I. S̶t̶e̶v̶e̶ ̶J̶o̶b̶s̶ ̶K̶i̶l̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶M̶u̶s̶i̶c̶ ̶T̶e̶l̶e̶v̶i̶s̶i̶o̶n̶
Thirty-six years ago, Billy Idol said, “Too much is never enough” at the end of a promotional ad for MTV. Looking back, the commercial’s slogan, “I want my MTV,” internalized the relationship between the viewer and the 24-hour music video channel. The MTV of 1984 was yours to have, and there was never going to be enough of it. David Bowie said so, as did Billy Idol, and so the 80s believed in the eternity of music television.
Vanessa Olivarez and Elizabeth Elkins, better known as Granville Automatic, are a country music duo from Nashville who, in September 2019, released the song “MTV.” The record is overly sentimental; a song that leans on the emotional memories from the “good ole” 1980s, back when, as the lyrics say, a generation of kids would have their first kiss, or steal their first beers as they watched countdowns on the channel they wanted. If you didn’t live in that era of music television, you are likely to feel nothing for such a nostalgic jingle.
To its credit, Granville Automatic’s “MTV” does represent an honest look back on a time when the act and experience of viewing music videos were inseparable from the channels they aired on. Now, music videos are everywhere. They’re on YouTube, WorldStar, Twitter; you name it. Thanks to micro video-sharing apps like TikTok, and formerly Vine, anyone can take any song and make a video on their smartphone. These videos spread faster on social media than an actual, fully-produced music video.
Social media is the new 24-hour music television channel in that regard, and everyone can host their own show. By making their own videos, the listeners become amplifiers; the kind of micro-creators who, instead of just watching the videos musicians make for their songs as consumers, grow active in the marketing of those songs.
Listeners draw attention to the latest singles by drawing attention to themselves. This attention benefits the artists if the videos they create are part of a chain reaction. Songs become sensations. Sueco the Child released one viral song, “Fast,” and thanks to its immense popularity on TikTok, in May 2019, the 22-year-old Los Angeles rapper ink a deal with Atlantic Records.
A more well-known example is Atlanta rapper K Camp, his 2019 single “Lottery (Renegade),” and the viral, 15-second dance “Renegade.” Released last June, the Matthew Daniel Siskin-directed music video for “Lottery (Renegade)” has over eight million views on YouTube. Still, there are over 21.5 million videos made with the song on TikTok, all thanks to the dance.
It wasn’t K Camp who created the choreography, though. McKenzie Jean-Philippe of Oprah Magazine wrote in her story, “What Is TikTok’s ‘Renegade’ Challenge? All About the Viral Dance,” that the source of the dance is unknown. However, Rachel Finn at PopBuzz cites Instagram user @_.xoxlaii as the first to do it, and @global.jones as the user who adapted the dance to TikTok.
With so many TikTok users following trends, each dance craze begets another. Although influencers dancing and making funny videos can increase the visibility of a popular single by lesser-known artists, the creator still has to concentrate that attention to a centralized area. A viral song on TikTok or Twitter doesn’t guarantee lifelong fans or sold-out shows. Sure, it could blossom into a hit record, one the artist can leverage into a career, or it could be a fleeting moment that only materializes into memes, not money.
Such is the conundrum of the social media era. Who is the star in the sea of recorded visuals? Who is the face that isn’t a temporary Vine, but a long-lasting icon? How many musically inclined personalities can become a Cardi B or a Guapdad 4000? How many unique records are drowning in the saturation of streams? Ironically, at the height of music consumption, when too much is never enough, there’s no MTV to answer these questions.
II. ̶O̶h̶ ̶S̶h̶i̶t̶,̶ ̶I̶ ̶J̶u̶s̶t̶ ̶H̶i̶t̶
Seventeen-year-old Atlanta rapper BKTheRula’s “TWEAKIN’ TOGETHER” has amassed more than 300,000 views on YouTube since its release on December 24, 2019. I first saw the video while scrolling on Twitter. What caught my eye was BK’s thick, swinging hair and the black bandana across her forehead that made me think of Jhené Aiko’s Tupac cosplay. The first few seconds are slow, focused solely on BK in a room that glows in fluorescent green. The scene changes to show her surrounded by friends, and the song begins with the lyrics: “And I know these niggas mad as fuck.”
“TWEAKIN’ TOGETHER” is a lullaby trapped in a minimalistic, two-minute rap song that could put a baby to sleep or start a moshpit. BK’s feather-weight tone levitates harmoniously over Mars Beats’ floaty, infectious production. The raps are boastful and taunting, full of pride and mischief, but the song never loses its lighthearted fun and subtle swagger. It’s minimal, but there’s a bounce. It’s weightless—music that could float into the background—yet it slaps like the kind of cloudy rap single Quality Control would release with a Lil Yachty feature.
“[BK] spontaneously dropped it, and within that first week or so, it was already on the SoundCloud charts,” MaliPutYouOn, BKTheRula’s 21-year-old video director, told me over the phone a few weeks ago. “Now that we did the video for it, it’s been going up, and now it’s skyrocketing.” Mali found BK on SoundCloud a couple of years ago, and he was rightfully impressed. He reached out with an offer to shoot a visual for one of her tracks free of charge. Their first music video together, “LightWeight,” is a reference point for their visual and sonic growth in a little over a year.
