“Behold, a new concept is born: the best of TV combined with the best of radio. Your favorite tunes are never too far away any time you tune in...Right now, you'll never look at music the same way.” —Mark Goodman (August 1, 1981)
Beyoncé was one of the first high-profile rule-breakers to break free from album release tradition. In an age of oversharing and leaked intel, she operated with the secrecy of a vigilante cleaning up crime in Gotham City. December 13, 2013 will be remembered as a redefining hour for an industry that’s historically slow to embrace change.
The unannounced approach of her self-titled, fifth studio album is often what Houston’s queen is championed for, but what I will remember about that day is going into my job at Olive Garden and seeing my co-workers crowd around iPads and iPhones to watch her new music. They weren’t playing the album as a work of audio, but viewing the visuals for each song. To be seen and to be heard were equally a part of the Beyoncé experience.
In contrast to this innovative method that was moving the needle, 106 & Park had little over a year left before their final cancellation. The days of hosts Free and AJ, Julissa and Big Tigger, and Terrence J and Rocsi were receding memories of ancient afternoons. As the final countdown-format series standing in a post-YouTube world, BET’s 14-year staple was like the last Blockbuster left after the arrival of Redbox. What was once a celebrated shortcut to unseen premieres, hip-hop titans, and exciting newcomers was now a dated detour.
When the environment shifts, the creative climate adjusts to complement the transition. Look no further than 1981, when music as a visual medium was strongly affected by the launch of MTV, a gift to a generation entering the ‘80s. Initially, the cable network promised a service airing music videos for 24 hours, which was an enticing offer during a period where such a possibility was unheard of.
In a 1982 promotional advertisement filmed to attract potential investors, J.J. Jackson—the late MTV VJ—stated, “This is an age group, a generation, that has expressed itself through its music. It's grown up with television and if you want to reach these young adults talk to them through music. Reach them on the channel they were born to watch.”
Jackson, who was one of five famed VJs that helped introduce the network in its infancy, made music television sound like a birthright for Generation X. The motto “I want my MTV” allowed what was made for them to be claimed by them. It was their intersection of music and media, no one else's. The platform proved capable of being more than just a voice, unlike radio. MTV could be the face of progression, showing the faces of those ushering in a new age of music and entertainment.
An opportunity to be seen is what vehicles of visibility like American Bandstand (1952), Soul Train (1971), and MTV offered. The platforms to spawn from their bridge between artist and audience were instrumental in television becoming a medium for music introduction. Hip-hop doesn’t grow into a global wildflower without The Arsenio Hall Show (1989), Yo! MTV Raps (1988), and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990) turning the small screen into a stage for representation. They broke barriers between art, culture, and consumerism that accelerated rap’s unique voice, visual swagger, and striking attitude within the mainstream market.
Michael Jackson doesn’t become the King of Pop without moonwalking during Motown 25 while performing "Billie Jean." Hype Williams doesn’t capture the magic of hip-hop’s Jiggy Era without music videos increasing the stock of artists. Countless other moments of cultural significance go unseen, unnoticed, or are simply nonexistent without a vision for visual outlets. MTV cultivated the demand that got the gears turning for video series, but the power of its influence was dated by the generation just acquiring Walkmans, VCRs, and cable television.
That’s why MTV's 2017 attempt to reboot TRL was a nostalgic trainwreck. It was an old show for a new audience who wasn’t born during the boom that brought their dominance. MTV was not the channel they were born to watch.
Ironically, the combination of social media’s celebrity access and the mobile model of smartphones has lead to a modern version of MTV’s 24-hour station. What television platforms used to provide isn’t necessary now that Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube function as modern alternatives. The artists of today have adapted to a dawn where disconnecting is a form of invisibility. Before, being seen increased the probability of being heard by a wider audience. In 2018, the vehicles of visibility play an imperative part in building and maintaining an audience.
The value of music videos changed forever after MTV’s launch, and it’s no coincidence the visual art form suffered as albums sales plummeted, budgets dried up, and their function as televised billboards failed to increase attention around a release. Recently, as of the last few years, there’s been a resurgence in the power and lasting impact of music visuals as a form of creating mass attention. Drake’s ability to pick singles has always been a strength, but with the release of Scorpion, the Toronto juggernaut displayed an understanding of music video spectacle that boosted the album's omnipresence.
Karena Evans, the 22-year-old director who has been behind the best videos of Drake’s career, deserves credit for the album's record-breaking success. The videos alone brought a sea of attention toward the popular pop star that has had an impact on his 2018 commercial dominance. Visibility has long been Drake's superpower, and in 2018, he's had his strongest visual presence ever.
JAY-Z followed in his wife’s footsteps and created a contrasting visual companion for his latest and best post-retirement album, 4:44. The Brooklyn-born rap genius and his pop goddess partner have mastered creating a visual language that communicates the excellence of their music.
