Sight and Sound: The Effects of Media and Shock Value on Music

The 1980s produced more than just the first Mac computer, which clearly made a lot of people happy, if its successors, such as the iPhone may be spotted at least once while walking down any street today. With the advent of modern technology in this decade, reforms were made in all categories, including that of popular music. The equivalent to the computer in music was MTV, a network which acted to integrate the sounds one hears while listening to a song with the images one sees while watching a movie, as implied by the name behind the acronym, “Music Television.”

While it is true that music videos existed prior to the 1980s, the motives that producers and artists had in creating these videos differed in earlier decades. In the 1960s, for example, videos were simply used for promotional purposes to get audiences to listen to the particular song being advertised, as was the case with the “Twist and Shout” video made for The Beatles. Yet, in the 1980s, the visual element of the video served more of a storytelling purpose, setting the precedence for almost all music videos produced today, with the exception of those that are recorded live in concert settings. How did artists and producers choose to tell the stories behind their music? Two simple words: shock value. 

Madonna was one such artist whose actions lived up to the definition of shock value, or perhaps, even put the term in place for future generations of pop music icons to model. She didn’t use TV to put a set of a Hollywood-esque town in the background just to look glamorous while she was performing. Nor did she rely on the picture to convey the messages which were masked behind her lyrics. Instead, Madonna told her own story through the suggestive clothes she wore in her music videos and through the dance moves she incorporated, which were seen as controversial at the time that her videos were released. Scholars argue that the questionable elements found in Madonna’s music videos (and other music videos at the time of MTV’s introduction) were what allowed her (and other celebrities) to maintain success throughout the 1980s. They attest to this fact by pointing out that the female band, The Go-Gos did not receive as many listeners as did Madonna and other female artists, such as Olivia Newton John because they focused more on friendship and socializing than on raunchy behavior in their music videos.

Shock value in music media undoubtedly exists today, and has become a lot more outrageous since its inception in the 1980s. Madonna’s circular hip gestures and side-to-side hip-hop moves got one of her videos banned from MTV. Yet, Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video, which was at first banned from YouTube and other websites in 2009 due to its concern with police brutality, drug references, bisexual undertones, extremely revealing outfits, and overall eroticism was eventually made public on several internet platforms. If one were to listen to the lyrics of this song without watching the video, he or she would most likely gather that it is about letting go of the chaos that life and busy schedules have to offer through dancing the night away and not worrying about taking any phone calls. “Telephone” is just one example of the disparity which exists between sight and sound when it comes to the interpretation of a song’s lyrics, which leads me to ask…

Do you think that the visuals paired with music through modern technology (such as the TV or the computer screen) manipulate listeners to perceive a song’s story in a certain way, or do they simply provide an aesthetic effect to enhance the listener’s experience? Is shock value a useful tool, or does it take away from the ability of the listener to create his or her own story? How has the presentation of shock value changed over time? Below, you will find videos of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” to help you answer these questions.

Scroll to the VERY, VERY bottom of the page (past the Works Cited, until you can’t scroll anymore) or go to the “Thoughts on Sight and Sound…” section to leave your comments. Check out the “Help! What Do I Write About?” tab if you have questions about what to discuss musically, or even if you have writer’s block!

Works Cited:

Harrison, Thomas. Music of the 1980s. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011. Web.

LadyGagaVEVO. “Lady Gaga-Telephone ft. Beyoncé.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 15 March 2010. Web. 30 June 2015.

Ulaby, Neda. “From Elvis to Lady Gaga: Playing With Shock Value in Music.” npr. Music Articles, 28 May 2010. Web. 30 June 2015.

Warner Bros. Records. “Madonna-Like a Prayer.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 26 October 2009. Web. 30 June 2015.

3 thoughts on “Sight and Sound: The Effects of Media and Shock Value on Music

  1. Thank you musicsoiree for taking me back to my high school days, when I experienced first hand the advent of MTV! I had forgotten about the “shocking” Madonna videos and the many others that I enjoyed for hours on end. Despite the fact that they were never quite as popular as Madonna, the Go-Gos were a great 80’s band! I believe that shock value is a useful tool for the artists and the businesses that market them. While I rarely understood the message that was being portrayed in the music videos I viewed, they did enhance my listening experience. Maybe that is the strategy behind these videos, the more shocking and confusing they are, the more people will keep coming back for more! Also, the more senses you can involve, the more emotionally involved the listener becomes. I did like Madonna, but not many people suggested that she had a great voice. Instead, she was a great entertainer. Furthermore, the videos that we found shocking in the 80’s would probably be considered tame today. Artists, and the businesses that market them, keep pushing the envelope in order to drive sales. While modern technology in music has helped the listener/viewer’s enjoyment and driven sales, it would seem that it might take away from the artist’s need to be an excellent vocalist. There seem to be many young pop stars today that have their voices digitally enhanced, but they have a great brand and they sell music, concert tickets, t-shirts, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shock value is nothing new in music; Elvis Presley anyone? I certainly think that the greater prevalence of such uses of visual shock value is partly due to audiences becoming desensitized to this sort of thing, at least to a degree.

    Visuals can be a great tool, but they seem to be turning into more of a distraction than an aid – usurping the viewer’s imagination of what is transpiring in that particular song, much like how after one has watched a movie based on a book (Chronicles of Narnia, for instance), one finds it hard to *not* picture the characters, settings, events, etc of the book through the prism of their portrayal in the movie. It’s basically a double-edged sword – on the other hand, your average Taylor Swift song works well with or without the accompanying music video.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, David and Leothelion for your interesting comments! David, I liked your analysis of the commercialization of shock value, and Leothelion, I enjoyed your comparison of visual listening aids to reading a book and seeing the movie based off of the book for the first time. You have both acknowledged that shock value and visual aids have been useful tools in getting the listener involved in the music an artist produces in sensory ways other than those which are auditory. This insight leads me to wonder whether shock value can be attained through sticking to the original lyrics/plot of a song; in other words, would it be as effective to implement shock into a music video that is already about police brutality as it would be to include police brutality in a song that is about not answering one’s phone (if we take Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” for instance)?


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