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  • Experiencing Music Video:Aesthetics and Cultural Context
  • Benjamin Aslinger
Vernallis, Carol . Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context. New York: Columbia UP, 2004. 480 pp. $29.50 (paper).

Carol Vernallis's book seeks to outline a better way to analyze music video and to under- stand interactions between music, lyrics, and image in multimedia forms. Drawing on scholarship in musicology, cultural studies, and film and media studies, Vernallis wants to find a way to understand the musical codes and video style conventions of music video. Treating music video as a genre, Vernallis invokes Russian formalist theory to complement music composition theory, a choice that signals her contention that music video analysis must grapple with the constitutive roles the musical track and visual style have in meaning making. In part 1 Vernallis examines music video editing, acting, settings, props and costumes, lyrics, and musical codes and conventions. In part 2 Vernallis turns her attention to three music videos: Madonna's "Cherish," Prince's "Gett Off," and Peter Gabriel's "Mercy St.," further elaborating the formal conventions of music video and articulating form to concerns of representation, ideology, and gender performance.

Vernallis argues that music videos' avoidance of classical Hollywood film is a strategic directorial aesthetic. Rather, she argues that music video's embrace of a "nonnarrative" trajectory is due to "the genre's multimedia nature, . . . the lack of appropriateness and applicability of narrative film devices, and . . . the necessity of foregrounding the song's form (in order to sell the song)" (13). While allowing for the possibility of music video to mimic narrative film conventions, she argues that nonnarrative music videos such as processes, series, lists, travelogues, and extensions of the performance setting work against the concept of classical Hollywood narratives articulated by Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson.

Vernallis's analysis of music video editing examines how the abrupt, disjunctive edits (e.g., a liberal use of jump cuts) allow for more types of shot relations in music video. She argues that music video's larger range of shot relations than the Hollywood film allows shots to relate "because they share production values, a lighting and color scheme, a sense of scale or the use of a camera position" (42). Vernallis argues that this wider range of shot relations and music video's editing strategies allows for more perspectives and a more flexible nature of identifications (49). Vernallis's contention, based as it is in textual and formal analysis, invites further research examining whether music video audiences experience this flexible subjectivity during the act of viewing.

Vernallis's book does an excellent job of laying out taxonomies future scholars can use in analyzing music videos. In particular, Vernallis's treatment of how music genres mobilize settings to create an aesthetic feel helps draw crucial distinctions between rap, hip-hop, rock, and alternative music videos. Vernallis argues that rap videos consistently have the strongest sense of place: "The videos often feature identifiable housing projects, small businesses, and street signs. Even if one is unfamiliar with a location, one senses that its particularity matters. . . . The performers appear to belong to the place" (78). Placing alternative groups in run-down spaces and lower-middle-class houses works to reflect the genre's ambivalence about "writing attractive, accessible hooks" (78). Vernallis begins to highlight the articulation of race and class to visual and sonic style, but her concern to classify settings limits how far she explores this articulation.

Vernallis's historical grounding in the industrial shifts that have affected music video production and distribution is evidenced by her personal interviews with music video directors such as David Fincher and Marcus Nispel. These interviews, coupled with her formal analyses, lead her to conclude that most directors "listen to the music first, wondering to what kind of place this music might go, how the camera might move, how it makes him or [End Page 73] her feel" (138). Lyrics may play a minor role, battling for influence with "the sounds of the music, the album cover, the name of the band, conversations with the artists, and the appearance, temperament, and image of the artists themselves" (145).

Drawing on sound theorists Michel Chion and Nicholas Cook, Vernallis's most interesting...


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