Pharrell and the end of MTV Music Videos

pharrell-williams-happyMusic videos have come a long way since MTV first inculcated us with the notion that audio and video need to be inextricably linked. Singles, by their very definition, need a music video. Now, as you might remember, while the whole world was coming to terms with that development and churning out video after video, MTV bailed when it dawned on their marketing team that they could instead be impregnating 16-year-old girls for profit.

But maybe, for the sake of the art form (rather than the hundreds of teenagers annually selling their souls to reality TV), that was for the best. Sure, the opening shot of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ epitomises early 90s angst. I still have my glasses and Converse, thanks to Kurt. And without MTV, how could embittered fans divide Metallica’s career between their pre-music video days of apparent brutality and their post-music video era, characterized by selling out and making money? Where would we be without Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ or, indeed, Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’? That was years ago, though, and music videos would have nothing new to say if they hadn’t abandoned MTV’s three-minute hit-and-miss format.

Unlike half of the music industry, videos have embraced the fact that we no longer live in the decade of TRL and dial-up. We’re relatively near the beginning of an era where artists can use near-limitless opportunities on the Internet to do something radically different. So now when someone says they’re working on a video, it could mean anything. We actually get excited. We no longer have to suppose that it’ll be yet another couple of minutes of bad green screen, galloping horses, and nearly naked women (oh wait…).

Interactive videos are becoming more common. Arcade Fire’s ‘We Used to Wait’ is a remarkable project, combining filmed footage and interactive images with Google Maps for a distinctively 21st century music video experience. Others, like Kanye West in his ‘Runaway’ short film, have taken the long-form video, a format Michael Jackson was very fond of, to new levels, enjoying the Internet’s freedom from time constraints and censors.

This past week, Pharrell Williams, famous for all the right reasons as a well-rounded musician and artist, released a video for his song ‘Happy’. It’s a catchy tune, as happy as its name suggests, and if it doesn’t make you feel better about life, there might be something wrong. Talk to a close friend. They’ll understand. Being the Pharrell that Pharell is, he probably thought he could make a regular music video, but where would the fun in that be? No, he went all out and shot a 24-hour video.

It’s 24 hours of people dancing, jumping, and generally being happy with the song on a loop. Each four-minute segment features one or two people bopping along joyfully, with a few celebrity cameos thrown in from time to time. By default, the video corresponds with the current time of day, although listeners can fast-forward to any part they want.

It’s a really cool innovative concept, but no one will watch it for more than a few minutes. That being said, it’s a fantastic pick-me-up when you’re not feeling great and you want to watch one of the longest, happiest things on the Internet. And unless you’re irrationally motivated, every time you turn it on, you’ll see a part of the video you’ve never seen before. It’s like having a new music video for a song every time you listen to it.

Even more impressively, it doesn’t feel self-indulgent or pretentious. It fits the concept of the song – it’s simply a whole day of people being happy at any given moment – and at no point does it feel like there was any attempt at making a masturbatory, pseudo-philosophical statement. People are happy. Pharrell wants you to be happy. That’s it.

Concepts like this are what make new music videos feel fresh after so many decades and so many thousands of rehashed ideas rolling down an unstoppable assembly line. The era of MTV, when we were swamped with videos we didn’t choose to watch until they became superglued to our collective hippocampus and deemed ‘classics’, might be over, but the music video itself has just entered a new phase in its evolution. It’s now as conventional or ambitious as anyone wants to make it. The options are endless, and as long as it benefits the music, that’s a very, very positive thing.