While watching the ‘Whatcha Packin’’ for Honey Davenport, they brought up that they were creating a visual album to showcase a combination of their unseen looks for Drag Race and their EP. As of this moment, there are three videos on Honey’s channel; The Hive, Interlude 1 and Warrior. Each is a compelling visual narrative told in a snippet of less than a minute, set to a distinctively R&B track. For some reason, that sparked a question in me; why are musicians now starting to create short films for their music?
I can think of a few reasons off the top of my head. The first is that music videos sell. People gravitate towards music that has visual accompaniment. Look at the wild success of k-pop and the visually tantalising videos that they produce. I still remember almost all of 2NE1’s Come Back Home video because it was so visually stimulating that has been stuck in my memory for the better part of five years. Even Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money has a strong music video that people remember because of its visual narrative (and I use that gif of her waving from the pool all the time on Tinder). Or Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do, which is a social comment on her own past actions, and Bad Blood which was kind of a weird flex about her girl squad but it had Hayley Williams in it and she’s literally my forever-icon. So music videos get you to remember the song and therefore buy it. It doesn’t mean you have to listen to it, but you’ve spent the money because the video was good. Plus it has replay-ability, and in the age of monetised streaming (your Youtube and Spotify ads), the artist is still making money off of your views.
So if clicks = money, then why are artists releasing 45-minute short films showcasing their work? Wouldn’t it be easier to release a set of music videos? In my opinion, it has become less about the streaming services and more about showcasing an artistic piece; conceptualised and executed, with a social message to those who watch. Take Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer [Emotion Picture]. From even the title it is a testament to emotions. The opening dialogue sets up the audiovisual journey you’re about to go on;
They started calling us computers. People began vanishing and the cleaning began. You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all. And if you were dirty… It was only a matter of time.
We see Monae in a gloomy black room, near naked on a floating table. Two white men begin the cleansing process, and as a device is placed on her head unwillingly she doesn’t give consent to her memory being wiped, forcing them to use the Nevermind which one of the men is clearly uncomfortable with. It’s rather obvious she’s trying to take on the social issue of consent, but as we go back into Monae’s memories we begin an audiovisual journey through much more. Monae’s Emotion Picture takes us through a journey of hedonism, police brutality, racism, queerness, feminism and so much more, accompanied by the music on her new album which equally speaks to such inequalities.
So why choose the visual album format? Because it makes these narratives so much more compelling. Monae could sing about police brutality all day but once you see it recreated it becomes that much more real. She could sing empowering feminist songs, but it isn’t until you see her in pink pants resembling a vagina that it really sinks in. And it isn’t until you realise that all this is being taken away by a higher power against her will that the message really gets across – the media is sanitising these images, but Monae wants you to keep your computers dirty. Keep to the truth of what is happening in the world, and don’t let these other images wipe away what you think.
Additionally, the format is an inherently African-American genre because it stems from R&B and hip hop, which started as an African-American way of expressing discontent with racism and their dispossession until it got caught on by popular media and became sanitised. Now it is being reclaimed through the visual album, with artists like Janelle Monae, Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Honey Davenport and Monét X Change. They are using the format to tell their own narratives that all seemingly sink into the same issues while being distinctly different and themselves.