Nine-inch nails in the White House

Jim Gabour
31 October 2008

I've been dealing with visual imagery in one way or another since producing, directing and hosting my first television series that started in 1978. It was a local affair, centred on the culture of my home state, Louisiana, and I could get away with a lot of unpolished behaviour on camera. I was a rookie, and didn't have much presence in those early years.
Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here

This article draws on a lecture given each semester to the first class of Jim Gabour's course, "Introduction to Digital Filmmaking"
By 1986 you'd think I would have gotten better. That was the year I got my first national and international music series, New Orleans Now. The Arts & Entertainment Network underwrote the series in north America. In the UK it was funded by ITV's Channel 4. To get the best possible setting and content, I put every penny of the modest budget into production and paying the musical acts, but in the process ran out of money and had once again to host the show myself. Critics and viewers loved the show's content but, especially in the UK, they unanimously hated me as a host. The most cutting review I still remember to this day, word for word. The critic for New Musical Express  wrote that "Mr Gabour is guilty of the cringing excesses of Americanspeak."

Cringing excesses of Americanspeak.


And worse, he was right.  Since then I have decided to remain behind the camera.

But in one way I was ahead of my time - in the election and reigning government of 2008, "the cringing excesses of Americanspeak" would probably qualify me as a presidential speechwriter.

And there it is, in the selection of a single American to lead us from an imminent world crisis, we find ourselves in most cases physically isolated from the candidates, making our choices based largely on images gathered from a screen flickering a couple dozen times a second in front of our eyes. Even though it seems I did not evolve as a participant, modern visual evolution has proceeded apace without me.

So, thirty years after my own failure to communicate, it is evident that America now evaluates its leaders based largely on the same visual vocabulary used to watch Trent Reznor cavort in front of his industrial rock act Nine Inch Nails.

To make my case a tad more reasonable, I first offer a bit of history on the collision of music and pictures.

The imitation game

There were many precursors. As early as 1890, George Thomas was printing photos on glass slides, hand-colouring the images and projecting them while musicians played and sang in the foreground. In the 1920s, Oskar Fischinger was producing scored abstract films which he called "visual music".

American TV had the nationally syndicated American Bandstand series, which began in 1957 to modest acclaim then rapidly built through the 1960s.   But it was primarily a dance show.

British television made the real connection to young audiences in 1963 and 1964, when Rediffusion TV and the BBC first produced the Adam & Eve of British music shows, Ready Steady Go! and Top of the Pops.

With the British invasion showing increasing strength, US producers copied the UK success formula with Shindig in 1964 and Hullabaloo in 1965.  But American Bandstand would be the only survivor into the golden age of music videos, lasting until 1989.

The shows still mostly featured very little live performance, more commonly only lip-synch to playback. Then the seminal pop band of all time, the Beatles, produced the first conceptual videos in 1966-67: "Paperback Writer" and "Rain".  The two clips were, due to the practical logistics of filmmaking, also lip-synched to playback.

Fourteen years later, on 1 August 1981, MTV came on the air and played their first "music video", ironically for a tune called "Video Killed the Radio Star", by the Buggles.

We were visually, and quite literally, off to the races. 

Over the next few years, four minutes and fifteen seconds was established as the attention-span of the teen video-viewer, and songwriters gravitated to that timeframe to create hits. Then with the songs locked in at the 4:15 length, music video-directors began to try and push more and more imagery into 255 seconds, to win over the new rapt crowd of viewers. As opposed to listeners.

By 1990 there was an unspoken but legitimate number that the perfect music video must have: four. That number is the result of a calculation in which the number of seconds in the video, 255, is divided by the number of edits in the video, sixty or more ideally. Which meant that the average length of a shot in a music video was as close as possible to four seconds.

And thus a whole generation, most of whom are now of voting age, grew up getting their visual information in packets of less than four seconds. In 2008 the "number" resides more frequently between two and three. Smaller and smaller packets.

Theatrical movies, television shows, and commercials all followed, courting that 18-25-year-old demographic and forcing the rest of us onto the same decreasing (in length) and increasing (in number of cuts) visual diet.

Political commercials especially follow the same eye-candy formula: give us more sweet stuff to watch while you blow your sour spiel into our ears.

Human visual evolution: you have experienced it whether you know it or not.  The way we see things is forever changed.

Besides timing, colours and framing are also important elements of the way you perceive a visual story, even though now the original music-video format has taken the back seat. 

A great book out there called If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling describes bright red in a film as "visual caffeine". What colour tie do politicians favour these days? Uniformly beneath their black suits they wear red.

