Watching the music video to Ed Sheeran’s latest single ‘Sing’ reminded me of a particular narrative device used in a music video Motion Brothers produced a few years ago.
For those who haven’t seen Sheeran’s new video – it’s below if you want to watch it – the main narrative follows a puppet (muppet in appearance) version of Sheeran as he jounces around an urban scene intent on having an excessive night out; reckless driving, attractive women and karaoke bars inclusive.
Firstly, I’m a big fan of music videos that try to incorporate a storyline where either a) the artist isn’t the lead protagonist of the story, b) the artist barely features. Especially when the artist is a big star, as the marketing department of said artist’s record label will have no doubt kicked up a fuss about squandering yet another opportunity to remind the consumer exactly who’s music they are consuming.
I’m a fan because the video is instantly more engaging, and more often than not makes me want to watch it again and again. After all, drama is interesting, watching a band sing at the camera for 180 seconds is less so. Repeat viewing will of course mean I hear the song (or soundtrack to the story, as I like to think of it) more times, often subconsciously absorbing the tune as the drama plays out. In some cases this has even lead to me buying a song I didn’t, on first hearing it, actually like. This approach is particularly effective on music channels, as often the viewer will catch the video mid-story while channel hopping and, curiosity peaked, seek out the video online in order to understand and ‘complete’ the story.
Music videos that tell stories through the use of animatism – the assignment to inanimate objects, forces, and plants of personalities and wills – are in my opinion always a winning combination; think Blur’s ‘Coffee & TV’. Puppetry is a step on from this, and puppets and personification go hand in hand. By design they’re meant to imitate human characteristics, which in turn allows us to relate to whatever scene the puppeteers/directors choose to place them in. But we relate differently to puppets, than we do to actors. Though they may look human in form, we as the audience know this to be a deception and this allows us to relate at a distance.
This awkward relationship between audience and puppet, who in the case of Sheeran’s ‘Sing’ is the protagonist, is useful for the artist. Music videos, on the whole, enjoy showing us a world we’re unlikely to have experienced. Usually a world of glamour and riches, exotic locations, beautiful people, and stress free fun.
As an audience unfamiliar with this world we enjoy being briefly invited into it by the artist. But this invitation is often met with scepticism, envy and resentment by the viewer – “yay, here’s yet another video where [insert popstar] is enjoying the good life!!”
More importantly, artists have a moral responsibility to ensure that they don’t openly promote the excesses that accompany the pleasures money can bring. So a balance needs to be struck. We want the artist to invite us into their world without rubbing our noses in it, and without the moral dilemmas. So how can this be achieved?
1. Remove blame and responsibility from the lead characters
Black Keys’ ‘Next Girl’ does this brilliantly – is the dinosaur male or female? Does it even matter? The toy dinosaur is obviously the cause of the fight and yet it is absolved of responsibility – it is after all just a toy.
2. Make the narrative relateable
In our video for Jason Lee we had the creative goal of being “Cool and entertaining, with a dark streak that resonates with the viewer.” We used the puppet to symbolise that “stereotypical mate” who always manages to sabotage a good night out, in the hope that the audience would relate and warm to the story and be intrigued by the narrative arc: will the puppet succeed in ruining the protagonist’s night or not?
3. Parody – Trivilaise the world for comical effect
Take Director Ninian Doff’s video for Fulton Lights as an example. He uses the personification of a flock of park birds to mock celebrity culture (paparazzi, interviews) and the effect is humorous.
Where Sheeran’s ‘Sing’ is particularly effective is in the uncanny and deliberate resemblance between the puppet and Sheeran himself, which partially resolves that marketing issue I highlighted above: how to keep Sheeran in the spotlight for the duration of the video. Sheeran himself has a distinctly memorable look that the creators of this video must surely have been aware of. And you can’t help but think that had this been attempted for another artist that the effect might not have been so powerful.
The end result is that a unique distance between the viewer and artist has been created. The human characteristics of the puppet allow us to relate to the story being told, while the absence of Sheeran from the lead role within the video prevents any negative emotions (envy, indignation) from forming in our minds. The result is that we’re able to enjoy the video for what it is: a fun story of excess accompanied by a catchy song – one that I’ve just finished downloading from iTunes.