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Music in vids: a little background

As mentioned in my last post, I've spent much of this spring reading about music and thinking about how what I'm reading might apply to vids. This post is some background about why I've been doing that.

As of right now, music is kind of the missing piece of research on vidding. Most of the academic work on vidding (including mine) has focused on the relationship between vids or vidders and TV shows or films. There are several reasons for this.

For one thing, most academics writing about vids are inclined to focus on the original text because that's the kind of background we have: literary studies, media studies. Seeing vids as a form of media criticism fits with what we've been trained to do. And, conveniently, it's also a way of justifying what we do when we're talking to colleagues who don't know anything about fandom: showing how fans are like academics makes fans much more interesting to academics.

But of course it's not just academics who focus on video rather than audio when talking about vids; it's fans, too: we talk about vidding particular shows or movies ("I'm vidding Sleepy Hollow for VVC Premieres"; "She makes the best Supernatural vids"). The very influential Mary Van Deusen referred to her creations as "literary song vids," as Henry Jenkins explains in Textual Poachers. The show is the thing we have something to say about.

And then there's a third thing: I think a fair amount of the work on vids in recent years has had a very pragmatic bent; we've been thinking about things like, for example, the DMCA hearings--which are about DVDs, not music.

Now, it's not like academics writing about vids don't mention that vids involve music. But we don't usually pay a lot of attention to vid songs, and when we do, it's typically to the lyrics rather than the music. In this way, vid scholars have been a lot like beginning vidders, who tend to focus on the visuals and the lyrics and take a while to start working with the music. (I facepalmed pretty hard when I realized that I was reproducing my own trajectory as a vidder, let me tell you.)

Vidders and vid fans know that song choice is important. But given how important we agree it is, there's actually been surprisingly little discussion of why it's important or how it works. In some ways, this reluctance to theorize is a community-building move, I think: the importance of song choice is one of the first principles of vidding fandom, and if you don't get it, you're not One Of Us.

But it's also true that music is just plain hard to talk about:
The very fact that theoreticians of classical filmic discourse, even those who write about the soundtrack, have slighted the specific uses of music in this cinema attests to the strength of music’s resistance to analysis. (Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music)
Music, more than any of the arts, is commonly thought to be somehow above and beyond rational analysis. (Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture)

But as I worked on the book, I just kept coming back to the importance of song choice, and I started trying to articulate why I think music is so important to vids. There are lots of answers, but the ones I'm currently working with are these:

1) Genre. No music, no vid.

2) Emotional effects. The music does most of the emotional heavy lifting in vids. (In this, vids are a lot like narrative film and TV, where music does a lot of the work of telling us what to feel about a scene.)

3) Structure. Vids are structured around music at both macro and micro levels. (In this, vids are the opposite of most narrative film and TV, where music is composed/chosen and edited to fit the visual narrative.)

4) Creative process. Song choice is important not just to the vid but to the vidder. For many of us, the song is what sparks a vid idea in the first place; in other cases, it's the thing that has to be found before the idea can get off the ground. It guides clipping, editing, and often the creation of effects. Think about it this way: pretty much any verb you can think of related to the creative processes of actually planning and making a vid (as opposed to technical stuff like exporting or uploading) is going to be related in some way to the song choice. And even where a given vidder is thinking more about the song's lyrics than its music, the whole point of songs is that the lyrics are welded to the music; they can never be completely disentangled.

So those are some of the key ideas and assumptions that I started out with when I began digging around in the fields of music and sound studies to see what I could find that might help me think through how I see music operating in vids themselves and in the way that vidders describe their creative processes.

This entry was originally posted on Dreamwidth (comment count unavailable comments). Comment wherever you prefer.


This is completely engrossing. Do you have thoughts on vids that use spoken word or pieces that aren't considered a song too? There's not many, but wow. When they're good, they're good.
Ahaha, I was just thinking of you -- giandujakiss mentioned you in the comments on the DW post!

So, okay -- I *do* have thoughts about vids that use audio other than songs! But we need a little bit of a ramp up to that point, so brace yourself for some hardcore geekery here for a second.

When I say "no music, no vid," I am partly being a smart-ass, but mostly I am talking about vids as a genre rather than any specific individual vid. I'm going to paraphrase Peter Rabinowitz here: a genre isn't a tickybox list of features that's found in a text (a poem/novel/sitcom/vid/whatever) but rather a set of operations that a reader/viewer performs in order to make meanings out of a text. We pick a particular set of processes (out of the many available to us) because of our sense, when we begin a particular work, of which processes ought to apply: is this a poem or a novel? is it romance or comedy? is it sci-fi or is it a western? That sense is informed by things like who made the work, where we found the work, what the trailer/review/back-cover blurb told us about the book, what the book cover or movie poster looks like, etc. etc. Sometimes there are signals embedded in the text, but typically we make some initial decisions or assumptions before we even start reading/watching the text.

To pick one of Rabinowitz's examples, it is possible to read Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train as a romance, and doing so can be quite enjoyable, but it produces a very different set of effects from reading it as a mystery. Some texts get mileage precisely out of their in-between-ness: Firefly is interesting partly because it signals in various ways that we should process it as BOTH a sci-fi show AND a western, though which genre is in the foreground varies from episode to episode.

But what does this have to do with music in vids? you might well ask.

Music is one of the defining features of vids as a genre -- which doesn't mean that every single vid in the history of fandom has used music, any more than every novel ever written has the exact same set of textual features, but rather that the use of music in most vids structures a vidwatcher's expectations of any text that is perceived as being a vid, even if that particular vid doesn't use music. The viewer might ask, "Why isn't this vid using music?" She might be inclined to look for some particular meaning in that choice. She might respond to the musical elements of speech (rhythm, tempo, timbre) more than she otherwise might, in addition to the verbal content. She would almost certainly, in the absence of strong signals to the contrary, perceive the audio as an interpretive lens through which to view the video clips rather than simply a voiceover being illustrated by the clips (another genre of speech+visuals).

Put another way: the reason that "When they're good, they're good" is at least partly because vids with music have made vidwatchers into an audience that is attentive to very particular things which a clever vidder can then capitalize on even when her audio consists of other kinds of sounds.

...does that make any sense? This is all very much thinking-in-progress, and I am fully ready to admit that it is still rather messy thinking.
TPTB at YouTube should read this and rethink some of their idiotic policies, like suggesting you replace your chosen song in a vid with one of these other "approved" songs. They really don't get it that it's a package deal and if you swap out one song for another, even if they somehow miraculously work in regard to timing, it's still not the same vid.
Right, totally -- a vid isn't like somebody's home movie of their kid's birthday party where you swap in another relatively upbeat song and it's all good! One of my fan studies colleagues is actually working on a piece about this exact thing, YouTube's "Swap audio?" question. And of course it's infuriating, because anybody who knows anything about vids knows that it's a dumb suggestion! It doesn't work! When vid mashups were popular for a while back in 2008 or thereabouts, it was partly because the inappropriateness of most of the combinations was hilarious and also because the occasional combo that DID work really did feel miraculous, as you put it -- it shouldn't work, it mostly doesn't work, because a vid is built with and on a particular song.

So yeah, this is part of what I want to do: to look at vids on kind of a molecular level and make some arguments about what the music is doing, why it's important, and how music and lyrics and images get welded together into incredibly complicated little meaning-making machines that are greater than the sum of their parts.