The music videos that are gunning for trouble

An increase in edgy material has accompanied the migration of music videos from TV to the internet. Chris Mugan looks at recent risqué pop promos and asks: are they art?

These days, every week seems to bring another music video that pushes at the constraints of taste and decency. Most recently, the promo for MIA's forthcoming single "Born Free" has dominated column inches.

Using the persecution of ginger-haired folk as a crude metaphor, the US-based artist has set out to make a point about how we treat minorities; but with the ensuing furore her video has become the latest to use infamy to raise its subject's profile. The music video has returned to its position as a key tool in pop awareness-raising.

It cannot be completely down to chance, after all, that a promo for the lead single from MIA's next album generates news stories about it being "banned" from YouTube. For the record, that is not actually the case, though the film has become very hard to find. The Google-owned site removed it from search listings due to its depictions of gratuitous violence – redheads being blown up and shot at point-blank range.

At first glance, this seems odd given the lack of opportunities to show music videos on television. Long gone are the days of Top of the Pops on Thursday evenings or The Chart Show on Saturday mornings. Even dedicated music channels appear to be more interested in reality-TV series that give us intimate views of Snoop Dogg's home life or automobile customisation with the rapper Xzibit. With the growing importance of the internet as a source of entertainment, the humble MP3 file became the means of getting your act noticed, as shown to great effect by Arctic Monkeys.

Yet the promo has found a natural home online, judging by the numbers checking out videos via the internet. Last week, figures showed a 37 per cent annual rise in the number of videos viewed online in the UK, with YouTube responsible for a mammoth 99.6 per cent of that 5.5 billion total. The collator, comScore, was keen to point to a growth in long-form content, especially TV shows, but music promos are an important part of the story. Take the success of Shakira's latest album, She Wolf. Her label is keen to promote the Colombian artist as the thinking man's Beyoncé – "socially and politically forward-thinking," as Emily Eavis pronounced when Shakira signed up to play Glastonbury.

Yet there is also the performer in eye-catching videos. The promo for her album's title track is reported to have been watched 35 million times, while her label described the footage to accompany her last single, "Gypsy", as "her hottest yet!" Certainly, more money is being pumped into works with noticeably higher production values. Take Lady Gaga's "Telephone", like "Born Free" clocking in at 10 minutes, though this time featuring enough costume changes to fill a Topshop concession. Just as important were its skimpy outfits and lesbian snog two minutes in. All helped to get the film a premiere on the excitable US entertainment channel E!

Music videos have, of course, long chafed at the three-minute limit. You can look back to John Landis's 14-minute epic for Michael Jackson's "Thriller", hyped via its theatrical screening. Its epic proportions were such that those with any sense refused to compete with it while the werewolf imagery was still fresh. In recent years, though, the R&B singer R Kelly has given us 22 episodes of his surreal urban soap opera "Trapped in the Closet", with a further 15 promised.

Now, controversy is the sine qua non for the music video, with examples arising from some unexpected quarters. Take the West Coast folkie Devendra Banhart. For "Foolin'", the bearded singer/songwriter gets chained and whipped in a series of humiliating and often painful-looking sado-masochist episodes.

Elsewhere, directors took sadistic inspiration from the type of horror movies that were quaintly called video nasties before the mainstream replaced suspense with gratuitous depictions of violence. The British extreme-metal band Cradle of Filth emerged from the underground in the late Nineties with help from their gore-infested videos, which they eventually parlayed into their own, eponymous feature film.

Another early exponent was Nine Inch Nails, whose 1992 ode to masochism, "Happiness in Slavery", was portrayed in visual terms that left nothing to the imagination. Inevitably, such tactics were successfully picked up by Trent Reznor's keenest student, Marilyn Manson, who for "(S)aint" called in the directorial services of Asia Argento, the daughter of the Italian horror auteur Dario Argento.

The demise of music on TV has unleashed a new wave of boundary-pushing. No longer constrained by the sensibilities of mainstream channels or firms that advertise on them, video directors can let loose their inhibitions. The question is, do we simply drown in a tide of Nuts-style soft porn and explicit violence, or can those of an artistic bent use the promo as more than a simple three-minute advert?

