The $1m pop video rides again
We thought the days of epic music promos were over -- until one lion, two hyenas and 242 desert warriors arrived. . . with Beyoncé. Will Hodgkinson report
In the epic $1m video for Run the World (Girls), Beyoncé and her female army bludgeon a squadron of grim-faced riot police into submission with nothing more than the power of their glamour and some highly choreographed dance routines. An apocalyptic landscape is the backdrop for this act of insurrection, although luckily there is no shortage of designer outfits in the post-nuclear world.
The video, featuring 242 dancers, one horse, one lion, two oversized hyenas on chains and myriad costume changes, was shot over three days in the California desert and confirms Beyoncé's position as the blowdried warrior queen of pop.
It also marks the return of something not seen since Michael Jackson led an army of the undead in Thriller and Simon Le Bon swanned about on a yacht in Rio: the mega-budget pop video.
Director Francis Lawrence's video for Run the World (Girls) references Mad Max, Janet Jackson's militaristic routines for Rhythm Nation and photographer Pieter Hugo's images of Nigerian circus performers with hyenas on chains, all the while reflecting the song's message of high-gloss female empowerment.
It establishes Beyoncé's place among a small coterie of pop divas who are making videos with big budgets, huge casts and controversial themes.
Alongside her is Lady Gaga, whose video for Telephone (which also featured Beyoncé) involved lesbian prison sex and the poisoning of unfaithful boyfriends and has become one of the world's most-watched videos; and Rihanna, whose fetishistic, over-the-top video for S&M was banned in 11 countries this year. All this poses the question: does the pop video really have a place in the 21st Century?
The days of crowding around the television for the new Michael Jackson epic on Top of the Pops or MTV are gone. YouTube has devalued the currency of the big production: a cheap fan video for Kids by the US band MGMT became a far bigger hit than the official release, and the US rock band OK Go self-shot a sequence of the group dancing on treadmills for their single Here it Goes Again and received 50 million views as a result.
Meanwhile, the collapse of album sales has led to austerity measures. The average video shoot now costs less than £10,000, which is minuscule considering that 80s and 90s budgets regularly reached £1m and that the shoot for Michael and Janet Jackson's 1995 single Scream cost $7m.
In this climate you have to wonder if Beyoncé's single is something more than an elaborate indulgence. Run the World (Girls) is, by Beyoncé's standards, a commercially unsuccessful single, but the video has caused online hysteria, with its YouTube site getting 20 million views in its first five days. Will it be $1m well spent?
"An artist like Beyoncé values the visual medium," says Kevin Godley, the musician and director who was at the forefront of the 80s video revolution. "It's a cultural thing. Urban artists spend more of their own money on videos than artists in any other genre."
Godley, whose latest work was for Katie Melua's The Flood, was the pioneer of the video as a non-narrative visual form. His videos for Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Police were famously imaginative, chiefly because Godley and his collaborator at the time, Lol Creme, began at a time when nobody was sure what the purpose of the video was.
For the first time it was standard for artists to feature fleetingly, if at all, in their own promotional productions.
"There weren't any rules," Godley says of making iconic videos such as Duran Duran's Girls on Film (featuring a cowgirl, a masseuse and a woman sumo wrestler) and Frankie's Two Tribes (actors playing Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko in hand-to-hand combat).
"Anything went as long as it was stimulating to watch, and as nobody had worked out the financial value of a video yet, the field was wide open. It felt like the lunatics were very much in charge of the asylum."
Back in the mid-80s, making videos could be as dangerous as it was expensive. On Russell Mulcahy's shoot for Duran Duran's Wild Boys, Le Bon was strapped to a wheel that dunked him in water. Legend has it he was in mid-dunk when the crew went on a break and left him, nearly drowning him.
For Godley and Creme's shoot for the Police's Wrapped Around Your Finger, Sting was filmed among 1,000 candles, many of which he knocked over, almost causing a fire.
That kind of excess is rare these days, but for Godley the video remains a form with the potential for total freedom.
"Music is an abstract experience and you are trying to reflect that," he says. "Unfortunately, record companies began to understand the function of the video after a while, and, as a result, if you made a George Michael video you probably had to have George Michael in it."
Lawrence's video for Run the World (Girls) is visually striking, but it ultimately serves to highlight Beyoncé's beauty, glamour and strength. Other contemporary video directors have not been held back by such constraints. One of the most revolutionary -- and controversial -- video directors working today is Romain Gavras. His nine-minute video for Born Free by the Sri Lankan singer M.I.A. features armed soldiers bursting into apartments and rounding up ginger-haired youths.
"M.I.A. was extremely brave," Gavras says. "She was a big star in the US when she came to me and said, 'Let's do something that f***s up my career'. She did it to be involved in something interesting, in a piece of art."
Gavras rejects the idea that Beyoncé's promo marks a new era in the video as a revolutionary field of art. "I like Beyoncé, but she's just taking politically charged images and themes to be cool," the French director says.
Run the World (Girls) serves the same purpose as the big productions of 30s Hollywood. Just as The Wizard of Oz was a star vehicle for Judy Garland, so Run the World (Girls) highlights Beyoncé's status as one of the world's biggest stars.
Whether she's heralding the dawn of a new age in the history of the video, however, or the equivalent of a final orgy before the collapse of the Roman Empire, it's too early to tell.