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Cultural approaches to the rhetorical analysis of selected music videos

Karyn Charles Rybacki and Donald Jay Rybacki

Music video has gone from being a means of selling more records to a rhetorical form worthy of study in its own right. Videos typically take one of three forms: performance, narrative, and conceptual. While these forms could provide the basis for a content analytic analysis of music videos, the authors of this paper argue that one of a number of cultural approaches to criticism may offer greater insight. It does so by providing brief analyses of six music video using a variety of cultural approaches.

The Social Values Model examines the ways in which society resolves conflicts between basic values through rhetorical activity, either synthesizing or transforming incompatible values. In Bon Jovi's video for "Wanted: Dead or Alive" the band uses the mythos of the Old West to symbolize the tension between individuality and community that exists between artists and their fans. Public Enemy's rap, "By the Time I Get to Arizona" concerns the group's outrage at that state's unwillingness to make Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday. Narratives of violence and non-violence are juxtaposed visually in a way that suggests that the white violence against blacks that occurred during the days of the Civil Rights Movement may be replaced with black violence against whites unless things change.

The Jungian Psychological Model is based on examining dream images and archetypes as they reflect the struggle between one's public and private selves. The Eurhythmics video for "Sweet Dreams" is replete with symbols of the conflict between what women must project as part of their public persona as opposed to what their private, shadow self really is. Guns N' Roses video for "November Rain" is staged as an extended dream which turns into a nightmare, the joyous celebration of a wedding that turns into a somber funeral marking the bride's death. Both of these videos speak to the fears that young people have about living up to expectations and confronting failure, rejection, and even abandonment when they do not.

Ideological Models of criticism use a particular world view such as feminism or Marxism as a lens through which rhetorical activity is examined. The Feminist Ideological Model of criticism examines issues of gender equality or inequality, while Marxist critics are concerned with issues of class struggle, dominance, and hegemony. The Divynls video for the song "I Touch Myself" is replete with images that devalue women. Madonna's video for "Material Girl" read from a Marxist perspective suggests she is at least the equal of any man.

This research was originally presented at the 1993 Speech Communication Association national convention in Miami, Florida as part of an all-day seminar on music video.

Cultural approaches to the rhetorical analysis of selected music videos. 

The rhetorical acts of a society, particularly those conveyed by popular or mass media, are the social record of its culture. Music has long been recognized as a form of popular culture with a certain potency for communicating rhetorically (Denisoff, 1971; 1972 and Rybacki & Rybacki, 1991). The two authors of this essay are of a generation described as "raised on the radio." Our sense of message in music takes us in an aural more often than a visual direction. Eleven years ago, the manner in which popular music was experienced changed as video became a staple for the "MTV-generation."

At first a not-so-subtle way of stimulating record sales, music videos are now a communication genre in their own right and a potent source of ideas for a new generation. Beyond its genesis as a promotional tool, music video has become more than an adjunct of marketing for the music industry. Pat Aufderheide (1986) recommends that despite its commercialism, music video merits serious consideration:

"it is particularly important because it is in the vanguard of reshaping the language of advertising--the dominant vocabulary of commercial culture--in a society that depends on an open flow of information to determine the quality of its political and public life. Consideration of music video's form also implies questions about the emerging shape of the democratic and capitalist society that creates and receives it."(p. 59)

Important to the dissemination of music video has been the rise of MTV, a narrow-cast cable channel aimed at the 18-34 year old demographic segment of music consumers. MTV redesigned and delivered rock to a TV generation that replaced the use of the radio as the medium for rock. As David Szatmary (1991) suggests, the MTV generation has no personal recollection of Elvis, the Beatles, Vietnam and seeks its own musical identity apart from us baby boomers. "In the 1980s, MTV designed and delivered rock to the TV generation" (p. 250). MTV plays a central role in the shaping of culture as D.S. Miller (cited in Abt, 1987) indicates:

"While the MTV format performs a "bardic" function of converging before its audience an array of possible (competing) youth subcultures and lifestyle options, at the same time it negotiates these subcultures and channels any reflective or participatory energy on the part of the audience into the act of consumerism. In this sense MTV functions as a negotiator in the hegemonic process by amplifying and absorbing elements of oppositional culture, while ultimately legitimizing and naturalizing their relationship to the dominant institutions of a consumer society." (p. 103)

MTV's "bardic function" as such a negotiator produces what Aufderheide views as a response to the generational search for identity of those "raised on the video."

"Music videos are authentic expressions of a populist industrial society. For young people struggling to find a place in communities dotted with shopping malls but with few community centers, in an economy whose major product is information, music videos play to the search for identity and an improvised community." (p. 63)

Characteristics of Music Video

Ultimately we will advocate using cultural models for the rhetorical analysis of music video. To fully understand how a cultural model facilitates rhetorical criticism of music video, it is first necessary to explore the unique features of the genre. Music, particularly rock, has always had a visual element. The album cover, the "look" a band strived for in performance, concert staging, and promotional publicity have all helped create a visual imagery for rock (Goodwin, 1992). The use of video to stimulate album sales and the birth of MTV as a continuous outlet for viewing simply served to enhance the visual potential present in rock.

Viewers typically do not regard the music video as a commercial for an album or act. Aufderheide (1986) describes the connection of viewer to video.

"With nary a reference to cash or commodities, music videos cross the consumer's gaze as a series of mood states. They trigger nostalgia, regret, anxiety, confusion, dread, envy, admiration, pity, titillation--attitudes at one remove from the primal expression such as passion, ecstasy, and rage. The moods often express a lack, an incompletion, an instability, a searching for location. In music videos, those feelings are carried on flights of whimsy, extended journeys into the arbitrary." (p. 63)

That music videos present compelling mood states that may claim the attention of the viewer is not a matter of happenstance. Abt (1987) states that "directors of videos strive to make their products as exciting as the music. In the struggle to establish and maintain a following, artists utilize any number of techniques in order to appear exotic, powerful, tough, sexy, cool, unique" (p. 103). Further, Abt indicates a video must compete with other videos.

"They must gain and hold the viewer's attention amidst other videos; help establish, visualize, or maintain the artist's image; sell that image and the products associated with it; and perhaps, carry one or several direct or indirect messages . . ." (p. 97).

Music videos may be further characterized by three broad typologies: performance, narrative, and conceptual (Firth, 1988). These types describe the form and content selected by the director or artist to attract viewers and to convey a direct or indirect message.

Performance videos, the most common type (Firth 1988) feature the star or group singing in concert to wildly enthusiastic fans. The goal is to convey a sense of the in-concert experience. Gow (1992) suggests "the predominance of performance as a formal system in the popular clips indicates that music video defines itself chiefly by communicating images of artists singing and playing songs" (pp. 48-49). Performance videos, especially those that display the star or group in the studio, remind the viewer that the soundtrack is still important. "Performance oriented visuals cue viewers that, indeed, the recording of the music is the most significant element" (Gow, 1992, p. 45).

A narrative video presents a sequence of events. A video may tell any kind of story in linear, cause-effect sequencing. Love stories, however, are the most common narrative mode in music video. The narrative pattern is one of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Action in the story is dominated by males who do things and females who passively react or wait for something to happen (Schwichtenberg, 1992).

