All Music Videos Are Weird

And this music-free rendition of Dancing in the Streets proves it.
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This is a condensed version of the music video to Dancing in the Street. The music has been removed, and standard Foley sound effects—the foot taps, the floor squeaks, the snaps—have been added for cinematic verisimilitude. It's the work of a YouTuber named Mario Weinerrother

So, what are Mick Jagger and David Bowie doing here? 

Mick Jagger is running in place. Mick Jagger is swinging around on a pole and then jumping around in a silk shirt that is tucked awkwardly into mom jeans. Mick Jagger is snapping, then with an upthrust that appears to originate in his shoulders, he is levitating briefly. 

David Bowie is leaping from an unseen high place into the frame, as if he were a ninja in training. David Bowie is passing behind Mick Jagger doing a modified Egyptian, then he is facing the camera in his white jacket and snakeskin-pattern jumpsuit thing. 

Now they are outside, Bowie and Jagger, in a wide shot. At first, Bowie faces away as they bounce towards a descending camera, then he spins and they sorta synchronize. Mostly, they are jumping now. Also hopping, mostly on one leg, sometimes at odd angles.

Now they have stopped, and the camera is circling them, and they are bumping hips like old friends at a high school reunion dancing to Whoomp! There It Is.

Mick Jagger is drinking a soda for a minute. And then we are in a hallway. Jagger is pelvic thrusting and also arm thrusting. Bowie's arm is popping out of a room in the foreground. A couple other Mick Jagger dance moves happen. 

Then they are back outside doing what I would call the John Travolta-in-Pulp-Fiction dance. The sun may be coming up, according to the lightness of the sky, and we see their bums in a synchronous wag. 

I had never noticed any of that before, really, in my previous viewings of this particular video.

Of course, these two giants of music did, in fact, do all the things they do in this video. And they did them in this order (the actual video is longer, though). But I never noticed the individual motions. I could never concentrate on them because, hey, I was wiggling around to a great song. And also because, when there is music playing in a video, I am willing to consider anything—anything, even the operatics of "Telephone"—that happens in the frame as reasonable. 

All of which should draw our attention here: The music video is a weird, weird genre.

I'd also never really noticed that. If you grew up watching Green Day and Onyx ("SLAM!") videos and some of your earliest memories are of the Fine Young Cannibals on MTV, then the music video's conventions are built into your mind. They are as familiar as driving on the right side of the road. There are highways in the mind that know exactly where to direct the weirdness on the screen, so that it feels as familiar as the smell of grandma's house. 

In some videos, the relationship between the people in the video and the music is clear. The video shows the band playing the song. But the actual playing of the song, we're meant to understand, is a conceit. No one actually believes that the band is playing the song, so much as pretending to play the song. The singer is sitting in a shopping cart, say, and the video freely cuts back and forth between performance segments and ... I dunno, whatever else, like pushing the singer in the shopping cart around, or trying on jackets. (I'm talking about the Little Comets video below.)

In other videos, there is a storyline we can follow. In yet others, we approach pure abstract art territory cuts on cuts on cuts.

They only make sense in one rubric: the dream. Music videos are dreams that rise like a genie in a lamp out of any particular song. And somehow—maybe it was Andy Warhol's influence in the early days—techniques and filmic logics that would have only been at home in, like, experimental Fluxist films of the 1960s, are, after 30 years, the dominant method of mainstream music promotion. 

As Shakespeare said, to dance, perchance to dream.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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