In the scope of electronic dance music, videos have long seemed secondary. In spite of bigger budgets, themes primarily feature dancing, or in certain instances, the budgets are so low and the execution so shoddy that EDM videos are the medium’s B-movies. More recently, Vyclone unveiled an app that could change how music videos are shot, but we all have to see how that pans out.
This weekend, however, the talk of the music industry was Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film from Jay Z. The nearly 11-minute film splices together clips from the rapper’s six-hour performance at a New York art gallery. The Mark Romanek-directed piece debuted on HBO on August 2 and features performances and interactions from Marina Abramovic, Judd Apatow, Michael K. Williams, and others from art, film, acting, and fashion worlds.
In a voiceover starting the film and in a conversation on Real Time With Bill Maher beforehand, the rapper born Shawn Carter describes how hip-hop and the visual art worlds have come together over the past 30 years. “The truth is, as far as hip-hop and arts, we were like cousins,” Jay Z said in his Real Time appearance. “If you think about those days when Fab Five Freddy was with Madonna and Basquiat and everything. We all went to those clubs, that’s when hip-hop was more underground. The arts and hip-hop really partied together. But when art started becoming part of the gallery, it was this separation. But we pretty much came up together.”
In the music video context, Picasso Baby is both innovative and a nod to 30 years’ worth of trends. These days, the music-video-as-film concept gets attention on Youtube: Just from 2011 and 2012 alone, see efforts from Lana Del Rey (“Ride” and “National Anthem”), Frank Ocean (“Pyramids”), and Katy Perry (“Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”, and Justin Bieber (“As Long As You Love Me”). What results in these instances, and somewhat in Picasso Baby, is a middling track spread out over eight-plus minutes of plot, with a director attempting to make something out of nothing (this is particularly true with both Del Rey’s and Perry’s offerings).
On the other hand, Picasso Baby does more than take a prerecorded track and add a storyline. Taking a page from New Order’s Jonathan Demme-directed “The Perfect Kiss” video, whether Carter realizes it or not, Picasso Baby strips down the opulence and flash – two factors nearly omnipresent in hip-hop and electronic dance music videos – for something raw and spontaneous. Whether it’s New Order showing what actually goes on in performance, from the keys hit during a synth line to Gillian Gilbert turning on the sequencer in “The Perfect Kiss,” to Carter rapping in a sparse gallery with the crowd watching and interacting with various members, both put the music front and center: The artist can be an artist without overpowering visuals.
But where “The Perfect Kiss” and Picasso Baby diverge is the audience element. Beyond the four-piece’s studio stoicism, Carter raps at various audience members, dancers show up to do a few turns, and the audience generally looks like they’re having a good time – kind of a challenge, considering Jay Z spent six hours rapping the same track over and over.
At a time in pop music history when album and concert sales decline but tickets prices are up, Picasso Baby shows that the artist, no matter a rapper, pop star, or DJ/producer, has to connect with the audience. Perhaps, as well, this is simply the influence of social media falling into performance mediums: We expect to get to know every performer on an intimate level, and the impersonal atmosphere of stadium shows and directed music videos no longer cuts it.