Conceptual videos rely on poetic form, primarily metaphor (Firth, 1988). The conceptual video can be metaphysical poetry articulated through visual and verbal elements. "These videos make significant use of the visual element, presenting to the eye as well as the ear, and in doing so, conveying truths inexpressible discursively" (Lorch, 1988, p. 143). Conceptual videos do not tell a story in linear fashion, but rather create a mood, a feeling to be evoked in the experience of viewing (Firth, 1988). Conceptual videos contain the possibility for multiple meanings as the metaphor or metaphoric sequence is interpreted by the viewer. "Thus the metaphorical relations between images structured according to musical and visual rhymes and rhythms play a suggestive role in soliciting multiple meanings from us, the viewers/listeners, that resonate with our experience--something we can feel and describe" (Schwichtenberg, 1992 p. 124).

A given music video may actually have elements of more than one category. Goodwin (1992), in describing Madonna's videos, suggests that the essential narrative component of a music video is found in its ability to frame the star, "star-in-text," as all Madonna's videos seem to do. A story exists solely for its ability to create, or in Madonna's case recreate, the star's persona. This blending of elements can also enable a type of music such as rap to have cross-over appeal to a wider audience.

Although we may profitably interpret the message potential of music video using these three categories as a basis for content analysis, certain limitations exist if we remain on that path. "Analysts of music video narrative have been all too eager to freeze the moment and study videos shot by shot, but here the problem is that this generates not too much but too little knowledge, because the individual narrative is highly intertextual" (Goodwin, 1992 p. 90).

As a blend of video technique and imagery from film and television, music video offers us a new perceptual agenda by providing allusions to and incorporations of old iconic imagery from film, allowing us to reconstitute the pieces of the 20th century information explosion (Turner, 1986). The brevity of the music video has created a new grammar of video technique particular to this miniscule video form.

"Visual techniques commonly employed in music videos exaggerate . . . Interest and excitement is stimulated by rapid cutting, intercutting, dissolves, superimpositions, and other special effects, that taken together with different scenes and characters, make music videos visually and thematically dynamic." (Abt, 1987 pp. 97-98)

Born of an amalgam of commercialism, television, and film, for the purpose of selling rock albums, music videos frequently employ well-established verbal and visual symbols in telling a story or making a point. If no such symbols exist, music videos coin their own which, given the ubiquity of the medium, quickly find their way into the vernacular.

How then to best understand the rhetorical properties that such a media form has for the audience? Schwichtenberg (1992) suggests that what critics should consider "is how music videos are woven into a complex cultural context that includes performers, industries, and diverse audiences who attribute a wide variety of meanings to the music and visuals" (p. 117).

These characteristics suggest that the most methodologically appropriate approach to understanding how music videos might function as rhetoric is to view them as cultural acts, intertextually located in the viewer's own experience. We define culture, with a little help from Bruce Gronbeck (1983), as a complex of collectively determined sets of rules, values, ideologies, and habits that constrain rhetors and their acts. This complex leads a society to generate meaning through various message forms to establish a series of societal truths. The extent to which any form of communication such as a music video plays a part in the process of truth-making is what the rhetorical critic attempts to discover through criticism.

Culturally based criticism of music video

The various cultural approaches to criticism offer unique frames of reference for examining what is most significant in the discursive and non-discursive elements of a music video. The goal of this essay is to identify which features from each approach seem to lend themselves to music video criticism. We proposed to apply three different cultural perspectives to six music videos, discussing their suitability for evaluating discursive and non-discursive elements of the videos.

The cultural approaches offered in this essay were selected after reviewing critical essays in the speech communication journals that employed methodologies commonly identified as "social-cultural." We selected for inclusion those approaches that seemed most applicable, given the characteristics unique to music video discussed earlier in this essay. Six videos were selected to represent the range of video categories (performance, narrative, and concept) and a range of artists and music styles.

This essay is not intended to be a comprehensive study of each video, but rather to demonstrate the utility of selected cultural approaches in analyzing how and why a video becomes a vehicle for cultural identity, an "improvised community" for the MTV-generation. Our survey of cultural approaches and video selections include:

  1. The Social Values Model applied to Bon Jovi, "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and Public enemy, "By the Time I get to Arizona;"
  2. The Jungian Psychological Method applied to Eurythmics, "Sweet Dreams" and Guns N' Roses, "November Rain; 
  3. Ideological Criticism, feminist ideology applied to Divynls, "I Touch Myself" and Marxist ideology applied to Madonna, "Material Girl."

The social values cultural model

Developed by Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas Frentz (Rushing & Frentz, 1978; Frentz & Rushing, 1978; and Rushing, 1983), the social values cultural model generalizes about the value systems of a culture based on an examination of text. This critical methodology begins with the assumption that a culture represents a collective consciousness of basic values. When values come into conflict, if the conflict is to be resolved, rhetorical acts offer value transformation or value synthesis. Rhetorical texts operate as a dialectic in which the values are examined and either transformed or synthesized by a successful rhetorical act.

Critics using the social values model examine the rhetorical text to discover how the value change takes place. In particular critics seek to answer such questions as:

  1. What values exist in opposition? (situational elements that produce value tension) 
  2. When does value tension surface? (groups, individuals, and the larger society's role in questioning the prevailing value standard) 
  3. What messages and media express the value conflict? (locus of messages and media. 
  4. Does value reorientation occur? (determination if reorientation is a transformation or synthesis. 
  5. Who is the change agent? (identification of a rhetor or empowered agent with psychological ability to produce value change) 
  6. What is the role of the audience? (bystander or participant status)

Ultimately the critic seeks to determine if a value is transformed, with one value replacing a pre-existing value or value standard, or if two competing values or value standards are synthesized into a new single value or value standard in which the characteristics of the two are united.

Bon Jovi, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

When one thinks of the western myth and Bon Jovi, the images that immediately come to mind are from the breathtaking video presentation of "Blaze of Glory," the title song for the film Young Guns II. Shot in color in the red rock country of Arizona's Monument Valley where so many classic John Ford westerns were filmed, Jon Bon Jovi's solo performance in the remains of a drive-in theater on the top of a mesa intercuts scenes from the film and ends with lightning illuminating the horizon and the theater in flames. As riveting as these images may be, Bon Jovi's earlier video for the song "Wanted: Dead or Alive" is an even stronger embodiment of the value tension of the western myth.

As Rushing (1983) notes, the myth of the old west is a story of the clash between the savage frontier, and the individuality needed to tame it, and community which requires cooperation and conformity if it is to bring its civilizing influence to bear. The heroes of 1950s and earlier westerns were individualists, who, as in Gary Cooper's portrayal of Marshall Will Cane, often rode off into the sunset after saving the community from the depredations of the frontier when its cooperative-conformist values failed it.

"Wanted: Dead or Alive" represents a blend of the performance and narrative styles of video, becoming a narrative about performance as an enactment of the value conflicts symbolized in the myth of the old west. Andrew Goodwin (1992) suggests this video functions as pseudo documentary, noting that

"Even performance videos that contain narrative elements may be placed in this category, since it is so often the act's performance iconography that is made into a story, rather than the song itself. Bon Jovi's WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE conflates both levels, in that the refrain "I'm a space (sic) cowboy" seems to reference both a fictional identity (based on the western) and a metaphorical allusion to the musicians as real people (who are, by implication, outlaws)"(p. 89).

