Nihilism in Music Videos

In the Dust of this Planet by Eugene Thacker, emblazoned on Jay-Z's jacket in Run


Nihilism is seeing a resurgence in popular culture. TV shows like True Detective, Rick and Morty, Enter the Void and Bojack Horseman address existential crises, empty institutions, deep solitude. Mainstream movies are looking forward to the apocalypse. Memes like Chungus and Shaggy's Ultimate Power embrace meaninglessness. But music videos have been nihilistic for a long time. Are they ahead of the pop culture curve or is there something about the medium of music videos that lends itself to nihilistic expression? Let's find out!

First! What rubric do we use to tell if a MV (Music Video) is Nihilistic?
For the Long Answer:
- check out my preface post, where I research different types of nihilism and their relationship to music. 

For the Short Answer:
If the subject of the video is nothingness/nothingmeaninglessness, or addresses a distinctive doctrine of nihilism. Or if there is notable intent not to have a subject, then a piece of art can be interpreted as nihilistic.

So I spent a week researching music, nihilism and music videos that might fit into the center of this pretentious Venn diagram. And what I found is surprising, I think the presence of nihilism in music videos sits on either end of a bell curve.

1 - Inherently Nihilistic - By default music videos are empty, meaningless visuals. They are intentionally transparent so that the music, its content and meaning shine through. They are often the frame for a painting (the painting being a song), not a painting in itself. 

2 - Meaningful  - MVs that choose to be a piece of art, to be their own painting, imbued with meaning and symbolism, character and plot. They tell a story, address current issues, comment on the political climate, celebrities or the visual medium itself. 

3- Artistically Nihilistic - Is the meat of this study; I'm looking for videos that act as a canvas to study some form of nihilism. So, how do you distinguish the "Artistically Nihilistic" from the "Inherently Nihilistic"? I think the goal is to by looking for intent.

A scene is a series of individual shots that, put together create a narrative. I think a truly nihilistic approach would steal all meaning away. The first shot means nothing to the second shot, the second shot does nothing to inform the third, and so on. It may sound easy, like a montage, but is in fact, quite difficult, because a viewer's brain is always trying to find connections. And to make a nihilistic video you have to work hard to sever any connections that a person might make. If that's confusing now, the examples of Nihilistic MVs may clarify what I mean. 

Each shot informs the next to form a comprehensible narrative.

Another way to be "Artistically Nihilistic" is to address death, meaninglessness, or destruction of institutions. While this is the subject matter for many punk, industrial, metal and grunge bands, the music videos produced are not always nihilistic. 

4 - The Ambiguous  - These videos are "left open to interpretation". They are imbued with meaning, but the intent of their meaning is hidden or ambiguous. Radiohead and R.E.M. videos gave me a lot of headaches trying to puzzle whether they were nihilistic or not. Because they clearly have intent and meaning, but that meaning is also intentionally left open for interpretation, which is why I have the "Ambiguous" line running through the entire spectrum. So while some of these can be interpreted as nihilistic, that doesn't mean they actually are.... yes it is incredibly frustrating. 


*Here is a playlist of all the videos listed below:

Johnny Cash's Hurt as Existential Nihilism
We all die, the author offers no assurance or answers, in the end it's all just your memories
with lines like "You could have it all, my empire of dirt"
The visuals reflect this, with a lone man, king of nothing, with only his memories. There is no relief for his feeling of emptiness, only past and present pain.

Aphex Twin's Windowlicker and 
Come to Daddy as Nihilistic Horror.
In Come to Daddy there is no meaning, no objective to the fear and destruction. The characters don't even have character. The children are given the face of the antagonist to negate them having any identity. The only objective is to frighten the audience. And they do so by intentionally voiding any definition from the video. 

You could argue that Windowlicker is satire. But I think the prevalence of the masks again strips the video of character, and becomes something else. Satire usually isn't so disconcerting. The masks, which take away identity, also strip away meaning, leaving nothing but uneasiness. This is about deconstruction. This is about nothing, this is about the horror of unknowing.

Odd Future - Rella as Epistemological Nihilism

I've always loved this video and I think now I finally understand why. Every shot seems like its only goal is to overturn the logic of the previous shot. From the first moment, we see a bald man on a couch with a mustache. Before the camera cuts, the fake mustache comes off and a space helmet comes on. Then the man goes charging through a woman, out a wall and things only get weirder from there. The larger point being that the video has no point. One of the primary rules of moving images is that the every shot must continue the story of the previous, whether directly or implied. A man says "hi", a woman reacts, and so on.

