ocean in his workshop. If Beyoncé’s ‘Hold Up’ comes on, all I can envisage is her embodying the Yoruba water goddess Oshun, with a baseball bat slung over shoulders. I can’t mentally redirect something that’s already been done so well – and what’s the point in trying? To me, music is a fundamentally emotional experience, and I suppose I imagine visuals to accompany the songs I love as a way of processing my own response to them. But when an artist, or even a director, meaningfully offers their own personal interpretation, it’s difficult to counter-argue their perspective, simply on account of wanting to get close to their brilliance.

When the Movieverse expands to encompass music videos and visual albums, it simultaneously extends the curated worlds of some of society’s most celebrated artists. And next, we could almost literally be let into those worlds. Perhaps Beyoncé’s seventh album will be released in virtual reality, putting the listener in her body as she executes impossible dance moves in front of a mirror. Maybe the next time Ocean’s ready to put out more music, we’ll be put to work building the rest of his staircase, and we’ll realise how mentally tasking his relentless perfectionism truly is. If the goal of visual albums is to allow listeners to experience music as the artist envisions it, then there’s no reason that we might not be virtually put in their shoes in the near future.

But, to be honest, a tiny part of me hopes this won’t happen. Music videos are important and visual albums are exciting, but Daniel Caeser’s ‘We Found Love’ will never sound the same now I’ve seen its real video. The fact that I can’t dream up videos for tracks on Lemonade and Endless doesn’t bother me, because I never had the chance to let my imagination run wild with those songs in the first place. But if, someday in the future, all new music is automatically accompanied by visuals, then our emotional response to it will become lazy. Beyoncé was right to fully own her narrative through all perspectives in Lemonade, but sometimes, the author simply must die.