Goodwin is in error in his citation of lyrics, "space cowboy" is the musical property of John Denver not Jon Bon Jovi, but is correct in his discussion of performance iconography since guitarist Richie Sambora had adopted a cowboy hat and fringed jacket as his wardrobe trademark long before this song was recorded.

We would also suggest that the musician-as-outlaw motif is only one possible reading of the value opposition contained in the song, since the lyrics tell of:

The road, a place where the faces are so cold,
I travel all night just to get back home.

Outlaws are not usually concerned about how people react to them, and we do not think of them as typically having homes to get back to. The non-concert footage emphasizes the boredom, exhaustion, loneliness and tension of the road, as we follow the band as it travels by airplane, bus, van, and limousine (I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride), and as it waits in truck stop coffee shops, hotel rooms, and dressing rooms (Sometimes when you're alone, all you do is think).

Shot in black-and-white, featuring a song that appropriates its title from posters that advertised the bounties on the heads of desperadoes, the video symbolizes the value opposition of rugged individualist performers and the fans that come to see them by emphasizing their separation. At one point, the lyrics comment on this directly (The people I meet, all go their separate ways) as we see a group of fans get their picture taken with the group and literally get up and walk away, their memory of the occasion preserved on film.

Goodwin (1992) indicates that "music video clips (including performance clips) often seem to be concerned with establishing a sense of community within a group of musicians . . . or between musicians and their fans" (p. 107), which is true here. We see the band share a moment before going on stage. For the only time when they are not on stage, we see no indication of any negatives of the road in their demeanor.

I walk these streets, a loaded six string on my back.
I play for keeps, 'cause I might not make it back.
I've been everywhere,
I' m still standing tall.
I've seen a million face,
and I've rocked them all.

The last line is framed by the most arresting visual imagery of separation in the video. Beginning with a shot from behind the lead singer looking out into darkness, the house lights suddenly come up to reveal a sea of faces.

Rushing (1983) noted that "the paradox of being alone and in a community" (p.16) was something the western hero had to deal with. If he was not an individual he could not be a hero, and if he did not meet the needs of the community he would not pass muster either. Likewise, the rock group meets its fans' (community) needs by providing an experience (concert), yet the group is not of the community (rugged individualists). In the classic westerns, "a pattern of dialectical reaffirmation strengthens the mythic archetype by revitalizing both aspects of the paradox, as well as the inevitable tension between them" (Rushing, 1983, p. 21). Bon Jovi appropriates both the mythos and rhetorical strategy of these classic westerns in "Wanted: Dead or Alive."

Public Enemy, "By the Time I Get to Arizona"

Rappers make certain communication claims about their music. Chuck D leader of Public Enemy calls rap "Black America's TV station. Black life doesn't get the total spectrum of information through anything else" (Newsweek, 11 May 1992, p. 52). B-Real of Cypress Hill says, "We're journalists . . . I'll take an experience that involves one of us or a friend, and I'll explain what happened and why" (Newsweek, 11 May 1992, p. 53). Ultimately, rap is about racism in America and its messages have a sharp edge. "While pols cling to nice talk about a harmonious society that's just a social program away, musicians and fans, black and white, are declaring the massive schism between the races--consuming the rift as entertainment, a world view and a beat you can dance to" (Leland, 1992, p. 47).

Rap's cross-over appeal to predominantly white audiences represents an interesting value synthesis. Newsweek music critic John Leland (1992) points out the paradox in this appeal. "Typically, when any genre music wants to 'cross over' to a broader audience, it becomes softened in the process . . . Rap was different" (p. 49). Rap has had the curious effect of recapturing something that rock seems to have lost since the sixties, its rebellion quotient. As Leland views it:

"The volatility of rap, both in its creative brio and its ability to alienate feels like rock and roll all over again. Popular music is now reflecting deep changes in American society better than any other form of public discussion--just as it did 30 years ago" (p. 48).

In the sixties, the issue was the generation gap between baby boomers and their parents. Today, the issue "is a fascination with race. Race has replaced the generation gap as the determining force not just in what music says and sounds like but it how it is promoted, and what it means to different listeners" (Leland, 1992, p. 48).

A second aspect of the paradox of this value synthesis is found in the viability of rap, a form of music that melds commercialism and rebellion against the cultural hegemony that produces the very racism it rebels against. "A new orthodoxy has set in, racially charged and financially very profitable. The key strands of pop-music culture--questions of identity, community, authenticity, language, fashion--all now filter through notions of race" (Leland, 1992, p. 48). The late rapper Tupac Shakur, Janet Jackson's co-star in Poetic Justice, explained this. "Now [with rap becoming more popular among whites] we see it isn't a black movement, it's a youth movement. It comes from poverty, not from race" (Newsweek, 11 May 1992, p. 53).

This anti-poverty movement has an ironically commercial basis. Rap albums bring significant profit margins to the recording industry. "For all the claims that revolutionary rap speaks for oppressed inner-city youth, its main consumers are affluent white suburban teenagers seeking to cloak their adolescent rebellion in a veneer of ghetto toughness" (White, 1992, p. 88). MTV has been a prime factor in making rap a saleable product. Although initially guilty of failing to give air time to black artists, MTV has fueled the profitability of rap by bringing it to white viewers. "In rap, MTV has found a music to equal its visual jump-cutting rhythms; and in MTV, rap--which has long been shunned by black radio--has finally found a home" (Leland, 1992, p. 48).

Two characteristics of rap's appeal to the viewer contribute to its ability to serve as a source of value change. First, the rap audience perceives a certain authenticity to rap music that does not exist in other rock music (Leland, 1992 and Roberts, 1991). Public Enemy personifies the myth of rappers as "gangstas." Leader Chuck D (aka Carlton Ridenhour) is college-educated, and like the other members of the group, from a middle-class Long Island family (Thigpen, 1991). Nevertheless, Public Enemy perpetuates the rap myth of rebellion against all systems that engender racism.

"Public Enemy . . . carried this strategy the farthest. In its imagery, sound and lyrics, the band was pure confrontation. Tapping the potential of video, Public Enemy created and marketed an entire band around the concept of racial warriors. The group's logo showed a black youth in the cross hairs of a rifle sight; each song dramatized racial conflict." (Leland, 1992, p. 49)

Although existentially questionable, the perception of rappers as authentic members of a disenfranchised group is real for many viewers.

The second characteristic that contributes to rap's ability to stimulate value change is found in how it frames a timely message aurally. While it may be the most time-bound of all rock forms, rap is about the here-and-now. "Rap is music for the emphatic now, rhythm without a past or future. In rap there is only the present, and the present is tense indeed" (Thigpen, 1991, p. 98). This nihilistic message is conveyed with a rhythm and musical style that reinforces the tension. "Rap is noted for its strong rhythm, often only a percussive beat, and its emphasis on lyrics. The melody in a rap song frequently follows the performer's enunciation of lyrics, which usually rhyme and involve clever linguistic plays on meaning and sound" (Roberts, 1991 p. 142).

