Where Music Meets Film — Singaporean Musicians and Directors Reclaiming the Art of Music Videos
With every new single a big-name artiste releases, a music video will almost certainly accompany it. These videos have taken many forms in recent years — from the star-studded cameos of Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”, to the abstract dancing of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, or even the slapstick and comedy of PSY’s iconic hit “Gangnam Style”. Artistes execute their music videos with intent, born from any combination of driving factors — generating publicity, crafting the artiste’s image, telling a story, giving audiences an aesthetic experience, and more.
Art takes many forms, but can music videos be considered one of them? And if so, how do we appreciate the artistic value of music videos just as we would for other visual mediums such as film or animation? Lorde stared into the camera for three minutes straight in her music video for “Tennis Court”, can we consider that art?
Music in Singapore falls into a very unique position, and by extension so do the music videos that come out of it. While it is enticing to take a westernised route and appeal to mainstream trends for commercial success, retaining a level of local flair adds a unique flavour that helps artistes stand out on a global stage and create a personal experience that connects fellow Singaporeans.
Without a doubt, this balance and finesse translates into an interesting juxtaposition for music videos. The choices no longer become black and white, like choosing between favouring a mainstream western style or a relatable Singaporean style, but instead, there is a whole spectrum of approaches available especially in the context of something as fluid and interpretive as the arts. Music videos can fall anywhere in between, or even be completely experimental depending on the artiste’s vision.
We take a look at some of the latest music videos released by Singapore’s biggest music artistes, and speak to the creative minds that helped bring these artistic expressions to life.
Jasmine Sokko’s latest single “Medusa” was released on 5 March together with a performance video directed by Benjamin Ong. Jasmine’s past music videos have always been extremely lavish, be it through the use of visual effects like in the music video for HURT or grand backdrops like we see in “TIRED”. The stripped-down performance video for “Medusa” completely contrasts this.
Set in a bare room with just a few lights and no backup dancers, the focus of the video is placed completely on Jasmine’s stage presence. Perhaps this is an image shift for her, or a statement to the naysayers who believe she is nothing without her flashy accents. It certainly accentuates her confidence and growth as an artiste. In such a minimal setting, this might be when Jasmine’s status as a star and a performer shines through the brightest.
We spoke to director Benjamin Ong, who shared the concept of the video with us, “Because this is a live performance video, the most important thing was to showcase the energy and capabilities of an artiste’s live performance.” Known for his keen eye for creating landscapes with colour, Ong incorporated Jasmine’s signature colours into the space. “It kind of felt like we were in her world, and she’s taking us around on a musical journey.”
Jasmine is without a doubt one of the most unique musicians to come out of Singapore. In an era where almost every musician is crafting their own image, building their social media presence, living glamorous lives, and selling the celebrity dream, Jasmine Sokko is subverting expectations by remaining within the realm of anonymity. Her many masks and face coverings have become a quintessential part of her iconic look.
However, without music videos and the visual performance that artistes put on, it is tough to say how Jasmine would instead navigate this unique aspect of her identity as an artiste. Music videos give artistes the ability to present themselves and allow their audience to put a face to the name, which is arguably one of the features that have helped solidify Jasmine’s image.
Charlie Lim and Aisyah Aziz
Singer-songwriters Charlie Lim and Aisyah Aziz joined forces on their latest release “Won’t You Come Around”. This was not the first time the two have collaborated, having worked together on songs for the National Day Parade (NDP) in 2018 and 2019. Likewise, the music video for “Won’t You Come Around” was directed by another familiar name and friend of Charlie Lim, Jonathan Choo.
This is the third video Jonathan Choo has directed for Charlie Lim. “”Light Breaks In” was slightly towards the end of his first album, it was kind of like a bookend of the first chapter of his music career, and then when we embarked into “Welcome Home” it was him breaking into another sound at that time,” Choo says about the evolution of Lim’s music, “With “Would You Come Around”, I wouldn’t say it’s manoeuvring into another sound because he said the song has actually been with him for a couple of years and [he] found that this is the right time to put it out.”
