The Secret to Making a Great Music Video

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 12 2013 3:54 PM

The Secret to Making a Great Music Video

Rihanna has just released two music videos for her ballad, “Stay,” one a fairly standard affair featuring her duet partner Mikky Ekko, and the other an “uncut” version, a single take of the pop star in the bathtub, looking forlorn and distressed. In the latter version, the camera follows her every move, sometimes zooming in for a close-up on the singer’s sad hazel eyes. She only lip-syncs along with the track towards the end of the video. Between this intense four-and-a-half minutes and an atypically strong, emotional delivery of the song at the Grammys the other night, is Rihanna hoping to be taken more seriously as a performer?

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

We’ll probably have to see what awaits on her next album, which will inevitably be released sometime later this year. Whether or not her recent performances really do harbor a change in direction, she has, at least, hit upon a proven formula for making a very good music video: a long, uncut close-up of a performer emoting pretty much always equals something good.

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The close-up of a performer’s face has been one of the key shots in the movies since the medium’s earliest days. As Cecelia Ager, the first female movie critic employed by Variety, gushed of a certain Swedish actress: “Greta Garbo dies beautifully in Camille. You can actually see her do it, sense the precise moment when her lovely spirit leaves her fascinating clay.” The directors of music videos realized its potential power early on, and for decades, some of the best and most memorable entries in that more modest form have stuck to a formula that seemingly cannot fail.

Below, we’ve picked our favorites in this little subgenre. Did we miss any? And has this approach ever gone wrong? Let us know in the comments.

“Nothing Compares 2 U,” Sinead O’Connor

The earliest video on our list and one of the most effective. O’Connor moves between anger, longing, and despair, and it all shows on her small, pale face, perfectly set off by the plain, dark background.

“Head Over Feet,” Alanis Morissette

Morissette’s confessional song—in which she tells the love of her life that she’s “never felt this healthy before/ I’ve never wanted something rational/ I am aware now”—is simple and bare. The single-shot close-up of Morissette’s expressive face is disarming, and fits the tone of the song perfectly.

“No Surprises,” Radiohead

Radiohead added some drama to the subgenre by adding a helmet and rising water. But the single-take video works mostly for the same reasons as the other entries on this list: The close-up grabs and holds our attention.

“Untitled (How Does it Feel),” D’Angelo

Most people remember this video for the way the camera ogles D’Angelo’s remarkable physique. But the singer’s manager, Dominique Trenier, who took credit for conceiving the video, said he had more than titillation in mind. “We wanted him to be able to make contact with whoever was watching it one-on-one,” Trenier said—something that’s achieved thanks to D’Angelo’s seductive gaze into the camera.

“All My Friends,” LCD Soundsystem

Face paint, interesting lighting, rain, sparklers—but the essential element is one guy, lead singer James Murphy, steadily facing us through it all.

“Cold War,” Janelle Monáe

Close-up videos can work with up-tempo tunes, too, as “Cold War” demonstrates. It’s a single close-up of the singer, Janelle Monáe, whose striking features embrace the camera—and yet it’s never boring. Does she crack a flash of a smile in the midst of her intense staredown? Maybe. And from the beginning until the end, when a tear is rolling down her face, the video is nothing short of fascinating.

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