Weaved throughout 4:44's footnotes, Lemonade’s poetic cinema, and the superb “APESHIT” is an understanding of how, in a time where visibility can be curated into an unforgettable experience, they have perfectly entered the post-MTV age ahead of many of their contemporaries. It's not simply about shooting grandiose videos but finding the middle ground between two mediums able to converse as one.
Twenty-two year old Tierra Whack understands social media and what it means to hit the pulse of being seen in order to be heard. The madness of releasing a 15-minute visual project through Instagram is a method that only a child of the internet would consider. Whack's 2018 debut album, Whack World, is fit for the microwaved attention spans of the Instagram-era of artist discovery. If Vine was still around, she would already be a star.
Fifty-year-old Will Smith is more than twice the age of Tierra Whack, but he is also adjusting to this phase of clip-based content with ingenious vision and present-day awareness. Smith is a rare elder of the old school who has managed to complete a full social media resurgence through consistent and thoughtful videos that succeed with substance for what they lack in length. Instagram has been Smith’s medium of choice since December of 2017. The account functions as an ongoing, day-to-day diary, providing his 22 million followers with sage wisdom, fatherly humor, and refreshing entertainment.
Elders often face scrutiny for being out of touch, but the successful rapper turned pop culture icon is a leading example of how to gracefully live in the now with acceptance instead of resentment.
Joy is what Will Smith deposits in the culture’s bank of content, a stark contrast to how Kanye West has utilized his social currency. West, much like Smith, is a master of visibility. Outbursts, antics, exceptional work—any and all forms of publicity have been used by the Chicago-born controversialist. Over the last 21 months, under the Trump administration, West has become an ugly caricature of the man hip-hop believed they knew. Yet, in the midst of destroying his legacy and the dwindling whatever goodwill he has left with the public, he's still seen success.
Kanye's latest single, "I Love It” with Lil Pump, debuted at No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100 and reached No. 1 in Canada, Finland, New Zealand, and Sweden. The music video—executive produced by Spike Jonze, Kanye West, and Amanda Adelson—was premiered during the 2018 Pornhub Awards, and has already amassed over 190 million views. He is no longer the trainwreck that’s hard to look away from, but the heavy smog that you can't help but inhale. By leaning into the absurd and ridiculous, and doing it visually, West has scored his biggest hit in years.
With an influx of content the visual saturation is no different than the audio saturation, and so going shorter, creative, and concise is now the name of the game. Visibility is about communicating with the present in the spaces where the conversations are already being had. Frank Ocean building a staircase throughout the duration of his 2016 visual album Endless didn’t receive much, if any, fanfare. It wasn’t the kind of video that goes viral, especially considering its Apple Music exclusivity. The lone video release from his critically acclaimed album Blonde, "Nikes," is a similar case. Selectivity to where and how you want to be seen is a creative decision, but one that severely limits reach and the prospect of going viral.
Emmanuel Maduakolam recently wrote an excellent editorial for Hypebeast on how TV has become the new radio for rising artists looking to expand their reach. Shows like FX’s Atlanta and Issa Rae’s Insecure are programs that turn music from emerging acts into the soundtracks of their series. Essentially, MTV wanted to make a channel that merged radio and television, and now that ethos has entered the pop culture.
Dreamville’s EARTHGANG recently had their new, Arin Ray-assisted single “Stuck” featured in a recent episode of Insecure. Prior to its release, the Atlanta duo took their talents to COLORS and premiered a previously unreleased record, entitled “Up.” With over a million subscribers, the German YouTube live performance series is one of the best visible platforms for emerging artists. In just the last week, esteemed named like 6LACK and Jay Rock appeared on the blossoming forum for artist discovery.
Soon, COLORS will be required during an album rollout like joining the cast of Everyday Struggle or being interviewed on The Breakfast Club. If you consider the popularity of Bless The Booth, reaction videos, viral challenges, NPR’s Tiny Desk, and late night hip-hop favorites like Desus and Mero, the options to be seen are broad and crucial when considering how navigating these spaces are building bridges between artists and audiences.
In his excellent op-ed on Kanye West and white freedom, Ta-Nehisi Coates poetically takes readers back to his upbringing in 1980s Baltimore. He described discovering the myth of Michael Jackson through classmates due to the lack of cable in his household and parents whose radio selection wasn’t fixated on stations playing the latest and greatest in pop music. It reads like a fable, almost impossible to believe there was a time where the royal highness of our world was only witnessed through imitation dances and stories of red jackets and werewolves. But that speaks to the limitations that still existed, separating people from pop culture.
Coates crystallized a time much different than the now. Before, it was possible to be big and still invisible to many. In 2018, there’s no excuse to not be visible. Even The Weeknd, who built his brand on mystery, has ditched the mysterious persona. The music industry has long been headed toward pivoting to a visual-dominated medium. Today, it takes more than just great songs to be heard. It takes imagination, collaboration, and great presentation.
It takes being seen.
Visibility isn’t an option, but a requirement in the days where WiFi is free at McDonald's and the camera is always facing you. Everyone is watching.
By Yoh, AKA Ta-Neyohisi Coates, aka @Yoh31.
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