When creating the film, Choo spoke to the duo behind the song to find out what they feel and see when thinking about the song and listening to it. “Won’t You Come Around” is clearly a song about love and the video that accompanies it is slow and poetic. The warm and almost neon oranges contrast the deep, muddy blues to make up most of the colour palette for the video. It embodies the journey from the quiet of sunset to the warmth of sunrise and invokes the feeling of drifting through the night with the thought of a special someone.
Local indie band M1LDL1FE is no stranger to artistic music videos. However their newest song “Can’t Seem to Get Anything” sports a music video that ventures into completely new territory by delving into the realm of animation. Few other Singaporean artistes have taken this route, making M1LDL1FE’s music video for the song stand out from the rest.
The song tackles the feeling of being in a turbulent headspace, battling the unrest of depression and anxiety. The band very clearly wanted this same feeling to translate into the visual representations of the song, including the cover art and the music video.
Behind the video is a team of illustrators and animators consisting of Jolene Tan, Phoebe Ting, Yanhan Hoo, and Denise Yap. The style of the video ties in together with the cover artwork for the song which is illustrated by Jolene Tan. The band describes the character as “vaguely humanoid and ambiguously human, which touched on that disembodied feeling the song speaks about. The character expressions/positions added to that mood.” The illustrator for the music video, Denise Yap, created the character art for the music video based on Tan’s character and animators Phoebe Ting and Yanhan Hoo turned the references into a moving picture on screen, full of glitching and distortion effects to echo the emotions conveyed in the music.
During a YouTube livestream together with the band, the illustrators, and the animators, the team talked about how they knew that they wanted the video to be narrative-driven. From imagery of being trapped in a washed-out monochrome bedroom, to falling through a psychedelic abyss, the animations take us through the emotional rollercoaster of depression and anxiety. The music video even references Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, a motif for feeling trapped and suffocated by mental illness. If the themes were not clear enough in the song itself, it is certainly unmissable with its music video.
Visual art has always taken many forms. Film has been one of the most distinct and well-known forms, but where do music videos fit into this picture?
Music videos are created in such a unique way that can function both as an added dimension to an existing art piece, or on its own like a short film. A music video’s connection to the music can both be its biggest strength and its greatest weakness. A music video can be confined to the ideas of the music, but it is also free to express the music’s ideas in ways that audio alone simply cannot.
“Music videos are an extension of an artiste. If the lyrics to a song is a message that a musician wants to convey, then the story and themes of a music video is that but on a deeper level. They are vital to helping the viewers and listeners understand or relate to the artiste even more,” says Benjamin Ong on the role that music videos play in a musician’s artistic expression.
Music videos very much started off with the rise of MTV, being this huge spectacle on television and as much of a form of entertainment for viewers as the music itself. When MTV controlled the popularity of music, likewise it could be said that music videos shaped the popularity of the music it was tied to.
With time, the dynamic between whether a song or its video is more important has constantly been in flux. There are certainly songs and artistes who owe their recognition more to their music videos than the music itself. PSY’s iconic hit “Gangnam Style” is as much of a catchy tune as it is the slapstick comedy of its viral video and the dance that took the world by storm. And perhaps it could even be said that music videos have helped make music more accessible to wider audiences.
Music has its limitations, but visuals transcend language barriers and sometimes even personal tastes in genres. While K-pop has become a global sensation, certainly not all of its fanbase is made up of those who speak the language. Yet the appreciation for the high production videos, the idols who are just oh-so pleasing to look at, and the complex dance choreography have all become synonymous with K-pop culture and its identity.
As artistes in Singapore continue to develop their craft, perhaps they will also tap into the ideas of artistes from other countries. We already see artistes pushing the boundaries of what they can do, there may come a day when Singaporean artistes produce videos that rival even those of popular western artistes, or maybe even an artiste that tries to emulate the K-pop image. On the flip side of that, Singaporean artistes have and could continue to develop their own flair utilising elements that are unique to Singapore and can form an emotional connection with locals.
Music in Singapore is thriving more than it ever has before, and with the help of filmmakers committed to their craft, they are elevating music into a multi-sensory art form that captures a different dimension of the artiste’s vision. These artistes and filmmakers are certainly not to be ignored and there is certainly a lot of potential for music videos in Singapore to become even more impressive than they already are.