One camera angle -- you've all seen it, whether consciously or not - captures everything on the diagonal. It is known in the business as shooting "dutch".  Supposedly the shot originated with the first generation of German directors, and "Deutsch" shots wrongly translated into "Dutch" when they got to Hollywood.  The dutch shot is classically  used to signal foreboding, or a tense situation where something dreadful is going to happen. The directors Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam are especially fond of them. And, as you might recall, something dreadful happens quite frequently in their films.

When political ads air that disparage an opponent, the frequency of dutch shots that frame the "bad guy" is astounding. Basic evolved visual vocabulary.

Then there is that now half-century-old tradition of lip-synching to music.  Dick Clark didn't have the real technology to get a full live performance sound in the still-primitive TV studio of the late 1960s, and lip-synching was a stated fact. Once the technology developed, concert shows became cheap fodder for emerging cable networks like HBO, Cinemax and Showtime, and lip-synching became anathema. Except in music videos, which still had to be produced to playback.

But by 1990, the  heydays of live performance on the tube were gone. The dominance of music videos was not.

At the turn of the millennium, with multiple acts on the road competing for dwindling audience dollars, shows became more and more elaborate, often to the point of logistically prohibiting simultaneous "acting" and singing. Britney Spears, Madonna, and boy-bands of all sorts and sizes were often criticised for performing in huge arenas to playback. Even though they kept the illusion alive by wearing head microphones.

The odd thing is that, in my own admittedly sketchy though frequent studies, I have found that audiences actually prefer lip-synching to live performance.

A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)

"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008)

"Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)

"Loot" (8 October 2008)Between lip-synch and live

A few years back, I directed a live concert shoot of an act called Floetry for DreamWorks Records. Two brilliant Jamaican women, one an aspiring opera star and the other a poet, met playing basketball in London. Their musical collaboration became an R&B/hiphop hybrid with one performer singing arias while the other rhythmically recited her poetry. It was, and remains, a mesmerising combination.

Commerce emerged quickly to shape the shoot. Since the concert was originally to be sold as a DVD, the studio wanted a "live" music video that matched the music they had already recorded in audio sessions. So at the sound-check that afternoon, the record company representative had the act perform to playback. Then they had the girls cover the same song in their live performance.

They had me edit both versions into stand-alone music videos of the appropriate length and send them the results. Both were good, but I lobbied for the much more soulful and convincing live performance. I'd been doing music vids for closing on three decades, but this act was so dynamic they raised chill-bumps on my arms every time I viewed the piece. The record company executives, though, after weeks of deliberation, preferred the lip-synch, and in the end chose that version to send to MTV.

Turns out they were right.

In the years since I have done dozens of "pictures of music" masterclasses around the world, and begin by showing both versions of the Floetry music video to audiences without any preface other than the same act was performing the same song in two versions and they, the audience, are to pick the version they like best.

Hands down, the overwhelming majority of every single audience picks the lip-synch. Without exception and despite cultural differences. In Europe, Asia, south America, north America, they always choose the version performed to playback. Because of the way music videos have to be made, and the perceived danger that live performance might fail, viewers have been subconsciously trained to think that the faked performance is the way real performance looks.

Similarly, most people would rather get their information on politicians in thirty-second perfectly-edited soundbites than in real-time debates where the candidates blither on for ninety minutes, and it is the audience's responsibility for judging truth.

An altered frame 

Many very different individual socio-cultural factors affect visual perception.  But we also are affected by how the makers of the visuals perceive their products.

On this same video there were enormous delays in getting choices made. Nobody wanted to commit to a course of action for fear of making a mistake, a cause for certain and immediate dismissal in the volatile recording industry atmosphere. So no one would commit to going forward alone.

When I sent the final cut of the DVD concert to the executive in charge of production, I had a classic exchange over the phone:

JG:  "So, you have the concert in hand?"

DreamWorks marketing executive:  "Yes."

JG:  "And you have watched it?"

DW:  "Yes."  

JG:  "Well, what do you think of the video?"

(long pause and an audible sigh)

JG:  "Well?

DW:  "I don't know.  I'm the only one who's seen it."

We had recorded the audio separately in a high-end audio wagon, and suddenly, the decision makers had  too much to work with. It took almost two months to decide whether they had a DVD with a bonus audio CD or the other way around.

What was this, the music or the image of the music?

One reason the "Introduction to Digital Filmmaking" course I teach is subtitled "Music Visualization" is an acknowledgment that the arts are conjoining, becoming a more complete and real experience. The Buddha was right: everything is indeed a part of everything.

And now, as I am inundated daily by a tidal wave of television advertising from both political parties, I can only speculate what I am seeing in my own post-Nine-Inch-Nails visual vocabulary.

Is this the man?  Or just the image of the man.


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