The Social Factory

the blog of King's CMCI PostGrad Society

The Libidinal Economy of Music Videos by Toby Bennett

In 1981, Video famously Killed the Radio Star with the launch of MTV. This was supposed to be pop music’s moment of Wagnerian spectacle, the harmonious integration of artforms in glorious technicolour – and, yes, there are plenty of examples that live up to such a claim. But it turns out that if you chisel away at a Gesamtkunstwerk for long enough, then all you’re left with is twerk. It’s a familiar story: MTV now rarely shows music videos (even if it does sync music harder and faster than almost anyone else), online streaming sites have become the medium of choice, and videos themselves are talked about in terms of their view-count far more than their creativity. So, over thirty years later, has YouTube finally killed the music video?

Transforming the gaze

Over the years, music videos have subjected (a particular, normative example of) the female body to the male gaze in various lights, with the predominant discourse transforming from considering that gaze as chauvinist indulgence to legitimate source of feminine empowerment. Supposedly, women are now in control of the use of their bodies, with men rendered slack-jawed and incapable in response – ‘girls’, as Beyoncé cried while the anti-misandry crowd looked on in disgust, now ‘run the world’. But if, in the recent past, the presumed spectator seemed to have regressed from leering old man to teenage boy, in the last year we have moved towards a far more dispassionate, sociopathic voyeurism. As a guy, when I watch today’s videos I feel less like Sid James or Adrian Mole than I do Patrick Bateman.

2013 seems to have been something of a watershed moment in the genre, where the display of female nudity has somehow been standardised almost overnight by videos that are self-consciously ‘fucked up’ in a way that is ‘playful’ and ‘meta’. Symptomatic of this is the awkward case of two artists, both of whom intentionally straddle the line between objectification and ironic self-awareness, but this year ended up producing, for all intents and purposes, the same video. For all its deliberate tongue-in-cheek absurdity however, Major Lazer’s ‘Bubble Butt’ was so outdone by the grotesque (and rather less ambiguous) excesses of ‘Can’t Believe It’ by Flo Rida and Pitbull, as to render any sense of redemptive satire entirely obsolete.

Of course the medium has a history of probing the limits of acceptable raunch since its inception – from the playful, the suggestive, and the erotic, to the crude, the lecherous, and the downright degrading. Mainstream hip hop has unfortunately been a prominent purveyor of sexist and hyper-sexualised media (right up to and including hardcore pornography) and this has opened the genre to the kind of racist condemnations that are about as subtle and complex as the portrayals of gender relations in the videos themselves. But of course, if we have a society in which conspicuous consumption is linked to class aspiration, in which desire is harnessed for economic ends, and in which bodies are commodities, then we should expect no less from our cultural products.

We used to live in a more innocent era, so they say. And appropriately, one of the last vestiges of that time is the ‘loss of innocence’ narrative. In the 1960s we had Neil Sedaka and Serge Gainsbourg; the 1980s saw Malcolm Mclaren with Bow Wow Wow; while today we have a host of former child stars, cutting their hair, and emerging phoenix-like into the adult world. These marketing narratives, which may as well come with the well-worn Daily Mail phrase ‘all grown up’ embedded in their metadata, present their subjects as protagonists in some sort of Nabokovian Bildungsroman – but in the age of Operation Yewtree and confusion over the purpose of the age of consent (to take just two recent UK concerns), such narratives mainly do little more than fetishise the illicit.

There is a lineage of well-known pop artists and music videos, that, in the course of deliberately pushing cultural taboos over displays of the body and what we do with it, treats the fluidity of sexuality as its primary object – artists like Soft Cell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Grace Jones, Poly Styrene, Björk, Marilyn Manson, and more recently, Zebra Katz have all queered the pitch in various ways. It is no coincidence that these examples emerged from and appeal to groups that have been historically marginalised. Such artists have used their popular platform to problematise the received understanding of desire (amongst other things), rather than merely presenting it as rigid and unworthy of comment – and often they have been chastised and categorised for doing so. They are ‘subversive’, ‘alternative’, not necessarily ‘mainstream’. The difference is recognised so that it can be filed. There are useful side-effects: outrage generates column-inches; exposure drives sales.

Generally, however, if sexuality and sexual desire are understood to be complex, amorphous, and unpredictable then, despite the ambitions of neuromarketers, they are (for now) more difficult to adequately capture and make use of. Perhaps this is why they are invariably depicted as stable and the relationship between the sexes as one of power imbalance and detached voyeurism. With a few possible exceptions (like Lady Gaga’s ‘Alejandro’), contemporary mainstream music videos still generally relegate same-sex desire to the role either of punchline (Carly Rae Jepsen – ‘Call Me Maybe’), or (as with Katy Perry – ‘I Kissed A Girl’) of ‘naughty’ confession straight from the pages of Dear Deirdre. The categories prevail.