“Right now is the era where the visual tells it all,” Mali says of why music videos are still a necessary form of presentation for new artists. Presentation, as a video director for an artist, is everything. It has the power to create a community of fans around the song and the artist. “We didn’t plan the song to be that big, it just happened,” he responded after being asked about the attention the single has gotten so far. When asked why he believes the single has had this kind of growing success, he explained:
“The song is about her and somebody else, but it makes everybody feel together. That was the whole point of the visual: Everybody coming together; everybody having fun. Rage in front of the street, get crazy, do whatever you want to do, just have fun.”—MaliPutYouOn
When BKTheRula played “TWEAKIN’ TOGETHER” at Rula Fest, her headlining concert this past January in Atlanta, Georgia, the entire crowd knew every word. Unity and togetherness filled the room as everyone sung, “Santana, Imma flex on you.” It was like watching a scene from the music video come to life. Everybody together, having fun, as the rapper shook her hair in the center. There was no question who they were there to see. A hit in the making. A night to remember. A face that might last.
It’s not as large or as iconic, but the music video for “TWEAKIN’ TOGETHER” reminds me of Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like,” A$AP Rocky’s “Peso,” and Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga.” All music videos of the Internet age, showcasing new artists in their elements, in their worlds, with their friends.
I also think of Kenny Mason’s music video for “HIT.” The emerging Atlanta rapper, who signed a major-label contract with RCA in late 2019, created a shinier, more cinematic neighborhood rap music video. One that would’ve been ideal for a 106 & Park premiere 15 years ago.
“HIT” opens with Kenny Mason, 23, and three friends suspended in the air. They’re jumping into a Mercedes-Benz driven by another young man. They all look like kids who are enjoying a summer day. The video is youthful; each scene could be the start of a classic coming-of-age film like David Mickey Evans’ The Sandlot or Brian Robbins’ Hardball.
That sense of youth, mischief, and friendship appears throughout the visual. Kenny, much like BK, is the center, but the camera roams. The viewer can see the world that surrounds him. The kind of world you would know if you visit him at his West Atlanta home or attended one of his hometown concerts.
“We want people to feel young again when they watch it,” Nasser Boulaich, the director of “HIT,” told me over the phone last year, a few days after the music video’s premiere. “There was no real storyline. We just wanted to stay true to his roots, where he’s from. He’s really from there, a kid from Dill. We wanted people to feel like they were entering his shoes from where he first started and take them on this journey with us.”
When the music video amassed over a million views on YouTube, Mason celebrated by writing a letter to his fans that he posted on social media. “What’s more fye den 1 million people watching it one time is 1 person watching it a million times,” the young rapper wrote, a naive but true sentiment. Creating a community of fans who love the artist’s music enough to watch a video for a song countless times is worth more than passive viewers. Those are the fans who grow with you, who tell the world of your talent.
During our phone call, before the video reached the million view milestone, Boulaich responded in kind when asked if music videos views and online virality affect the videos he shoots:
“Some of my favorite videos are not the most popular ones. Videos shouldn’t be looked at for their views. Views are temporary, what you put out is forever. One thing I know about Ken, he rarely goes on any type of social media site. I know, just for certain, that he’s not in the mode of thinking of speaking like this, or posting like that for attention. He’s detached from that. He wants to be a true artist and he’s inspired all of us to think in that way and encourage us to better ourselves outside of the internet.”—Nasser Boulaich
III. ̶I̶n̶ ̶C̶l̶o̶s̶i̶n̶g̶…̶ ̶W̶a̶t̶c̶h̶ ̶S̶a̶d̶a̶ ̶B̶a̶b̶y̶’̶s̶ ̶M̶u̶s̶i̶c̶ ̶V̶i̶d̶e̶o̶s̶
MTV was a concept that maximized the music video in a concentrated space. Only through MTV could new artists visually become rising pop stars, pop stars into deities, and music video directors into feature filmmakers. The biggest budgets, the shiniest ideas, the most charismatic stars, all in technicolor. Now Instagram Live is where you go to see the artist in real-time. No middle man necessary.
The middle man is what helped a songstress like the late Aaliyah become iconic, though. Being a face seen on television, in magazines, and movies were the best marketing for artists. Audiences consumed countless influential stars in those concentrated spaces. On “All Falls Down,” the third single off his classic 2004 debut album, College Dropout, Kanye West raps, “I wanna be on 106 & Park pushing a Benz,” a lyric of the times, back when it was a big deal to be a guest and premiere a new video on BET’s 106 & Park; when it was a big deal to visit and rap with Big Tigger in the Rap City basement.
That was the marketing attitude of the MTV generation: Get on TV, premiere a video that spotlights you as a figure of talent and excellence, and they—the people—will flock to you as pigeons flock to a hand holding bread. The concentrated spaces have been affected by the times. No longer is television where music videos are making pop stars, but the music video still matters as a medium that intersects art and marketing.
It’s still too early to tell who BKTheRula and Kenny Mason will become, but history speaks for itself. There’s no Doja Cat without “Mooo!” or Tyler, The Creator without “YONKERS,” or Aminé without “Caroline.” These artists are all modern acts of the Internet who catapulted into widespread notoriety after the release of their trajectory-changing music videos. The right song, when paired with the right video, is still changing lives. May that reality never change.