As the 1992 observance of the Federal holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday approached, Public Enemy took the State of Arizona to task for its failure to make the day a State holiday as well. Chuck D described the video as his reinterpretation of Dr. King's role as a black leader, claiming that were he still alive, "he might have been Martin Luther King Farrakhan" (Quinn, 1992, p. 63), a man more sympathetic to violent acts in the absence of his dream's fulfillment. On the day the video first aired on MTV, Chuck D cautioned viewers not to take it literally. Rather, they should view it as his fantasy about reprisal, created to jar white viewers into realizing the significance of a national holiday honoring a black leader.

"By the Time I Get to Arizona" opens in a manner representative of the claim that rap is TV for the black community. A smarmy looking and sounding white politician offers his views:

"I know that you have heard all kinds of stories about me. That I am a racist. That I am a supporter of the KKK. That I am against civil rights. All because I oppose the Martin Luther King holiday. But I am opposed to the holiday, and I will stay opposed to it as long as I am in office. And as long as there are city officials that agree with me, there will be no holiday in this state."

Dissolve to black-and-white scenes reminiscent of the civil rights marches of the sixties, as the following announcement airs:

"This is Sister Souljah. Public Enemy, Security of the First World, and all aligned forces are traveling west to head off a white supremacy scheme to destroy the national celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. Public Enemy believes that the powers that be in the states of New Hampshire and Arizona have found psychological discomfort in paying tribute to a black man who tried to teach white people the meaning of civilization. Good luck brothers! Show 'em what you got."

The video juxtaposes simulated news footage from the sixties with two synthetic visions of black action: one a recreation of Dr. King's activities during the early days of the civil rights movement, and the other of an elite paramilitary unit. The recreated King material like the simulated news footage is shot in black and white. For the MTV generation, this may be their first sustained experience of viewing images so memorable to baby boomers. The paramilitary footage is shot in color, and shows members of the unit injecting candy with poison, making a car bomb, and taking target practice. The video thus offers two narratives--the old story of violence directed against peaceful demonstrators of the by-gone civil rights era and the new story whose moral is, take out one of our leaders and we'll take out one of yours.

The recreation of news footage and the Dr. King material allows Public Enemy more latitude in synthesizing these two narratives and the value system that underlies each. By recreating events, Chuck D is able to manipulate them. The viewer quickly realizes that in Public Enemy's vision, violence was very much a part of the early civil rights movement, although it was primarily white violence directed against peacefully assembled blacks. While the recreated Dr. King engages in no overt acts of violence in the video, his countenance, the tension in his torso, and his obvious wariness as acts of violence against his movement escalate are very strong in these videos.

The verbal track offers Chuck D's explanation of why he is taking it on himself to force the issue with Arizona's leaders. The political process is not viable for blacks. (Neither party is mine, not the jack ass or the elephant.) Although the threat of violence is present in the verbal message, the rap emphasizes the black community's growing impatience with the failure to at least honor Dr. King's memory, if not to bring his dream to fruition.

"And they can't understand why he's a man, who's singin' brother King
They don't like it when I decide to mike it Wait,
I'm waitin' for the date, for the man who demands respect 'cause he was great
Come on, I'm on a mission to get a politician to honor,
or he's a goner, by the time I get to Arizona"

The value synthesis offered by this video may not appeal to pre-MTV generations. King scholars and older black leaders castigated Public Enemy for doing a disservice to Dr. King's legacy (Quinn, 1992). The video, however, only synthesizes Dr. King's non-violence with the pseudo-violence of Public Enemy's gangsta rap persona. If we take Chuck D at his word, that this is his fantasy about what he would do to politicians who resist honoring even one great black leader, and if we also accept as real the recreated King, a man becoming disillusioned with the results of non-violent resistance, the synthesis of non-violence and pseudo-violence conveyed in the video's imagery may succeed as new value system. This synthesized value sends a clear message: For the time being, this generation will continue to use pseudo-violence (words and images, a de-escalated form of violence) rather than resorting to actual terrorist activity. This is neither the non-violence of Dr. King nor the active violence of a black American intifadah but their synthesis, non-physically violent, verbal violence. What Murdock, Bradac, and Bowers (1984) referred to as a "thromise."

The Jungian psychological model

Adapted for the criticism of film (Davies, Farrell, & Matthews, 1982), Jungian analysis can be used to examine the way a succession of images involve an audience and draw perceptual, affective and cognitive responses from them. Jung's work in psycho-analysis viewed the human psyche as a self-regulating system that tries to achieve balance between the conscious and the unconscious, resolving the struggle between the psyche's public persona and private shadow. The images of the dream world depict the struggle each person experiences between the persona and shadow sides of self (Rushing & Frentz, 1980).

Davies et al (1982) use Jung's series of dream images, or archetypes, as an analytical method for studying the verbal and visual whole of a film. In their method, each element of the film is analyzed to discover the archetypes found in story, characters, progression of scenes, special effects, cinematography, sound, and editing. The goal of criticism using the Jungian psychological model is to provide an understanding of the archetypal themes the viewing audience experiences and to discover the psychic role such an experience might play for them.

Jung's list of the most frequently recurring symbols from the shadow side of self is used to analyze message content (Davies, et al, 1982):

  1. Mother or origin symbols that represent the female, animals, darkness, and the primeval. 
  2. Spirit symbols represent sources or places that provide renewal, energy, and guidance. 
  3. Transcendence symbols represent heroes, rebirth, initiation rituals, and images of light. 
  4. Wholeness symbols are displayed as circle configurations, a mandala, stones, or treasure.

Jung's theory of dreams finds these symbols commonly occurring as paired opposites.

Critical analysis of rhetorical acts applies the same approach--determine how juxtapositions of opposing symbols are indicative of the search for balance between the rational outer world and the irrational inner world. Rhetorical acts, such as music video, offer the audience a means of coping with exigencies in their world through the video's ability to strike a balance between the persona and shadow.

The Jungian psychological model may have particular applicability for understanding narrative and conceptual videos as a source of cultural identity for the MTV generation. Music video and dreams have much in common. The narrative, dream-like structures of video contribute to the viewer's personal stock of cultural imagery and also create a culture-wide "dreampool" (Kinder, 1984). From dreams individuals experience a selection of images that become a kind of cultural imprinting. Like dreams, music videos can stimulate viewers to retrieve specific images every time the song is heard.

"If music video reflects recent currents in popular culture and if we acknowledge the possibility that mass media are significant contributors to our cultural dream or image pool, the similarities between dreams and videos may surely be culturally significant." (Abt, 1987 p. 99)

What that cultural significance is may be found in the similarity between music videos and dreams in terms of their structure and significant symbols. "One of music video's distinctive features as a social expression is its open-ended quality, aiming to engulf the viewer in its communication with itself, its fashioning of an alternative world where image is reality" (Aufderheide, 1986 pp. 57-58). Likewise, dreams engulf the individual in a world with flexible patterns and fleeting images of reality.

A strong connection between the aural-visual world of music video and the dream world may exist because both perform similar functions for the psyche. Like a dream, the text of a music video has the ability to expel one's congested and repressed emotions and desires. There is also "the immense potential of both dreams and video for triggering physiological reactions to symbolic stimuli. In this sense, both music video and dreams dwell in the dicey cease-fire zone between the demands of society and the desires of the individual" (Harvey, 1990 p. 52).