The libidinal economy

Discrete categories make the continuous fluidity of life easier to digest. It is what Max Weber referred to as ‘rationalisation’ and what the philosopher Bernard Stiegler now calls ‘grammatisation’, a ‘process whereby the flux and flow networking our existences become discreet elements’. As with an analogue-to-digital converter (the device that essentially laid the foundation for the modern music industry), it makes complex information easier and more efficient to process – but at the cost of a loss of detail. As technology improves, however, this detail becomes better and better replicated, leading to a type of capitalism that, to the naked eye, mirrors the complexity and incomprehensibility of the unconscious itself – a liquid modernity that is faster and more fluid than we are able to process and thus detached from lived cognitive experience. This, according to Philip Mirowski, is the neoliberal gambit: that the market compensates for our human inadequacies by making decisions on our behalf.

When we ask what is most disturbing about these kinds of videos, therefore, before we jump to conclusions about what they do to us, how they impact or shape young minds and so on, we should first question how they reflect our culture more generally. Pop music has a terrifyingly uncanny ability to hold up a convex mirror to our social physiognomy, magnify our unsightliness, and make our deformities bulge and pop back out at us. There is a great number of sociological and journalistic inquiries into why this should be so, most of which focus on text and image. Few consider the fact that we’re dealing with music.

Of course, talking about music is itself a taboo; music transcends language. Perhaps this is due to its deep emotional ties. As a non-figurative and temporal object, music is often seen as a privileged means of representing and accessing human experience; famously, it is the condition to which all art aspires. As the musicologist Leonard Meyer put it, music toys with ‘expectation’ and ‘inhibition’ in order to key directly into the emotions. In this account, the interplay between melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements is mimetic of the flow of desire: it rises and falls, is heightened and repressed, it can be prolonged or explosive.

The modern global economy, as far as I can gather, works along similar principles, with financial speculation and consumer confidence relying on expectations of the retention or growth in value. However, while economic models that depend heavily on individual rationality tend not to cope very well when trying to understand the causes behind bubbles and crises, theories that think of economic behaviour in terms of creativity, flows, and cycles (from both the left and the right) thematise precisely these sorts of events. Such theories tend to couple together emotion with technological innovation, emphasising the embeddedness of capitalism in human society.

Adam Smith followed the physiocratic economists in depicting the flow of wealth round a society as being like the circulation of blood round a body. Stiegler follows Jean-François Lyotard by putting a Freudian spin on this relationship, referring to it as a libidinal economy in which cognitive-affective fluxes within and between individuals are mapped directly onto financial exchanges. He points to media, marketing, and particularly PR as the major organs of this, emphasising the role of Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, in their invention.

What is particularly unsettling about the current incarnation of music videos, therefore, is the uncanny ability of modern technology to penetrate deep into flesh and mind, harnessing emotion in the service of global flows of capital (something which Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black MIrror explored to disturbing, if occasionally clumsy, effect). I would suggest that it is not nudity, sexuality, dissent, or any other broken taboo that makes us feel so uncomfortable. It is the use of these in the service of algorithmic calculations that regulate the flows of capital hidden in plain sight: the YouTube views, the impressions, the click-throughs, the downloads, the likes, shares, retweets, trends, and so forth, where desire is calculated, rationalised, and monetised before our eyes. ‘Blurred Lines’ is not, then, primarily a story about the foregrounding of gender exploitation; it is about hashtags, ‘moving units’, and brand partnerships.

Is it art?

The phenomenon is not limited exclusively to mainstream pop. Last year The Flaming Lips promoted their cover of ‘The Last Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ with two versions of a video that saw an entirely naked featured vocalist (firstly Erykah Badu who, after complaining that the final product was exploitative, was swiftly replaced by Amanda Palmer) writhing about in vats of various liquids. The resultant furore quickly racked up the YouTube views. Similarly, Warp Records, an independent label with a history of putting out music and video releases that are both interesting and challenging, have this year produced two videos requiring the now-ubiquitous ‘NSFW’ tag. From an altogether more geek-friendly perspective, ‘GI Jane’ by Jackson and His Computer Band and ‘Still Life (Betamale)’ by Oneohtrix Point Never are pitched at a demographic more at home browsing Pitchfork and 4Chan than tweeting about the MTV VMAs. Still, the latter video followed the Robin Thicke marketing technique to the letter, managing to get banned by both Youtube and Vimeo while, as Adam Harper astutely notes, still managing to police sexuality, albeit using a more self-consciously artsy aesthetic.