Yet every shot in this video seems determined to undermine the logic of the previous shot. The only constant thread through the whole experience is the three headbangers. One of whom openly weeps at the end of the song, as if unable to comprehend what he's witnessed. Or perhaps he's us, only joyous in the beat and when the beat is over, we're overcome with our own existential dread again. Who knows? He might not even be listening to this song. There's no visual foundation within the video to confirm or deny it. 
Look at all that empty space in the frame. Why is that man transported there?

Maybe I'm sucking the dick of Tyler the Creator too hard. But this might be the most innovative use of nihilism. The way Aphex Twins uses its meaninglessness to cause horror. Tyler has always made music with the goal of offending people, and making them feel uneasy. And maybe in this attempt, the unease comes from an intentional lack of a logcial foundation. It reminds me of a stunt Andy Kaufman would pull; "why wrestle these women?" a manager would say, "what's the point?", "The point is, there is no point."

They Might Be Giants - Birdhouse in your Soul - as Ambiguous or Black Nihilism
This one is a direct reflection of the song's intent. From the first line "I am your only friend, I'm not your friend, a little glowing friend, but really I'm not actually your friend." The lyrics and the visuals' only intent is to murder any semblance of intent. And while the iconography and choreography repeats itself, none of it points to any meaning.

Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime - as Existential Nihilism/Black Nihilism

I think this one is interesting, the lyrics purport Existential Nihilism. As a man grappling with the meaningless in his life. But I feel like the visuals can be interpreted as a much darker meaning underneath. That he is the last human alive, trying to understand what his life was about before being stuck in this alien zoo.

David Byrne writhes around, panting and tired, in front of random images. He pantomimes and dances as if he can't quite remembers the moves. He exhausts himself trying to explain the human experience to some audience, alien to the human experience. But he's forgotten so much, from that distant time, constantly contradicting himself, struggling to find meaning. Like Nietsche's idea of the Superman, this world has moved past humans on to something else. We get an earnest portrait of the artist himself and then he fades back into oblivion. 

R.E.M. - Losing My Religion - Nihilism as Subject
Losing My Religion studies Nietzsche's doctrine of nihilism. The death of god wasn't a claim for atheism, but a denouncement of western culture that prioritized an afterlife over the living. Greek and Christian iconography live in a single room as the band exclaims they're "losing their religion. Inexplicably mixed with gaudy pop iconography

Similar to Rella, the shots and editing are incongruous. The camera meanders aimlessly, whole shots are even out of focus. It frames nothing in a positive or negative light, simply meaningless snippets in a frame. The frame is even dissected. As we see the singer positioned in front of a white cloth taped to the wall. Nothing is discussed, given weight, no plot is pushed forward. We look at dead icons and as the singer repeats his reprieve. 

Lorn - Sega Sunset - Cosmic Nihilism
I think Lorn's music could be nihilistic in its own way. Their songs often feel as if they're just a step away from being noise instead of music. I'd say Sega Sunset is nihilistic in approach because it: 
1- isn't about anything, there is no beginning or end, no conclusion.
2 - The pilot seems so focused on a goal beyond himself (like a superman) that he has no concern for self, resulting in his own destruction. And what's more nihilistic than self-destruction. He is even framed like a god on a throne just before he's destroyed. 
3 - There's an element of nihilistic horror, as an invisible electric force destroys the lights and rooms around the pilot's onlookers. You could even argue that the end shot is a monument to Nietzsche's idea of the superhuman. Celebrated for his sacrifice beyond self or purpose. 

I started this study to see if music videos have been ahead of the curve of mainstream media by addressing nihilism. Or to see if the medium lends itself to nihilistic interpretation. I believe the second theory, that they are inherently absent of meaning. But I do not think they reflect a larger trend. I think nihilism is one of many approaches to making a music video, whether inherently or artistically. And so far I have not found significant signs that MVs were alone in recognizing a larger trend. I am interested to see if it becomes a trend for pop music videos now that nihilism is part of the mainstream. 

I'm going to keep posting examples of nihilism in music videos in the future, as there are plenty of videos that can be interpreted as nihilistic. But I wanted to finish this post before losing interest in the topic completely. So please comment any recommendations you may have. 

Work's Cited


Popular posts from this blog

Preface to Nihilism in Music Videos

DIRECTOR: Chris Cunningham