It was the rise of anonymous bedroom producers that encouraged a more risqué aesthetic. The labels promoting the likes of Eric Prydz were concerned their charges were not camera-friendly enough to make them the focus of a music video, so instead we got to watch troupes of female dancers, usually doing aerobics routines. Now, the upcoming Scottish producer Grum has sent up this stereotype for the promo to his infectious disco track "Can't Shake This Feeling". It begins typically, with close-ups of its female protagonists' tight Lycra outfits, but then morphs into a twisted look at the exploitative side of competitive eating, in rather gross fashion.

The concept, as its director, Ryan McNeill explains, is to imagine a cross between voyeuristic displays and those contests where people cram as much food down them as possible in a set time. A concerned father is on the trail of his lost daughter, much in the manner of George C Scott in the early Paul Schrader film Hardcore. McNeill reveals that his client, Grum's label Glasgow Underground, was after something that watchers would want to spread online.

"The label didn't really steer us in any particular direction, but just requested an idea that was 'fun, funny, viral'," he says. "Our idea was that if we can hook viewers at the beginning with pretty girls getting messy, we could then interject a bizarre narrative storyline and take viewers to a completely unexpected place." The director is enjoying the no-holds-barred environment he finds himself working in. "Broadband has changed all the rules for music videos. Musicians, directors, and labels know that it's a struggle to capture the attention of the fickle YouTube audience, so music videos are becoming edgier in order to elbow past all the other available content. As MTV has shifted its attention away from music promos and towards pop culture programming, the labels are beginning to care less about creating videos that adhere to MTV's old rules. These are visuals that would never be allowed to air on MTV, but labels know that shocking videos will always find an audience on the internet."

As well as MIA's "Born Free", McNeill mentions the video to last year's "Pussy", a single from German hard-rock outfit Rammstein. In a promo much less subtle than "Feeling", the director Jonas Akerlund depicts band-members as porn-flick stereotypes – cowboy, company boss, etc – in clinches with models, until body doubles take over for more explicit action. Somehow, 'Pussy' became the group's first Number 1 single in their home country.

Akerlund is no stranger to controversy, despite cutting his teeth with the innocuous MoR pop of his fellow Swedes Roxette. He first found infamy with The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" in 1997, a video that covered all the bases with its depictions of violence, drug use and nudity. So much so, it was only shown on MTV after midnight. This lead to a fruitful partnership with Madonna, for whom Akerlund directed "Ray of Light" and 2003's "American Life", a video that purported to carry an anti-war theme. Madonna herself pulled the promo after allied forces rolled into Iraq. Such episodes must appear twee nowadays, when a group such as Girls can put out a "hardcore" version of a video for their song "Lust for Life".

Nudity can be depicted in a salacious manner, but there are also uses far removed from top-shelf titillation. When The Flaming Lips shot a video for "Watching the Planets" the psych-rock band seemed to have got together nude cyclists in Portland, Oregon, for an eccentric day out in the woods. Even more surreal is the film that accompanies another leftfield US group's single, Yeasayer's "Ambling Alp". Naked flesh features, as does the worship of forms made from BacoFoil. Its creators, a pair of artists that work as Radical Friend, had little sense of the well-used warning abbreviation that forms the phrase "not safe for work".

"We saw very monolithic and epic scenery, but also felt a sense of shimmering small movements," the director Kirby McClure explains. "That is how we came up with naked white bodies against the dark, black terrain. Nakedness also feeds into this kind of birthing-from-primordial-ooze concept we were working with. When the video came out it was labelled NSFW all over the internet and I had no clue what that was. Now I realise that some people were lured into the video because of that."

For McClure and his creative partner, Julia Grigorian, a lack of censorial constraints is something to be embraced for artistic reasons. If anyone sees it as a bid for infamy, they're missing the point. "Edgy doesn't have to be defined as something that is sexual or violent; using a new technology or showing people things they have never seen before is also pushing boundaries," he explains. "A lot of pop videos are formulaic; to us pushing artists and labels into doing something outside of that formula is edgy. It just so happens that going outside of that formula usually means going into religious, violent or sexual territory."

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