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Mary Whitehouse vs. Caligula: Why the Music Video Debate Needs to Get Smarter


‘Video Nasties’ are back in the headlines as David Cameron announces online age ratings, writes Laura Swinton

Mary Whitehouse vs. Caligula: Why the Music Video Debate Needs to Get Smarter

Ever since Queen filled Wembley Stadium with naked women on bicycles and barely clad models strutted their stuff in a foxy boxing ring for Duran Duran’s Girls on Film, music videos have never shied away from controversy. In the ‘80s, MTV crossed swords with Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Centre (of Parental Advisory sticker fame), who pressured the station into cutting back on the sex ‘n’ drugs and gratuitous violence in the promos it broadcast. In 2014, music video producers and record labels are no longer confined to cable music channels and broadcast laws as they have the Wild West Web to play in. And there’s a new sheriff in town in the form of UK Prime Minister David Cameron who this week announced an age rating scheme to restrict online music videos.

Side-stepping the dubious nature of the ‘announcement’ – it isn’t exactly news, Dave, if the scheme was revealed in January but whatever, it’ll score a few easy points with the Daily Mail brigade I’m sure  – the pilot, which will be carried out by the BBFC does raise some interesting questions.

The three month pilot, which is due to kick off in October, will display age ratings next to music videos to help parents decide if they’re appropriate for their children. After this it is anticipated that music video platforms like YouTube will look at how they can incorporate the classifications into child-proof (good luck with that) filters.

When I originally spoke to the BBFC earlier in the year about these proposals it was immediately clear that while they had been working with labels and the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), an association that represents hundreds of music labels, they had not reached out to the people who actually make the promos either to consult or educate. What’s the use in an age rating system if those pitching for and producing music videos are left in the dark? 

I also struggled to get a clear definition of ‘music video’ from the BBFC spokesperson. Will it cover other forms of branded content created to promote music acts? Musically-driven short films? 

I can’t help but feel that the debate so far – and the rather blunt approach outlined by the BBFC – has been clunky. Mary Whitehouse versus Caligula. For what it’s worth I don’t think it’s healthy to promote aggressively pornified pop to barely pubescent tweens who are still kinda trying to figure things out. And I can understand how the sorts of racist and sexist stereotypes that, according to one recent study from Rewind & Reframe, charity organisations, End Violence Against Women Coalition and Imkaan and Object, permeate music videos can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And really, they’re … well… not very creative or interesting either. (Oh, great timing – the new Nicki Minaj video Anaconda is out. A beer for whoever can persuade me there's any kind of creative merit in it and it's not just bubblegum bums for 11-year-old boys who haven't figured out how to deactivate the parental controls on the family laptop.)

On the other hand, however, the singling out of music videos doesn’t sit well with me, nor does the way they’re discussed in the press. They’re just a medium like any other. Like movies, TV shows and, yes, even books, music videos can be thought-provoking gems, entertaining nonsense or just plain crap.  I also think music videos can be an interesting place to explore themes like sexuality or violence or otherness. I’m all for grown up music videos for grownups. I remember when Romain Gavras’ Justice video ‘Stress’ came out years ago – it was provocative in the literal sense of the word, it provoked a surprisingly tensioned-filled argument in the office about it (definitely not a debate: an argument). No, I wouldn’t show it to a five year old; yes, I’m glad it exists.

I’m also a big fan of Keith Schofield’s videos, which play with sex and censorship in a way that’s smart and silly – whether it’s The BPA Toe Jam or the brilliantly filthy Big Bad Wolf. Directors and artists should have the freedom to explore these ideas. 

 We haven’t been able to stop watching Daniel Wolfe’s Paolo Nutini film in the office this week. Yes it’s got smoking, partial nudity, drug taking and all the naughty things. But it’s also a mesmerising study of pain, desperation, numbness, omniscience. It’s not aimed at kids and, frankly, I don’t know a small child who would choose to sit through it. However on YouTube it is prefaced by a Parental Advisory warning (fun fact, the Anaconda video isn't. Good consistency Internets). I do worry that, if handled clumsily and with little understanding and subtlety, the age restrictions and filters could become a force for greater distortion of music videos. Context is everything. Feature movies suffer an odd double standard in the UK and US whereby, for example, male on female oral sex in the context of a loving relationship or swearing is judged more strictly than violence. It will be interesting to see where the BBFC draws the lines when it comes to promos.

Music videos without their dark and dirty outliers would be like a lobotomised Randall P. McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At my most optimistic, I hope maybe this current wave of pressure and the BBFC pilot will encourage music video commissioners and directors to think a bit more carefully about who is really going to be watching their promos is, consider the kinds of imagery they’re using, and ask themselves if it’s justified or just a bit lazy.  A bit of reflection is never a bad thing. But equally I’d hate to see edgy and interesting promos squeezed out of existence as the medium becomes a scapegoat in a debate that’s really far bigger than music videos. It’s about Internet freedom, popular culture, child development, the desperation of the music industry... a million and one other things that require a smarter, more nuanced dialogue and more input from the people who actually create promos.  

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 20 Aug 2014 16:58:46 GMT