Images of America -
Analyzing Music Videos: Tips on Analysis
Integrated U. S. History and American Literature Class
Deborah Aufdenspring and Sandra Mings-Lamar
New Technology High School, Napa, CA
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Analyzing Music Videos
Looking for history in music videos:
Looking for history in music videos can be a little hard at first. There
is no textbook to guide you. Since music videos are a visual medium, most
of the historical references are visual also. Music video directors are
visual people. They are telling a story with pictures. You have to decide
which pictures, or scenes, are historical and important (unless there are
clues from either written material in the video or from the lyrics being
If you think a picture or scene is historical, research it. If you already
know what the picture is about, research it on the web or in an encyclopedia.
If you can categorize the picture, try doing an image search on the web.
Often the best source of historical information is someone who lived through
the history. Interview an adult. They might recognize the picture and be
able to tell you about it, or give you some leads for researching. Most
of the music videos that have historical or sociological content use recent
material that most older adults might recognize (but not always, see below).
Some music video directors pay close attention to historical detail, others
film with a wider pan (paint with a broader brush).
One video we'll be looking at does a remarkable job of both, recreating
a time period and giving you a feel for it. Let's look at two still photographs
from one scene in Billy Joel's "We Didn't Light the Fire". This
song and video is essentially Mr. Joel's recitation of historical and cultural
events through about 40 years of his life.
All Billy Joel video stills ©1990 CBS Records, Inc.
Key to red numbers on picture above:
1. This is a calendar on the wall. From a closeup a few frames later we
know it is August, 1950.
2. Although it's obviously on a sound stage, this is a fair re-creation
of a 1950s middle class kitchen/living area. Almost all the furnishings
are period pieces (they were commonly used at the time). It might be hard
to believe this was a middle class setting with such old and primitive furnishings
in it, but these items were actually sought after by young-marrieds of the
You might compare these possessions with those that are shown for people
around the world in the CD-ROM and book Material World that is in
3. Slightly out of the picture, to the right of the curtains (as we'll see
in a few frames) is a radio. The radio was very important in 1950. It was
how you got news and entertainment at home. There were virtually no TVs
in middle class homes in 1950. If you'll scan the scene, you'll notice the
lack of another communications device we take for granted. There is no telephone.
While some middle class homes had phones by 1950, there were still a lot
of homes that didn't. Pay phones, in old fashioned enclosed phone booths
for privacy, were quite common.
4. Refrigerators had legs! So did iceboxes (which a lot of people still
had in 1950). Comparing this kitchen with a 1990s kitchen really shows what
a boom in consumer items has happened since the end of World War II.
Looking for images and themes in music videos:
Looking for themes in music videos is not a lot different from looking for
them in literature. You've had practice with that in English class. Look
for symbolism, metaphor and repetition.
In the same kitchen scene as above (slightly later), there are some themes
and symbols (and more history!) that carry throughout the entire Billy Joel
Key to red numbers on picture above:
5. The calendar (again) is shown a few frames before with its pages riffling,
a symbol signifying the passage of time. A baby is born in the video and
the lyrics of the song progress in time, which also show the progression
6. The mother in this scene is made up to look like Lucille Ball, the 1950s
commedienne (I Love Lucy). In the next scene, the father (with his pipe,
hat and sweater) will be made up to look like Bing Crosby (actor, singer,
golfer of the period). Are these symbols? Metaphors?
7. The husband/father in this scene is reading "Life" magazine.
In the days before television, weekly magazines like "Life" and
the "Saturday Evening Post" were a cultural glue, bonding middle
class American life. You'll see newspapers and magazines (short-term periodicals
representing the passing of time) in many scenes.
8. The man on the cover of "Life" was mildly famous, but I've
forgotten his name. As mentioned above, older adults will not always remember
things that show up in videos.
9. There is a baby in this scene. In future scenes, you'll see children,
teenagers, etc. This parallels Billy Joel's growth and the passage of time.
Interestingly enough, the father's kind of hands-off attitude (and look
of disdain in another frame) towards child care was typical of the period.
Men worked outside the home; women worked at home with the kids.
10. Billy Joel appears in most scenes, looking on, a witness to events,
as his song unfolds. Mr. Joel would have been one year old in 1950, about
the same age as the baby in this scene.
Introduction - Analyzing Music Videos
Music Video Assignment
Comparing and Contrasting Music Videos
Stills of Sample Videos, with Sample Analysis Questions:
Billy Joel.....Erykah Badu.....Pop
up Videos.....Tracy Lawrence
Rage Against the Machine.....Vince
For examples of recent student projects on analyzing music videos:
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