Art is, of course, a legitimation technique that has been around for a while (Madonna being the obvious reference point here), but ‘high’ culture has started to pop up in unlikely places too. It is not just Lady Gaga flirting with Jeff Koons and asserting that she is employing a reverse Warhol strategy of ‘putting art into pop culture’ (not to mention appearing unclothed in a video as a form of performance art ‘training’ with Marina Abramović – strategically close, of course, to the release of her recent album). Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé have all recently enlisted the cult fashion photographer Terry Richardson.  Meanwhile, Kanye West’s video for ‘Monster’, which features unnamed models in various states of undress appearing as hanging and dismembered corpses, begins with the following disclaimer:

The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and shall be taken as such.

Oh, well that’s alright then. As long as it’s art.

Of course this is disingenuous but it ties in with a mode of speaking in which ‘creativity’ is unproblematically seen as an unassailable good. Kanye decries, as often and as loudly as he possibly can, the systemic limitations to his innate creative potential (if you can’t watch the video, he is talking about designing shoes); Gaga complains that finishing recording her album has left her ‘depressed and empty’ as she is now condemned to become mere performer rather than the ‘artist’ she presents herself as. To be sure, being creative is often a true source of joy. We can think of it as a libidinal energy the absence of which is felt in terms of emotional and psychological alienation. But these comments, in all their sincerity, demonstrate how individual ‘creativity’ has retained its mythic status, becoming the sine qua non of contemporary life – the mark of the successful, prominent, elite, world-changing entity; the unshackled agent; in other words, the neoliberal subject.

Such comments herald a call for recognition that the ‘creators’ (of aesthetic works or of economic wealth, it makes little difference) are the unquestionable rulers of our society. The contemporary music industry is one in which artists aspire to be CEOs or tech investors, or perhaps even policy campaigners; where, in my experience, those who work in it are as likely to have found inspiration reading Steve Jobs’ biography as Morrissey’s. This is no Arts & Crafts appeal for a new world; its utopianism is far more Californian than socialist. If art is like philosophy, in that it opens up the world to questioning, then these performers are very much the Alain de Botton of the music world. Art is deployed as the solid, safe, unchanging signifier of ‘authentic’ high culture, a means to redemption via the recognition of genius. Yet more categories.


There have been a number of responses to the whole debacle. Interestingly, some of the most prominent have appeared on this side of the ocean: first there were eviscerating comments, often using the language of ‘pimps’ and ‘prostitutes’, from female artists like Sinead O’Connor, Annie Lennox, and Charlotte Church; then followed a ban from student unions, as well as a major campaign spearheading recommendations for an age-rating system; and, after parodying Blurred Lines became something of a meme, we’ve also seen the first pop video to make a reply, courtesy of Lily Allen.

The latter pinpoints with laconic accuracy the contradictions inherent in the post-feminist image (“We’ve never had it so good, uh-huh, we’re out of the woods”) and uses all the poetic acuity that’s necessary to lambast a situation in which the majority of public roles promoted to women involve being ‘good looking’ or ‘good at cooking’, preferably both, but not at the same time. In doing so she has opened up a new space in which it’s OK to be explicit about such things as being a mum, being witty, being insecure, being opinionated, and so on – in essence, being a complex subject and not a commodified object – and, moreover, to do so in the course of making joyful and undeniably infectious music.

It is unfortunate, then, that she does so by drawing her own divisions. She echoes Leonard Meyer, whose account of expectation and inhibition led him to a more-or-less racist judgment of musical greatness based, in part, on the degree to which the expectation of resolution is delayed. This is contrasted with the instant gratification indicative of ‘primitive’ culture. Written in 1956, the reference to a sub-civilised non-western other is glaring to modern eyes. But even if we are indulgent, noting that what Meyer calls ‘primitive’ he might better understand as ‘pop’ (indeed, he distinguishes ‘primitive music’ from ‘the highly sophisticated music which so-called primitives often play’), nonetheless popular music’s (then very recent) roots in African American culture makes coupling it to uncontrolled libidinal intensity decidedly shaky territory.

On the flipside the goal of ‘art’ music here is painted as decidedly similar to that of tantric sex – a permanent state of withheld resolution (an allusion to which aficionados of Wagner will no doubt by now be thoroughly bored) which holds value through its associations with power and control. Resonances with Kanye and Gaga’s demands for eternal creativity here are, perhaps, amusing; those with techno-capitalist desires for eternal growth are, perhaps, less so.