Further, the shifting symbols of the dream world exist in the seemingly random flow of symbols in some music videos. Most other genre of visual narratives--film and episodic television, for example, typically have some thematic or structural closure that marks the narrative boundaries (Harvey, 1990). Narrative and especially conceptual music videos are not bound by this convention.

"Symbolic systems are established--then, abandoned. Fragments of myth are introduced, then invalidated by subsequent and seemingly random symbolic contradictions. The rules change constantly; one minute a man is a man, the next minute he is a guitar, the next minute he is a fish." (Harvey, 1990, p. 50)

The fluid, non-linear quality of symbols in music-video-as-dream-state has some particular implications for how the viewer uses the verbal and visual levels of message in decoding a video as a source of cultural identity or community. A rhetorical act in the medium that functions to solve some problem for the viewer may do so only after the viewer has decoded a very mixed message. As Lisa St. Clair Harvey indicates:

"Anarchy often triumphs in the text of music video. Social reversals remain reversed; excessive behavior is followed by yet more excessive behavior rather than by the re-imposition of cultural taboo; temporary insanity hardens into a state of semi-permanent lunacy, as inanimate objects take on life, people turn into guitars and clocks and robots, and definitions of "living" and "dead" of "male" and "female," "here" and "now" become up for grabs and open to interpretation." (p. 50)

The impact on the problem-solving abilities of the MTV generation is that living in the world of music video, like living in a perpetual dream state, becomes an alternative to active participation in the extant culture. The MTV generation creates not the counter-culture of the sixties, but a counterfeit culture that neither conflicts nor intersects with the mainstream culture. Aufderheide (1986) characterizes this culture.

"Music videos offer a ready-made alternative to social life. With no beginnings or endings--no history--there may be nightmarish instability, even horror. But there can be no tragedy, which is rooted in the tension between an individual and society. Likewise, there is no comedy, which provokes laughter with sharp, unexpected shifts of context, making solemnity slip on a banana peel . . . identity can change with a switch of scene, a change in the beat. The good news is: you can be anything, anywhere. That is also the bad news--which whets the appetite for more "news," more dreams." (p.66)

Eurhythmics, "Sweet Dreams"

There is a certain intertextuality between Annie Lennox's hair style and mannish dress with that of fitness guru Susan Powter that may have Jungian implications for the female symbol. Lennox's image and musical style, along with the myriad of shifting symbols in "Sweet Dreams," make the video an interesting collection of Jungian archetypes.

Lennox, who claims her music is influenced by sixties soul music, and her partner Dave Stewart have in fact updated the Motown sound. "Sweet Dreams," according to Szatmary (1991), "featured the sultry, Motown-influenced vocals of Lennox over the insistent beat of a drum machine" (p. 262). Although it does not feature inspired lyrics, 60 words repeated enough times to fill 3:10 in the video version, the lyrical element of "Sweet Dreams" also offers some interesting symbology when viewed from the Jungian perspective.

With such a sparse narrative, and instruments used so blatantly as props that even the worst air band would blush, the video presentation of "Sweet Dreams" is purely conceptual and highly Jungian. The tension depicted exists between the Mother of origin (Annie's persona) and wholeness (her shadow). Lennox, despite her buzz haircut, black suit and tie, and black riding crop or baton, is overtly feminine with her heavily made-up eyes and bright red lipstick, and in the way she carries herself.

We first see her in what looks like a conference room. The walls are lined with gold records (circles) and Dave sits at the conference table working what appears to be a primitive computer (technological treasure). As pictures of the earth seen from space (a circle partially obscured by clouds) and crowded streets are projected on a video screen (more technological treasure), Annie eyes a globe on the conference table and sings:

Sweet dreams are made of this.
Who am I to disagree.
I travel the world and the seven seas.
Everybody's looking for something.

These lyrics repeat five more times before the song is over. On the first, one the symbols of wholeness, a circular red spot on Annie's forehead (her third eye), enables both of them to move outside the conference room and encounter additional elements of the Mother of origin.

Through Annie's third eye we see the pair floating down a fog-shrouded river (the primeval) in a skiff and eventually encountering a herd of cows (animals), some of which appear when the video returns to the wholeness of the conference room. While they are outside the the conference room, Lennox's costume changes briefly to a floor length red evening gown as she and her partner mimic playing cellos. Only for this fleeting moment and at the video's end, as she prepares to go to sleep clad in a night gown, a copy of a book entitled "Sweet Dreams" on her night stand, do we see her wearing what we think of as a woman's garb.

Jungian symbolism is found primarily in the visual images of "Sweet Dreams." However, one aspect of the lyrics offers us an impression of the struggle between shadow and persona with some feminist implications. The business world has historically undervalued women and the rock music scene has welcomed women with less than open arms. A Jungian critic would suggest that Lennox's female persona has had to make a pact with the devil of her shadow's desire for success.

Some of them want to use you.
Some of them want to get used by you.
Some of them want to abuse you.
Some of them want to be abused.

In her case, the pact requires her to suppress rather than exploit her sexuality in her dress, at least while she is within the confines of the business world. The visual symbols of conference room and the outside world of nature underscore this pact. Outside that world she is free to be herself from time to time.

Hold your head up. Movin' on.
Keep your head up. Movin' on.

A stronger Jungian interpretation of physical features can be made about Lennox's eyes, something that was also an important element in her latest video, "Diva." The fact that they are heavily, almost cartoonishly, made-up has already been mentioned, but this, combined with her pale skin tone, means that the viewer's eyes are drawn to them. Corporate (shadow) Annie's eyes don't blink, a remarkable performance. They are piercing blue orbs, simultaneously commanding and disturbing. But there are brief glimpses, especially at bedtime, of the other (persona) Annie's eyes. Devoid of make-up, their lids flutter and there no doubt they belong to someone at peace with her identity.

"Sweet Dreams" may be regarded as an archetypal conceptual video. Its visual symbols and enigmatic lyrics typify the fluid, non-linear progression of images in the dream state. Decoding these symbols may produce different identities, depending on the varying textual experiences the viewer brings to bear on "Sweet Dreams." A viewer, cognizant of the inner workings of the music business, may see Lennox and Stewart as caught in the struggle between the shadow's desire for creativity as an artist and the persona's suppression by the rock industry's commercialism. Another viewer, seeing the video for the first time years after its release and familiar with Susan Powter's numerous talk-show appearances and infomercials, may interpret Lennox's persona in terms of Powter's. This might produce a powerful female symbol.

Some of our students interpret "Sweet Dreams" in the context of a larger business-world versus personal-needs struggle. They read the video's meaning as the board room represents a job, the social and parental imperative to find employment upon graduation. The personal needs and desires represented by playing the cello, being outside, and even having time to have a "sweet dream" are secondary to the need to get a job. Students frequently see themselves as the cattle, animals herded into the business world. Our students usually interpret "Sweet Dreams" as a bad dream about their fear of not finding jobs in a shaky economic environment.

Guns N' Roses, "November Rain"

"November Rain" was picked by MTV to top their 1993 list of the 200 "best" videos of all time. The video is a visual and verbal metaphor for the hopes and fears common to teenagers in the later days of the twentieth century. The video is a pastiche of performance, narrative, and concept video. As a performance video, we glimpse Axl Rose and Slash portraying their concert personas, although the venue resembles a symphony performance more than a typical Guns N' Roses concert. As a concept video, it offers a swirl of religious imagery and a contrast of symbols of both the highest (a wedding ceremony) and lowest (the bride's funeral) moments in the main character's (Axl Rose) spiritual existence.

