Some might say the music video had its heyday in the mid-2000s, when MTV’s Total Request Live was required viewing for young millennials and Britney Spears ruled the charts. But the music video in 2020 is just as — if not more — powerful as a vehicle for an artist and their message. Consider this week, which saw the release of visual statements from five of the biggest acts in the world: Lady Gaga, BTS, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles and J Balvin. Each of them has something major to announce: For Gaga, it’s the start of a new era, and a return to her outlandish, creative pop roots. For BTS, it’s a multi-layered narrative that will only help build the momentum of their new album while expanding the group’s mysteries. For Swift, it’s a statement of power as she solidifies her image as a woman in control at last. Balvin is kicking off a fresh album cycle marked by maturity; and Styles has an eye toward propelling ticket sales for his upcoming tour and reminding the radio that he’s ready for airtime there, too.
Read on for what each of the videos has to say about where these artists are heading next.
“Stupid Love,” Lady Gaga
Welcome to Chromatica, an extra-galactic, post-apocalyptic world in turmoil. This is the new home of Lady Gaga, who appears to be circling back to a futuristic pop persona for her sixth album after dabbling in the country vibes of Joanne and A Star Is Born. And it kicks off with a statement: “The world rots in conflict. Many tribes battle for dominance. While the Spiritual ones pray and sleep for peace, the Kindness punks fight for Chromatica,” reads the intro text on the music video for “Stupid Love,” finally released this week after leaking earlier in the month. With the video and song out simultaneously, the era Gaga has conjured is one of visual specificity. The setting: a rocky planet in a sci-fi B-movie from the ’80s. The costuming: neon, leather, plastic, chains, tulle, spikes, capes. The light: surreal. The choreography: sharp and bouncy. The sound: pure Gaga. She has always been an iconoclast and a trendsetter; now, when the prevailing trend in pop is honesty and authenticity, it only makes sense that Gaga would lean all the way in the other direction, giving us pure artifice. Kindness punks assemble!
Last week, BTS put out Map of the Soul: 7, a 20-track album representing a breadth of sounds and styles. The new single, “ON,” got a special TikTok pre-release tease and a “kinetic” music video — a spare bit of minimalist-for-BTS choreography. But this week the K-pop group followed it up with an official music video for “ON” that is much more ambitious, cinematic and allegorical in scope. Each of the seven members get star moments in scenes of destruction and desolation: the video opens with Jin running across a windswept, war-torn plateau, kneeling by a dead dove impaled by an arrow. Jimin sings in front of a pile of abandoned drums. RM performs by a grounded ark-like boat, a giraffe at his back. J-Hope raps with stunted tree stumps surrounding him. V approaches a blindfolded child and gently releases her blindfold, taking her hand. Suga presides over a congregation in a temple draped in red banners. Jung Kook’s wrists are wrapped in barbed wire. Eventually, they all collect in front of a stone gate that slowly opens to reveal a new world, with a cliff reminiscent of Pride Rock from The Lion King and its center. Jin releases a dove and Jung Kook draws up a conch shell from a pond, igniting a medieval-inspired dance break with a fiery denouement. And then they climb the rock.
It’s part biblical, part mythological (the faded tones of, say, 300), part Hunger Games, part Lion King, part Maze Runner, part Attack on Titan, part Game of Thrones — in full, a mashup of fantastical and apocalyptic fables. Thanks to all those details, fans have been hungrily watching and re-watching to parse for understanding, inevitably helping to up the video’s streams and boost its success as a song; the video has nearly 50 million views on YouTube in just one day. This has been BTS’ strategy all along: create a universe listeners — and viewers — can get lost in. It’s working.
“The Man,” Taylor Swift
Swift’s last album Lover was primarily a tender project full of romance. But her singles — and their music videos — have been exceptions. First there was the technicolor dreamscape of “Me!,” then the pointedly message-driven party thrown for “You Need to Calm Down” with its abundant celebrity cameos. And now, following the release of her raw, revelatory documentary Miss Americana and inking a new global publishing deal, arrives “The Man.” In the video, Swift transforms into — you guessed it — a man, dramatizing her on-the-nose lyrics. The song pulls no punches; it’s about double standards and sexism, and the video makes that as blatant as possible. There she is running an office, swagger in every step; there she in a silk shirt on a yacht, surrounded by bikini-clad women and champagne. There she is as a dad, bestowing a perfunctory pat on the head to a kid, with women throwing themselves at her feet. There she is laying out cash and taking shots at a club; playing tennis and throwing a tantrum; marrying a much-younger woman; manspreading and smoking a cigar on the subway.
And then as the music cuts, the video zooms out and Swift, now as herself, gives herself as a guy (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) some direction. “Pretty good. Could you try to be sexier, maybe more likable this time?” she asks. (It’s a line that drily echoes concerns she expresses in Miss Americana about the pressures female artists face with public perception.) As the end credits roll, we discover that Swift directed, wrote, owns and stars in the video. This is a fight Swift has been engaged in for years, reclaiming her masters, legally battling an assailant, managing expectations from the family members and power players who guided and funded her career from its early stages. With “The Man,” she seems to be saying she’s arrived: no longer a pawn, she’s in charge of every aspect of her image, business and art. “The Man” was always a wry, fun song. Now it’s a statement of intent.
“Rojo,” J Balvin
J Balvin is one of Latin music’s most prominent figures, a reggaeton master from Colombia who has made a concerted effort to expand his presence globally and collapse genre boundaries. (See: the layered Vibras, his collaborative Oasis with Bad Bunny, smash hit “Mi Gente” with its added Beyoncé feature.) His new album Colores is due in March, and to kick things off he released “Rojo,” the first single, with an accompanying music video this week. “Rojo” is pure Balvin, with an upbeat reggaeton groove. But the video is something else entirely: a PSA against “distracted driving” and its “horrific toll,” as the press release describes it. In it, Balvin ends up in a terrible car accident, and his bloodied ghost haunts his lover and child as they carry on without him. It’s disconcerting and affecting — and it doubles down on the territory Balvin is staking out for himself as a role model, a voice of responsibility in a realm often better known for celebration and machismo. It’s hard to say what will come next from Colores, but that Balvin is interested in more than the lighthearted side of the spotlight is clear.
“Falling,” Harry Styles
The prettiest ballad off of Styles’ sophomore solo album Fine Line also got its music video treatment today. Unlike the setup in the fantastical fishing village of “Adore You,” the video for “Falling” is straightforward: an emotive Styles at a piano, water gushing forth over the keys and the tiled floor, whiskey glass at hand. (Pisces season continues.) He is subsumed by the rising tide, singing and floating ethereally under water. Publicly, Styles has positioned himself as a showman: bold, fashion-forward outfits, sharp rock ‘n’ roll stage production, a larger-than-life onscreen persona with a private personal life. This video seems to be his offering to fans, a peek into a more interior and subdued emotional space. With an upcoming world tour on the books, it’s also a reminder to the public at large that he’s got some very pretty music on his hands. Sometimes that’s all a music video really needs to do: refresh our memory and give a song a second life.