OK Go and the Revival of Music Video Culture

Busby Berkeley dreams
Busby Berkeley dreams
Busby Berkeley dreams

It was late on a Friday, and I was hanging out with my parents in Gastonia, NC.  They asked me I had seen the zero-gravity video on the plane. I had indeed seen reports of OK Go’s latest viral clip in my Facebook feed and other online news sources—having seen a few of their quite clever setpieces before I figured the new video would probably have a cool gimmick all its own, but I had not bothered to check it out (much as I heard roiling, boiling controversy about Bey and Kendrick the same week without actually seeing what caused all the ruckus).

But it was kind of cool to sit with my mom and stepdad and see them enthused about new music—and more than that, to see an utterly daring, inimitable expression of music, sound, color, and space on the screen.  The video for “Upside Down and Inside Out” is frankly a marvel.  Just when you think the band and the director have exhausted the possibilities of the premise, they up the ante again, with exploding piñatas, bursting balls of a color, and spinning air hostesses of the 1960s rotating in a circular figuration through gravityless space.  It’s like an acid trip.

To be clear for those who haven’t seen it, the band essentially filmed their clip in one of those planes that astronauts use to adjust to zero gravity, going up and down and up down in the air to simulate the sensation of weightlessness.

We went on to watch ten or fifteen other OK Go videos, thanks in part to the function of YouTube that now immediately follows one video with a related one.  My stepdad, a musician and former high school marching band player, marveled at the choreography of “This Too Shall Pass,” while my mom loved the optical illusions of “The Writing’s on the Wall.”  I remember my uncle had seen one of these a few years ago and excitedly showed it to the whole family at a gathering—perhaps there’s something about these audacious visual spectacles that particularly appeals to aging boomers who once jammed to “Thriller” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the heyday of the music video.

As far as I can remember, OK Go came on the scene in the mid-2000s, a middling dance-rock/pop band with a few smart videos.  I never really liked their breakout “A Million Ways to Be Cruel,” and if I caught their award-winning, treadmill-surfing “Here It Goes Again,” I don’t remember.  In retrospect, it feels like the videos have propelled their careers but overshadowed their music, which is actually a very agreeable form of Knack-ish, early 1980s New Wave power-pop, all crunchy riffs and infectious beats and (critically) enthusiasm.

What I find so intriguing about OK Go is something that has not been lost on other writers and reporters: clearly they have cracked the code of how to make money on likes, views, and listens, in an age when the actual album sales are a quaint relic and the LP is an object of rarefied hipster fetishism (the Wall Street Journal admiringly dubbed this the “the new rock-star paradigm” back in 2010).  Every time a fan watches the guys float through the air in a plane, they accrue more money through YouTube.  Their sponsors—whether Samsung or S7 Airlines, the folks who bankroll these big spectacles—benefit too, taking on the role of investor and risk-taker that labels once occupied.

Indeed, not since the high tide of Michael Jackson, R.E.M., and the Smashing Pumpkins have videos enjoyed such cultural relevance.  By the time MTV decided to show nothing but Real World and Road Rules in the mid-1990s, the brief boom of music videos as a medium came to an end—let’s say the video as a form had a decent run from the Buggles to “Tonite Tonite,” 1980 to 1995.  MTV directors went on to become filmmakers, such as Spike Jonze and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and the whole genre seemed outdated with the cratering of the music industry in the early 2000s. Who was going to pay to make an elaborate video as an ad no one would see for an album no one would buy?

YouTube, quite inadvertently, created a space for the music video to make a comeback—from the label-made clip to the homemade tribute.  Critics might have worried in the early 1980s that videos would impose a new superficiality on an already vacuous industry, but the medium also opened up new possibilities for marrying sound and image in creative ways.   This field for creativity arguably fell out in the early 2000s—I can’t remember a single video for influential early aughts bands such as the White Stripes, Strokes, or Flaming Limps. Surely they were made, but I never saw them.