Narrative is the predominant form of this video overall. The story is a nightmarish variation on the generic boy-meets-girl, boy loses-girl video love story. Images of death are not uncommon in Guns N' Roses videos; however, this video features the death of Axl's beloved rather than his own. The narrative is cast as a dream sequence, suggesting many of the properties of Jung's dream world struggle between persona and shadow. As the video opens, we see Axl taking a drug, possibly a sleeping pill, and then falling into a dream state. He dreams of his wedding, an event of great joy as the opening lyric suggests:

When I look into your eyes,
I can see a love restrained.
Darlin' when I hold you,
don't you know I feel the same.

As the dream unfolds, rain falls and joy turns to sorrow. Unknow agents or forces bring about the bride's death. In the final scenes we see the bride lying in her coffin, again wearing her wedding dress, as Axl grieves.

"November Rain"'s visual images abound with Jungian archetypes that symbolize the struggle for belonging and identity experienced by teenage viewers most apt to be drawn to a Guns N' Roses video or album. Visually, the most frequently occuring symbols are spirit and transcendence symbols. We see candles, a crucifix, two churches (the larger, more opulent one seen only on the inside), and a priest (first vested for the wedding and then for the funeral).

The small, plain, stark church is set on some windswept vista. It is a source of renewal and energy because it symbolizes the need every teenager has--for adults to get out of their way and let them alone. The lyric explicitly states this desire:

Do you need some time on your own Do you need some time all alone Everybody needs some time on their own Oh I know you know you need some time all alone

This small church is transformed in the dreamstate into a magnificent, spacious setting for the wedding ceremony, itself a transcendence symbol of religious ritual, the exchange of rings and the kiss.

As the video shifts back and forth between the dream concert and the dream wedding, it offers a contrast of light and dark. The wedding is light--the bride wears a white dress, the candles are white and throw out a great light, the priest wears white vestments, a large pale crucifix flashes by. The intercut scenes of the dream concert are dark--the lighting is dim, the back-up singers wear black dresses, the concert-goers all seem to be wearing dark clothing. Dark symbols overcome the light as the video ends with the bride's funeral. While she continues to be dressed in her white wedding gown, her coffin is black, the priest is vested in black, and the groom and mourners are all in black. In the last symbolic use of color, the red of a bouquet of fabric roses is washed out by the falling rain.

The struggle between persona and shadow emerging from "November Rain" is that of teen expectations about life and teen fears about external forces that may interfere with realizing those expectations. Teen expectations are symbolized by the light images of happiness in love and the wedding ceremony (I can rest my head just knowin' that you were mine, all mine). The verbal and visual symbols also feature a powerful sense of wholeness, visually represented by the exchange of wedding rings and verbally by the most frequently repeated lyric. (Don't you think that you need somebody, don't you think that you need someone.)

The dominant shadow theme in this video is one of loss. At the end of the story, Axl loses his bride and is left alone. Earlier the lyric has forecast the possibility that even a wealthy, popular rock star might not be immune to the sorrow that frequently afflicts today's teens:

Nothin' last forever, and we both know hearts can change
and it's hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain.
We've been through this such a long long time, just trying to cure the pain, oh yeah.
Knowin' no one's comin', knowin' no one's going, no one really should.
Let it go today, walkin' away.

Although remote by virtue of his celebrity, Axl Rose is a figure with whom the viewer can identify, because even "Rockers end up walkin' in the cold November rain."

From the Jungian perspective, the appeal of this video is in how it may function to allow the viewer to deal with repressed fears of failure, rejection, and abandonment. The dream world of the video gives temporary form to the worst fears the viewer might have so that they might be faced. And for those unwilling to face them, there is also the possibility that this is just a dream; the sleeper may awake.

The possibility of awakening also represents the parallel cultures of the worlds of teens and adults. While the adult world may foster the same fears of failure, rejection, and abandonment, it is not "adult" to give voice to them, especially for young males. In the dream world of "November Rain" the shadow's fears can merge with the persona's need to live in the world. The viewer experiences Axel's very public joy and sorrow.

In some respects, "November Rain" sends a message to the viewer to detach yourself from both the joys and sorrows of life. (Nothing last[s] forever, even cold November rain.) Identity can indeed change in a heart beat--one moment you are happy, the next overwhelmed by loss. All emotions pass, so do not get too caught up in them. Since the pain is too great, as we see in Axl's persona by the video's end, the only safe world is the dream world, so dream on.

Ideological models

Ideological approaches to criticism focus on a belief system which in turn sets the standard of truth used to judge rhetorical acts on a cultural basis. The ideological critic sees truth as determined by his or her world view. That standard of truth is applied to rhetorical acts to determine the extent to which a given act creates or challenges political and social hegemony according to the tenets of the particular ideology the critic espouses. Feminism and Marxism are predominant models of media criticism; feminist critics focus on gender issues and Marxist critics focus on broader social-economic issues.

The feminist model

As a political ideology feminism seeks equality for women in all aspects of culture (Foss, 1989; Humm, 1986; and Steeves, 1987). Feminist criticism examines rhetorical acts to determine the extent to which society undervalues women. Two ideological assumptions underlie feminism: men and women experience the world in different ways and language use creates gender inequality. Feminist critics apply these two assumptions in determining how and why a particular rhetorical act reflects gender in a given culture. A rhetorical act is analyzed on the basis of questions about gender experience and language use:

  1. What gender orientation--male, female, or androgynous--is represented in the rhetorical act?
  2. What cultural ideals of masculine and feminine behaviors and beliefs does the rhetorical act suggest? 
  3. What evidence can be found in the rhetorical act that one gender is devalued? Do verbal and visual symbols devalue women? 
  4. Is that which is culturally valuable presented as masculine or feminine?

The Divynls, "I Touch Myself"

Unless it is largely apocraphal, the story behind how this song came to be written is one that might, or might not, warm the heart of a feminist ideological critic. According to lead singer Christina Amphlett, she and a male friend were in a restuarant and noticed that the people at the next table were eavesdropping on their conversation. Her response was to discuss her strong desire to know her companion in the biblical sense. Her passion was so strong that she would literally take matters into her own hands when he was not around (I don't want anybody else, when I think about you I touch myself).

This behavior, if it actually happened, was certainly assertive, possibly passive aggressive. The lyrics are also repleat with the kind of "I want" statements that people are taught to make in assertiveness training. However, the lyrics are also strongly suggestive of a woman insecure about her own identity in the absence of her paramour's attention.

I close my eyes, and see you before me.
Think I would die, if you were to ignore me.
A fool could see, just how much I adore you.
I get down on my knees, I'd do anything for you.

