Literal illustrations of music

The literal illustration of music in a video, particularly the illustration of lyrics, is perhaps the most obvious and easiest way for a student to approach the listening and composing tasks of this music video assignment, but from our perspective as teachers, it also seemed the most simplistic and problematic. Madeleine Sorapure has identified literal illustrations as one of the two most common problems she sees in her students work: "some students seem inclined to match modes, so that, for instance, a Flash project will have a song playing in the background while on the screen the lyrics of the song appear along with images depicting exactly what the lyrics say." What we found from our analysis is that surprisingly few of the videos matched modes—only 11 of 70—and what we found from the interviews is that even students who chose this approach did not do so simply in order to complete the assignment quickly and easily. Two of the three we interviewed listened carefully to a variety of songs before settling on their approach, and all of them found the interpretive, compositional, and technical components of the assignment to be challenging. While literal illustrations of a song's lyrics does not seem to take advantage of the kinds of layering of meaning, the kinds of "productive tensions" (Sorapure) possible in new media, our research suggests that the intellectual and technical demands are not significantly different from the other approaches—associative applications and background enhancements—we have identified, and when done well, literal illustrations of music can produce engaging and meaningful multimodal compositions. Note, all PowerPoint video shows must be downloaded rather than clicking on the following links.

One way in which literal illustrations can become challenging as an approach to content and as a technical composition is through the splicing together of multiple songs to create a coherent whole. Chris Ellefson closely illustrated lyrics from five different songs in a project he called "A Musical Presentation." In the first section of this video, when Modest Mouse sings "walked away to another place," Ellefson splits the screen and shows people walking, backs to the camera; when Death Cab for Cutie sings, "I opened my eyes," Ellefson shows an extreme close-up of a pair of eyes; when Cold Play sings, "In a haze, in a stormy haze," he shows the word "haze," and then a picture of a massive lightening storm.  Ellefson also uses two instrumental-only sections in the video, the first "Passenger Seat" by Death Cab for Cutie in which he shows a number of pictures of cars and roads, and "I Heard You Looking" by Yo La Tango that he illustrates with panoramic shots of the universe, natural environments, and some cityscapes. 

He explained his process of listening as he was preparing for the assignment.  "I was listening to my iPod Shuffle and things were coming through and it was like, oh this would be a good song to use.  I could find images that could illustrate this.  That was how I selected those."  He admitted in his interview that his process was "pretty random," but he also said that in making a video "you interpret things like lyrics and songs and by doing that you can find images and things to go with the music and try to make it go to the song. You're trying to communicate things without text." Ellefson also said that he thought about making an abstract video, but he decided to illustrate the songs literally because he thought that "people would think that would be neat [and because] I didn't want them thinking I was really really weird." As experienced viewers of text and video, teachers may prefer the complexity of associative applications, or even the quirky abstractness of David Byrne's EEEI PowerPoint compositions, but as teachers of rhetoric, we can admire Ellefson's sense of audience and desire to establish a specific ethos.

Chris Ellefson also explained in the interview that he was a very active music collector, and had bought a lot of music in the last four years, giving him easy access to a large music collection he could work with. Kyle Johnson, who composed a video called "Garth Brooks Mixture," said in his interview that he didn't listen to a lot of music and the Garth Brooks CD from which he pulled all three musical clips was one of the only CDs he owned. While a small collection of music does not necessitate a literal illustration approach to this assignment, it seems like a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that students who are interested in and invested in music might hear and see more possibilities in a song, and more possible combinations of songs, than casual listeners. Johnson's video is the kind of literal illustration that most teachers would probably see as problematic, but knowing Johnson's limited interest in music helps explain his approach.

He used clip-art images to closely illustrate three Garth Brooks clips, "Thunder Rolls," "Two Pina Coladas," and "The River."  When Brooks sings of the "city's looking like a ghost town," the screen shows clip art images of ghosts; when Brooks sings about thunder, Johnson employed clip-art images of clouds and lightning; when Brooks sings of Pina Coladas, Johnson employed clip-art images of Pina Coladas.  Even in the role of re-mixer or new media composer, Johnson does not try to add his own point of view or message to the videos. Based on the clip art image of a large #1 (i.e. Garth Brooks is #1) and the two thumbs-up that appear on the first screen, this video can be understood as a celebration or a fan's video.  He described his process in an interview:

I just listened to the whole song and tried to figure out what 30 second clips I could use out of them and then the images I just found on the Internet and used what the song was talking about—like the pina coladas I just found a few of those and the hands and stuff.  And I guess the organization went, well, "The River" is my favorite song, so I put that first, and next would come "The Thunder Rolls," then "Two Pina Coladas," so I put it in the order of my favorites.

