For the Record, Het Nieuwe Instituut’s long-term research into the politics of contemporary music video culture, investigates music video as a public space for imagining alternative realities. But in times of the Covid-19 pandemic—when millions of people under lockdown are experiencing a sudden reshuffling of public and private spaces—video-based platforms now predominantly assure the continuation of public life, gathering and communication outside our own domestic environments. How can we introduce a sense of collective proximity and community into these listening environments of digital and bodily isolation? And in the current exceptional rise of digital content, what will be the new role for both music and video in creating those environments?
Now that almost all public gatherings in music venues, clubs, cinemas and museums are cancelled, many musicians, filmmakers and video artists are being forced to find other platforms for performing, raising money and bringing audiences together. On Sunday 19 April, for example, the BBC hosted One World: Together At Home—the largest gathering of prominent artists since Live Aid in 1985—to raise money to support frontline healthcare workers and the World Health Organization.https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/20/one-world-together-at-home-concert-lady-gaga-raises-127m-coronavirus-relief Although this particular event still utilises common fundraising strategies – namely millionaire celebrities asking the working classes for donations – initiatives for a more equal form of financial support were put in place by smaller music communities outside of the mainstream as well. The rise of ‘quarantine concerts’ has resulted in the creation of smaller-scale publishing platforms, used to either broadcast artists’ live-streamed home concerts or to announce Zoom parties. Those platforms, Zoom streams and communal websites often link to PayPal accounts, allowing visitors to financially support members of those musical communities. Interesting examples include Club Quarantine, CLUB QUARANTÄNE and HomeTour.
As concerts, music festivals, parties and performances are live-streamed and video broadcast into our domestic spaces, the listening environments and spatial experiences they offer are also undergoing a transformation. A YouTube video genre from 2016 and 2018, that, by means of a simple digital sound edit, allows for listening to songs as if in another room at a house party, or in an empty shopping mall or other public space, now acquires an entirely new relevance. Listen for example to Childish Gambino playing in an empty warehouse or Put Your Head On My Shoulder in a bathroom at a party.
Communities which often found refuge and unity in public spaces and musical environments, for example while dancing in clubs or collectively listening to playlists on city squares or in stadiums, are currently using video and its production methods to recreate similar spaces of collectivity. Artists attempt to design communal encounters for listeners in order to stay connected to their audiences. In their music videos, they often refer to the collective experience they have in common with their audiences; the confinement to the home. Untreated do-it-yourself performances, streamed live from bedrooms, garages and other domestic spaces, attempt to emphasise an ‘all in this together’ type of movement. Although in reality, these formats can either renegotiate or reaffirm the socioeconomic status of a pop star in the age of lockdown.https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2020-05-12/quarantine-music-videos-drake-kehlani-5-seconds-of-summer While stars like Drake roam their enormous mansions, other artists ‘tour’ the different rooms of the small apartments they inhabit altogether in their videos. (Read the essay by Jason King on Drake’s music video Toosie Slide).
Next to the physical sensation of confinement, musicians and filmmakers both explore the collective mental states brought about by this pandemic. Feelings of helplessness, stagnation and anxiety that develop after (for some) almost two months at home, or fractured digital sensations—as though brains have begun to splinter from too much screen time—are wildly represented in the constructed realities of current music videos.https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2020-05-12/quarantine-music-videos-drake-kehlani-5-seconds-of-summer While artists grapple to find their way back to connecting with their audiences digitally, live football matches in Germany are already projecting a glimpse into the post-confinement future of collective gatherings in stadiums. A new type of crowd has begun to appear in abandoned public locations. Donated images of fans form audiences made out of cardboard on stadium seats, aiming to establish alternative support from fans and connections with football teams.
At the same time, vacant public spaces and sites transform into temporary movie sets, urban viewing and recording stations for musicians. The facades of empty public buildings in Rotterdam city centre are, for example, employed as projection screens for music videos by performer, saxaphone player and artist Tim Wes in order to introduce and activate the voice of a young, under-acknowledged generation. Massih Hutak (writer, rapper and journalist for Dutch newspaper Het Parool) transformed the currently empty public spaces of North Amsterdam into a film set for his latest music video. In doing so, he seems to recreate and transfer the neighbourhood atmosphere, through views of its outdoor spaces, to residents of the Amsterdam area currently under lockdown.
Whereas the most expensive scenes in films and music videos have often been those capturing the dream-like scenario of an empty street or cityscape—for example, a 30-second shot of an empty New York in the film Vanilla Sky cost a million dollars—now such scenarios are a current (not so dream-like) reality. Instead of aiming to represent these aesthetic locations devoid of human interaction, current music videos and music through video aim to connect musicians with their audiences through collective, lived experiences under Covid-19. Occasionally these videos even aim to reconstruct the collective sensibilities experienced in public locations and neighbourhoods before lockdown. At a time when communities which once found support, unity and joy in collective music events are physically separated and forced into confinement, we have to rethink the role music and video can play in continuing those forms of togetherness. Meanwhile, perhaps we should also attempt to find alternative ways for those communities to eventually unite again in musical spaces that are not exclusively digital.