OK Go exemplifies the revival of the music video perhaps better than any other artist. How involved the band is in their music videos, I don’t know, but they have clearly made a bet on the idea of video as a vehicle for music and their clips have some kind of consistent aesthetic.  From “Here It Goes to Again” to “I Won’t Let You Down” to “This Too Shall Pass,” the band has embraced a sensibility that resembles nothing so much as big movie musicals. (Having just seen the Coen brothers’ just-okay Hail Caesar, it’s hard not to think of Scarlett Johansson in her Esther-Williams-send-up big aquatic number.)   From the elaborate choreography and dancing chops that’s required by these videos, an almost Bollywood-like spirit pervades the band’s videos.  Being a rock star—whatever that means in 2016—involves deals, sponsorships, physical agility, and a sense of humor, to say the least.

This is quite a surprising turn for a series of reasons. First of all, it’s hard to imagine Sid Vicious, Ian MacKaye, or Kurt Cobain doing the same kind of physical contortions that is required by these videos, engaging in an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style spectacle.  The band, at the very least, have to be good sports, but there’s something more to it—a real disregard for concerns about authenticity or masculinity, which might have led an earlier generation of musicians to regard this kind of dog-and-pony show as a degrading loss of artistic independence or integrity.  Indeed, most of these videos are sponsored by some kind of corporation.  The boys from OK Go are fine with playing the dancing monkey if it pays the bills and gets “likes”—a far cry from the old DIY ethos of opposition to commercialism that at least superficially marked most indie and quasi-indie rock artists in the 1980s and 1990s.

The age of indie authenticity is long behind us, a sort of cultural debate that seems to be spoken in Klingon or Old English to contemporary ears.  Nobody makes this clearer than OK Go.

Like I said, they’re good sports—whether that’s authentic or not, who knows?  But their videos burst with a kind of innocence and optimism that feels rare in today’s cynical and hopeless music industry.  From kaleidoscopic marching band formations in an open field to the elaborately constructed optical illusions to frivolous visual tricks with dogs, they are willing to go there for the joke, like a hammy Catskills comedian from the olden days.  More than that, many of the videos evoke a spirit of joyous teamwork and esprit de corps that definitely calls out to the movie musicals as old—it’s not just the fact that everyone is participating in a huge, complicated, difficult-to-pull-off trick of choreography, but that so many of the videos end with one of the principals yelling “Cut!” and everyone involved coming out from behind the scenes and cheering that they pulled it off.  They’re more Gene Kelly than Kurt Cobain. Paired with the relentlessly cheery and optimistic lyrics of the band’s songs—“I won’t let you down,” “Let it go, this too shall pass,” “Gravity’s just a habit”—it creates a sort of twenty-first century Magical Mystery Tour.  Color, togetherness, optimism, hope—they create the sense that life has a sweeping, cosmic unity, fully realized with dozens of actors and musicians, the same feeling that a great Broadway or film musical number gets across.   Giddiness may not be cool—it’s certainly not especially masculine, at least in the traditional gender code of rock music—but in the YouTube era perhaps joy gets more likes than punk aloofness.

It’s hard to see where OK Go fits in the firmament of early twenty-first century pop culture, especially given the uncertainty that faces rock as a genre in search of an audience, with the old mores of indie rock cut adrift in a sea of digital media.  They might just be a reasonably good pop band that happened to capture attention for having worked with a handful of talented directors.  But it is still significant that they have revived a seemingly moribund genre—the music video—in a way few others have attempted.  (Then again, artists such as Die Antwoord and Tyler the Creator have made striking clips seen by millions of viewers in years, with provocative content that might never have passed the censors at MTV in its heyday.) Whatever its broader significance, “Upside Down and Inside Out” has the benefit of pressing the buttons of viral video and social media culture like almost nothing I’ve seen before.  Like the moonshot itself, the video says: could we pull this off?  Yes, it says, we can, and it’s cool.  Please press like/share/tweet.