So clearly, there are also gendered aspects at play here, as has been explored elsewhere, and Meyer somehow manages to combine imperialist and misogynist tendencies into a mere six words with the claim that the ability to ‘inhibit gratification’ is a sign that ‘the animal is becoming a man’. Likewise –rather than challenging the discreet, accepted fictions (albeit fictions containing elements with which many women may identify), the space opened up by Lily Allen seems to be predicated on reinforcing tired categories in order to vilify them and then replace them with a further category (the category ‘Lily Allen’ – distinct from the singer herself), to be again sold as an object of desire.

Our contemporary postmodern sensibilities recoil from Meyer’s evaluation of art over the primitive. And so it is all well and good that the ‘Hard Out Here’ video reshapes the discourse from within the accessible vernacular rather than from above or outside it; aesthetically, it fits right alongside ‘Blurred Lines’, without making any dubious claims about artistic legitimacy. However, the coupling of excess and ‘instant gratification’ with a ‘lesser’ form of music (i.e. current R&B), via a mutual link with immaturity, symptomatically repeats this foundational discourse of hierarchy and control – particularly of self-control – but without the critical baggage of structural awareness.

It is not the excess which is necessarily problematic but the categories, the imposition of order. As Adam Harper writes about the ‘Still Life’ video:

[It’s not] because I’m too ‘challenged’ by it, because I think it’s in poor taste or pornographic, because I can’t handle the ‘truth’. It’s precisely because it reflects pre-conceived notions of taste in a sham-realist, sham-sociological exposé that it doesn’t challenge me or frighten me enough.

One final example hammers this home for me. The jarring cut-and-paste and leisurely pace of the newest Kanye West video is matched by the awkward green-screening, pixelated animation, and cold expressionlessness of the visuals – the production ending up like something from a vaporwave MF Doom. This is intentional and apparently too weird for some. For me, it’s just not ‘weird’ enough: the technology is foregrounded but the rapper’s still posing; his wife is a naked prop; the categories are still defined. It doesn’t frighten me. I don’t recoil in distaste, my eyes just glaze over. It’s deliberate, conservative, and boring.

Unlike, say,  Shangela Laquifa:

Coda: Work and Property

Framing the new music economy as libidinal does more than simply tie together emotion, desire, and finance; it also draws attention to the role of labour. Labour is the force at the heart of both producing value for a society and reproducing the framework within which that process is legitimated. As such, it is not just limited to traditional notions of employment. When we watch music videos, we are, in a sense, working. Online media are only economically viable thanks to the free labour involved in interacting with them. This interaction is ‘labour’ in the sense that it produces value; and it is ‘free’ in the sense that it is unpaid – but also that it is in some way voluntary. Being a fan is more directly valuable than ever before.

At the forefront of this new economy is access; which usually means mobile, streaming media. YouTube and Vevo are at the centrefold of the issue – but the front page is taken by Spotify. Whatever is happening to the way in which money is distributed using such services is in flux will remain in flux for a while and there is no doubt that improvements need to be made. There have been two responses this year. The first is a kind of landlords’ strike – the withdrawal of property from the market, exemplified by Thom Yorke and his manager.

The second is, I think, more perversely interesting. Ministry of Sound have sued the streaming service for not stepping in when fans replicated Ministry compilations (which the label have not made available on Spotify) in their own playlists. It’s a move which surely has further implications if they succeed: if curation is recognised as a creative act that necessitates copyright protection, then a precedent is set for individual users to be able to copyright their own playlists and earn income from them. If that’s the case, then what happens with collaborative playlists?; can we protect the way in which we sync music to visuals on YouTube?; should we earn a royalty from memes?

By taking the logic of intellectual property seriously, the Ministry case unexpectedly shares something with the Wages for Housework campaign – both elevating the work of ordering and arrangement as productive acts and seek remuneration on that basis (likewise, we find critiques of IP’s potential absurdity coming from both the left and the right). More fundamentally however, it recognises the fact that in a libidinal economy, to be creative is to labour. And, as the current crop of videos exemplifies, work is a fundamental social good.

Yet the way in which people interact creatively (and indeed what it means to be creative) is only loosely represented by the current legal and economic framework, which relies on implicit categories of inclusion and exclusion that shape the way in which desire is regulated. To withhold our labour in this climate would be an ontologically radical act – but a widespread awareness of the hidden abodes of production, at the very least, is essential if any critique of cultural products is to have an impact.

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