He told Michael Tomanek that he found the assignment to be technically and intellectually challenging, and while this particular video does not show a lot of rhetorical awareness or compositional experimentation, Johnson also said that he would only add music to future PowerPoint presentations "if it helped what I was trying to get across." As a first-time video maker and not much of a music fan, it seems that the close, literal illustration of three Garth Brooks clips provided Johnson with some guidance for working in a new and unfamiliar genre, composing with materials that were not familiar to him.

Literal illustrations of songs tends to result in what Sorapure calls "leveling of the modes," which limits the use of "productive tensions" that tend to make new media composition interesting. Literal illustrations also seem, on the surface, to require the least amount of thought, planning, and imagination. Amanda Houkom, however, described a methodical and sophisticated composing process in which she printed off the lyrics to "You're My Little Girl" by Go Fish, and then line-by-line looked for ways to illustrate the lyrics for her video, also titled "You're My Little Girl". Houkom described her composing process as one in which translating the song into video heightened her understanding of the song and challenged her to think of ways to illustrate abstract concepts:

I printed it out.  I knew when I thought of the song, "ohh, that's a perfect song, because you know there are pictures of little girls out there, cuuute little girls, and I was like "this is going to be the cutest video in the world.  Just, yeaa, happy little girls!"  Then I printed it out and I started writing it out, and I realized "this is a little darker than I thought" because the verses are all sad, but the chorus is happy.  I think it balanced out.  I had trouble with some of them. How do you find a picture of a neglectful father?  How do you illustrate that somebody is not there when they should be?

She went on to describe her search for the right image to illustrate these lyrics, which included finding "the perfect" video of hands sliding down prison bars that she could have purchased for $175, but she settled on a still image of a man in prison.  Houkom did end up purchasing eight photos for $1 each; she was intent on not just settling for adequate images to illustrate this song that had so much meaning for her and her family. 

[T]his song ["You're My Little Girl" by Go Fish]  is very important to me because my uncle used to sing it to my cousin, when she was a little girl, and she died when she was 2.  My uncle and my cousin were in a train accident, and they both died.  And this band actually came and played at the benefit for the son, for the family, they came and played this song for them. And the little girl at the end of the video is my cousin, the last picture with the butterfly is my cousin.  We actually refer to this song as Dani's song.

Her image choices led to a video that, for most viewers, seems quite literal, although she also used pacing and timing strategies that make even this literal video a demanding and engaging viewing experience.  She uses many more images per slide than Ellefson, for example, and in her interview, she articulated a clear sense of how to use literal illustrations by off-setting the image and lyrics slightly to increase the dramatic effect: "I designed it [the typical slide] so that the picture would come up—you would see these dramatic, forceful pictures, and then you would hear the words, and I thought that made the video more dramatic, more emotional." She attributed her understanding of how to use music for dramatic and emotional impact to many years of singing and choir participation. She also used no text, avoiding the excessively literal illustration of hearing and seeing specific lyrics. She said "I thought about [using text], but . . . I realized that when I saw videos with text in them, they looked cheesy. Even on MTV, it looks stupid."

Of these three videos, we see in Houkom's process and product a more sophisticated approach to the assignment than we see in Ellefson's and Johnson's videos, but all three students listened closely to the music they worked with, and they demonstrated—albeit to various degrees—the kind of passionate collecting that Sirc looks for in his students and that we hoped to see in our students.  While the excessively literal illustrations of songs, in which the text of lyrics accompanies the song itself, make little use of the layering of meaning that new media can support so well, we also found that literal illustrations like Houkom's serious video are as successful in understanding the medium and multimodal composition as any of the 70 videos we viewed and categorized.  She avoided the excessively literal strategy of putting the lyrics in the video as text, she illustrates lyrics with multiple images rather than a single image, and she approached each slide with a sense of how to get the most emotional impact out of the timing and arrangement of images, music, and lyrics. Particularly successful literal videos might require that students can hear and recognize interesting music and lyrics—a great discussion point for a brainstorming session prior to the assignment—and then develop and employ a repertoire of composing techniques that can result in a visually sophisticated video.