Brief Notes: The official lyric video

In the first of a new pop commentary series, Ryan Ormonde takes a look at the fan-driven pop phenomenon that's gone big bucks.

07.09.12

Words by: Ruth Saxelby

There is something sweet and a bit silly about a sing-along when the words are provided. I am thinking of an animated ball bouncing on top of each syllable, or a long stick tapping out lyrics so big you can see them from the back row. A programme for a wedding service when the happy couple have chosen something mildly irreverent as their exit music. And of course karaoke, which, perhaps surprisingly, is not Japanese for ‘a descent into chaos that ends when someone chips a tooth’.

For a generation who listens to music on YouTube, the official lyric video is a record label response to fan activity that has been going on for at least a decade.

All of which brings us to the official lyric video, since early 2010 an increasingly sophisticated piece of hype machinery. A sing-a-long for a generation who almost exclusively listens to their music on YouTube, the official lyric video – or OLV – is a record label response to fan activity that has been going on for at least a decade. Is there any reason we should take it seriously?

First of all, it seems a bit of a shame to leave behind the fan videos of yore with their adoring montages and charming inaccuracies. An indication of how different things have become can be seen in Island Records’ OLV for Nicki Minaj’s Pound the Alarm. If Nicki is Barbie for the iPad generation, then this is a booty-led re-boot of those sing-a-long books with brightly coloured accompanying cassette.

Another historical link is provided by Blur’s lyric vid for Under The Westway. What could be a simpler concept than a tracking shot of a song sheet? This video reminds us that before charts were compiled from sales of records attached to a specific performer, the hot product to quantify was the paper and ink publication of a song’s score and lyrics, often promoted and recorded by several musicians simultaneously.

Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa’s Payphone OLV has been watched over 70 million times. As ‘lilmizzije’ comments: “Wow. This has more views than the actual video!!”

Speaking of quantifying, another serious side to the official lyric video is the serious number of hits it can notch up. The most watched OLV at time of writing is Maroon 5 and Wiz Khalifa’s comic book sing-a-long to Payphone, watched on YouTube over 70 million times. As ‘lilmizzije’ comments: “Wow. This has more views than the actual video!!” Maybe in the context of our virtual spaces where text and video are happy bedfellows it’s just easier on the eye than an oily Adam Levine mooching about in an urban location.

The OLV is a form where super cheap and static can often be passed off as classy. Examples include Emeli Sandé’s dour OLV for Heaven and the reliably minimal Pet Shop Boys with Leaving. But gaudy works great too, the seeming objective here being zany synaesthesia: see George Michael’s White Light or Muse’s Madness.

Who knows, maybe the official lyric video is an art form in its infancy.

It seems that any act is now viable for the official lyric treatment, provided they don’t have too much cred. For an intensely laboured emo vibe try a Christina Perri. The reference point here seems to be pencil-case scrawl. Or how about a lyric video designed for viewing with old-skool red and blue 3D glasses? That would be Oh Love by Greenday. Hardcore bands are also in on the game: Staind, Machine Head. What could be further from karaoke lolz than Korn vs. Skrillex?

The most arty official lyric video has got to be Time of My Life by Patrick Wolf. A clock ticks out the letters of the title, and hardly any of the other words are displayed. And yet there doesn’t seem so much potential for art in a medium that is at worst a mere promotional tool, at best a functional resource. Most examples are cold exercises in After Effects.

Who knows, maybe the official lyric video is an art form in its infancy, but until it finds its own Bruce Nauman or Vanessa Beecroft, I’d say the most appropriate song to get the full lyric treatment is We Are Never Ever Getting Back together by Taylor Swift. And why ever not? After all, it’s sweet and a little bit silly.

Ryan Ormonde is a poet based in Brixton, London. He blogs at Poetic Practice Journal where you can find details of his books and current projects.