The mixed message of the lyrics and the lady who sings them are particularly apparent in The Divynls' live performances. Commenting on a New York performance where at one point the lead singer knocked one of the guitarists off the stage, music critic Jon Pareles (27 June 1991) bluntly stated:

"Some rock bands shouldn't be taken at their word. One is The Divynls . . . "I Touch Myself" along with most of the songs on their fifth ablum "Divynls" (Virgin) presents the singer Christina Amphlett as a woman in thrall to her fickle lover . . . But as she stalked around on her big heels, her voice and her body language insisted she was nobody's boy toy . . . Ms. Amphlett's voice is a raw-throated rasp, somewhere between a sob and a snarl, bruised by defiant." (p. C:14)

Pareles's dismay over the difference between what he thought he was going to see and what he got is in part a product of the problem that any number of groups, about whom it was never asked "Is it live or is it Memorex," encounter in concert. His surprise is also a product of the expectations created by The Divynls' video as well.

In quick succession this quasi-narrative, conceptual video opens with three images: the very phallic neck of the guitar of a musician laying down a hard driving beat, a darkly handsome man carrying a woman wrapped in a sheet through a doorway, two other women who might be models or party girls smiling seductively. Cut to three images of Christina Amphlett as she sings the opening lines of the song.

I love myself, I want you to love me.
When I feel down, I want you above me.
I search myself, I want you to find me.
I forget myself, I want you to remind me.

In the first visual image, she is wearing a low cut black velvet micro miniskirt with a bit of fluff along the hem in back. Combined with an industrial strength push-up bra and a high camera angle, the viewer looks at cleavage of Mansfieldian proportion as Christina Amphlett looks longingly into the camera and into a mirror. In the second, she is in bed covered only by a sheet as her hand slides down over her stomach and between her thighs. Finally, we see her reclining on a divan in a black leather hot pants outfit with knee high leather boots, suggestively stroking the sensuous curve of the furniture's armrest.

The feminist critic who might have applauded the singer's motive, if not her method, for dealing with eavesdropping restaurant patrons, will have had a rapid change of mind after the first 30 seconds of this video. Not only are women seen as dependent on men, they are also characterized as passive. The two models or party girls seen earlier reappear from time to time along with other attractive women who seem to strike a pose and wait for someone, some male someone, to act. Since the video is more conceptual than narrative, it is possible that these "other women" are apparitions that embody the singer's insecurity about her true love's faithfulness. If these other women are real, the video has the feel of peaking inside a bordello. In either case, the view of women it communicates is certainly debasing and devaluing.

Christina Amphlett's costuming and performance make her appear to be exactly what Pareles suggested she is not, a boy toy. Her costumes shows a lot of thigh and heaving bosom. While the viewer may notice, the musicians who pop up from time to time pay no more attention to her than to the furniture. Her performance style, when she isn't touching parts of herself, features the most hip action since Elvis Presley. In one particularly memorable scene of domesticity, she is doing the ironing with more hip action than wrist action. Her black velvet mini with the fluff in back makes her look like a cross between the Energizer bunny and a Playboy bunny on steroids. Despite the fact that she seems like she would be willing to keep going and going, the men in the video do not seem to notice or if they do they do not care.

By the end of the video, "I Touch Myself" has an unsavory air about it, not because it deals with female masturbation but rather because its message about male-female relationships has a decidely sado-masochistic tone. There are many male musicians seen throughout the video, primarily guitar players, who openly display their instruments. None acknowledge Christina Amphlett's existance, much less her desires. Since she can't seem to get a man to satisfy her passion, she is reduced to singing into a lily, a flower with a prominent pistil, as if it were a microphone, grasping and stroking the upright of a banister, and repeating "I touch myself" over and over as the song concludes.

Feminists and non-feminists alike have long decried the "she wanted it, so I gave it to her" mythology of rape. The message about male-female relationships conveyed by "I Touch Myself" is equally toxic: "she wanted it, so I didn't give it to her." While Christina Amphlett may be a tough cookie on and off stage, The Divynls video for "I Touch Myself" casts her in the kind of woman-as-victim role that the predominantly younger viewers of MTV, male and female alike, should be educated to reject. Since her physical presence on screen brings to mind one word, zaftig, and since her portrayal of women as sluts-in-heat plays to many young men's fantasies, it is unfortunately likely that this is one video that made a lot of high school boys' "must see" or worse still "must tape" list.

The Marxist model

Marxist critics view society as a complex network of groups who are divided by the struggle for hegemony. Such divisions are fostered by economic factors, gender, race, ethnic or national origin, and political ideals. Social experience is one of struggle, as each groups tries to achieve dominance through control of cultural systems, including communication media. The Marxist ideological model views mass media as the most important subject for critical analysis, because mass media is the principal means of social control in contemporary society.

Marxist criticism has as its goal the identification of those rhetorical acts that legitimize the hegemonic views of the dominant social groups. Marxist critics employ critical questions that examine the hegemonic orientation of a rhetorical act:

  1. In what social, political, or economic context does a rhetorical act exist? 
  2. How does a given rhetorical act articulate, reflect, or legitimize the ideology of the dominant social group? 
  3. How do the visual and verbal symbols provide evidence of the subjugation or exploitation of subordinate groups? 
  4. How does a given rhetorical act attempt to incorporate subordinate classes or groups in the hegemonic ideology of the dominant social group? 
  5. How does the rhetorical act perpetuate the hegemonic ideology of the dominant group?

Madonna, "Material Girl"

Madonna's rise from merely being a popular act in dance clubs to super-star female power in the recording industry is a case study of sexual hegemony in American society. Madonna's attempted metamorphosis into the embodiment of female power and the message that attempt sends to her fans can be best understood through a Marxist interpretation of "Material Girl." The video offers a narrative with several intertextual levels.

First, there is Madonna's creation of herself in the image of A Star is Born. "Material Girl" is a story about star-making in Hollywood, and Goodwin (1992) interprets the video as a "star-text" for her.

"The Material Girl in the visual narrative (and additional dialogue) is the character played by the character whom Madonna portrays. The persona taken on by Madonna in this clip is that of an actress who sings the song "Material Girl,:" but who is, in fact, not one herself . . . It is Madonna's star identity that has been constructed as that of Material Girl, and this clip was precisely designed to help establish it . . . it served the function of shifting Madonna's image from that of disco-bimbo to "authentic" star." (p. 100)

Second, there is the intertextuality of "Material Girl" as a parody of Marilyn Monroe's performance of the song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The intertextual image is not necessarily of Monroe, but of the Hollywood archetype of the sexy blonde who uses her looks to get what she wants. As John Fisk (1987) notes:

"The meanings of Material Girl depend upon its allusion to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and upon its intertextuality with all texts that contribute to and draw upon the meaning of "the blonde" in our culture. Intertextual knowledge preorients the reader to exploit television's polysemy by activating the text in certain ways, that is, by making some meanings rather than others." (p. 108)

Finally, there is the intertextuality of Madonna's oeuvres taken as a whole. "Madonna's popular history as an assertive, talented woman in the male-dominated music industry contributes to how we watch and experience her music videos. She is exercising her control over the image she projects musically and visually" (Schwichtenberg, 1992 p. 125). Madonna has created a female persona that dominates rather than is dominated by the male hierarchy. The sexuality of the blond icon is her capital for purchasing dominance over the male hierarchy. "Sex sells in the mainstream and Madonna's sexual self-presentation may be a constant feature particularly amenable to dominant patriarchal discourses" (Schwichtenberg, 1992 p. 129).

