Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Make music videos great again

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2018 at 10:14 AM

click to enlarge John Maus
  • John Maus
Whenever sight and sound find themselves in competition, you can typically count on sight to win the battle.

In the case of the music industry, that’s been true since at least the dawn of MTV, the music video network that archly took to the airwaves back in 1981 with The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Taking its cue from the superficial approach of celebrity publications like People and TigerBeat, the new medium privileged visual appeal over musical talent, or at least that was the claim of the countless worthy musicians who were shunned because they didn’t fit in with whatever new image the network was selling.

For better or worse, the internet managed to turn the tables and help kill off MTV. The result is that YouTube is now overrun with countless vanity videos of artists pantomiming to their latest song, intercut with narrative plots that involve sex, violence, extreme wealth and really bad acting.

Meet the new medium, same as the old medium, right? Except, that is, in the case of several in-studio series being produced by media outlets like KEXP, Pitchfork and National Public Radio.
Granted, there are still cameras and close-ups, but the more intimate environment of a recording studio makes most musicians feel less compelled to dress to the nines and play to the back row. Instead, we get exceptional sound quality, minimal pretense and zero overdubs.

Take, for example, Juan’s Basement Live. The series, which had been on hiatus for the past 10 years, was resurrected by Pitchfork this past February, and is well worth watching. The reboot features a live-streamed performance and interview format that concludes with the artist answering viewer questions sent in via Facebook.

While the interactive element is a bonus for devoted fans who may have a little too much time on their hands, most of us will be just as happy with the archived version, which looks and sounds just as good.

The series kicked off with John Maus, an Austin native whose echo-drenched, synth-heavy, slightly art-damaged sound would fit nicely alongside three other rock eccentrics: the German band Can, post-punk space-case Julian Cope, and kindred spirit Ariel Pink, with whom Maus has sometimes collaborated. Fortunately for Maus, he appears less prone to the other acts’ infamous off- and on-stage breakdowns.

Subsequent Juan’s Basement episodes have focused on Iceage, Alex Cameron, Homeshake and, most recently, Frankie Cosmos, who was interviewed in these pages three issues ago. MTV may be dead, but the sound of music lives on.

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