Do these three elements add up to an image of Madonna triumphant over the hegemony of male-sexual-dominance that seems to permeate American culture and its popular culture productions? A Marxist reading of "Material Girl" reveals that Madonna may not be the triumphant sexual capitalist she portrays herself to be, but she is at least the equal of any man.

"Material Girl" has separate messages in its visual and verbal symbology that exist in tension with each other. At first the verbal and visual align as the video's narrative structure unfolds. We see the Hollywood scene of the mogul who wants the girl. A Hollywood toady and the mogul have this exchange:

Mogul: She's fantastic, I think she could be a star.
Toady: She could be, she could be great, she could be a major star.
Mogul: She is a star.
Toady: The biggest star in the universe right now as we speak. Those were the sets, the director's got all kinds of thing, director's hot, he's hip, he's here,he's going to be doing all kinds of things. He's going to change the color of her set, got a great idea for a blue one.
Mogul: Don't touch anything.
Toady: He touches one things he's gone, I swear, he's history.
Mogul: I want to meet her.
Toady: You got it, any time, name the place, name any where in any state you got it.
Mogul: Now.  

This is followed by a scene in which the "actress" is talking on the phone:

Madonna: Yeah, he's still after me. Just gave me a necklace. I don't know, I think it's real diamonds. Yeah, he thinks he can impress me by giving me expensive gifts. It's nice though, you want it?

We see the mogul lurking outside her door with another lavishly wrapped, small package in his hand. As the actress rejects the idea that diamonds will impress her, he throws the package in a waste can.

The video then shifts to a sound stage where a musical number is being filmed in which Madonna protrays a "material girl." She is given diamonds, furs, reaches into men's pockets for their cash. The lyrics reflect the theme that she is more concerned with a man's bottom line than his bottom.

 Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me, I think they're OK.
If they don't give me proper credit I just walk away.
They can beg and they can plead, but they can't see the light, that's right.
'Cause the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right.  

'Cause we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.
You know that we are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.  

Some boys roam and some boys slow dance that's allright with me.
If they can't raise my interest then I have to let them be.
Some boys die and some boys lie but I don't let them play, no way.
Only boys that save their pennies make my rainy day.

As the narrative shifts from the song-and-dance number to the boy-seeks-girl love story, the mogul offers the actress a ragged bunch of daisies--the gift of the proletarian man to his sweetheart, the most common flower than can be picked in any field rather than an expensive spray of hothouse roses. The actress acknowledges his gift with a smile and mogul-gets-girl. Cut to the song-and-dance number, and as it concludes we see the mogul proffering a wad of bills to a farmer for his old, beat-up truck. The sale is concluded before the actress appears on the scene. As the love story concludes, the mogul, posing as a man of modest means, and the actress embrace.

What is the dialectic tension of the visual and verbal elements in terms of the Madonna-as-sexual-capitalist image? If Madonna's goal is to reverse male-dominated hegemony in the entertainment industry, this video may be sending a mixed message. Since the actress in "Material Girl" is secure enough about her own prospects and personal capital to love the man she chooses rather than the one she needs to advance, she does not use her sexuality to dominate the moguls of Hollywood and she is deceived by the false front her mogul-suitor presents. At the same time, it could be argued that because she is such an exciting woman the mogul changes his typical courtship ritual.

In many ways he is like her, secure enough financially to be able to buy the trappings of poverty, while a man of truely modest means could not afford to buy the trappings of wealth or even rent them. If either of them thought they were not part of the power elite, they would not have made the choices they made. Thus, the video reinforces the notion that those that have, get. In this case they get each other, sending the message that consciously or unconsciously, almost as if it were instinct or a law of nature, people pair up with those of their own social class. Madonna is not the champion of the feminine underclass in the entertainment world or the world of sexual politics at large that she would like us to believe. She is however a pretty strong advocate for Madonna.

The visual elements of "Material Girl" provide her with star-text framing, but the tension between the visual and verbal elements negates Madonna's image as a sexual capitalist who triumphs over the male-dominated Hollywood hierarchy to the benefit of all women. The visual narrative reveals that she is seduced by the very ability to purchase affection and sex that she attempts to turn to her advantage. She is no more savvy about the male-dominated culture than any other woman, but she is personally powerful enough that her ignorance of men matters no more to her than most men's ignorance of women matters to them. She may not be one of the boys, but she is no second-class citizen.


Let us end with the beginning, and an exegesis on what led us to consider the cultural approaches to criticism as more appropriate to the music video genre of communication in the first place. As with so many discoveries, it was a result of the serendipitous confluence of two forces. That is academese for "we stumbled on to it."

During mid-Winter Break (it's called Spring Break in places where they get less than 200 inches of snow a year) two years ago, Don was trying to figure out how to quickly introduce the concepts Cultural Criticism from our book to his students. As luck would have it, he was also taping one of MTV's "Greatest (pick a number) Videos of (pick a time frame)." Later review of the tapes, with much use of the fast forward button on the remote control, revealed that, in a little over an hour of real time, videos amenable to critique by not only the methods explored in this paper but the others in our Cultural Approaches chapter as well had aired. In the tradition of Archimedes, Don said "Eureka," got up from his recliner, and started editing videotape.

That bit of mostly accurate historical whimsy aside, finding an appropriate methodological approach to do rhetorical analyses of music videos does pose a challenge. It is possible to apply, in somewhat formulaic fashion, any of the established approaches, such as neo-Aristotelianism, Dramatism, Symbolic Convergence Theory, or Narrative. However, these approaches may not take you very far if you are working with a performance or conceptual video, or with a song whose lyrics are non-propositional and may not even be amenable to enthymematic examination.

Other approaches might enable you discover something about symbol usage, but you quickly start running up against their limitations. It is important to remember that music video is a product of our culture, and a commercial vehicle first and foremost. Thus, unlike other genres of rhetorical activity, music videos are not likely to be the rhetor's response to a rhetorical situation through an act of interpretation, advocacy, or refutation, although there are possible exceptions such as the Public Enemy rap discussed in this paper. For the most part, music video as a genre of communication does not exist for and overtly rhetorical purposes, other than to sell records and net viewers.

It is our position that taking a cultural perspective affords the critic a greater opportunity to discover the rhetorical function of music video and to focus on the unique characteristics of this genre. It is also our position that regardless of one's critical perspective, one must be cautious to not read more into any alleged rhetorical act than is there. As Brown and Schulze (1990) warn:

"Both social scientific and critical analyses often assume that "expert" coding or interpretation of media content leads to the same meanings as those constructed by typical viewers. But even the most informed semiotic, narrative, or psychoanalytic "readings" of a text cannot predict the meanings that will be made by audiences in social situations different from those of the academic critic." (p. 88)

Stated another way, we have to be cautious that when we pick up our methodological hammer of choice everything in the world of music video does not start to look like a nail.

Freud is reputed to have said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and perhaps the guitars in "I Touch Myself" are just musical instruments. Professor Lawrence Grossberg (1992) reports that his students are a little uneasy about taking a college class on rock because "they know that too much intellectual legitimation will redefine the possibilities of its effectiveness; it will become increasingly a meaningful form to be interpreted rather than a popular form to be felt on one's body and to be lived passionately and emotionally" (p. 79). To paraphrase Freud, "sometimes a video is just a video." Accept it and enjoy it on its own terms.


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