Way back in 1990, George Michael created a minor hubbub when he refused to make a traditional music video for "Praying for Time," the lead single from his album Listen Without Prejudice. Instead, his label released a simple clip that displayed the song's lyrics on a black screen. Twenty-two years later, that seems like a prescient move.
Pop stars still make regular videos to accompany their songs, of course, but now, many of them also release "official lyric videos." Madonna, for instance, is filming a traditional clip for her upcoming single "Girl Gone Wild," but instead of releasing the song to radio and asking us to wait for a visual interpretation, her record company delivered this video on Monday.
From a business perspective, that makes sense. For one thing, fans can forward a lyric video to each other, which means the song gets exposure even if radio stations decline to play it. Plus, listeners are obviously hungry to learn the words to their favorite hits, since homemade lyric videos pop up like wildflowers the second a new song hits the market. However, when someone watches a fan's lyric video, the label can't make money off embedded advertising, and fans often get the lyrics wrong or misspell things. A label is smart to create an official product that gets the words right, generates revenue, and creates buzz.
But as they've become more common, official lyric videos have evolved into more than just marketing tools. The best ones are also works of art.
Take the lyric video for Katy Perry's "Part of Me." It's a good, basic example of the form, using interesting fonts and typographical effects to make the text come alive on screen. Words slide out of each other, phrases flip forward like cut-outs in a pop-up book, and the movement is timed to the song's racing pulse.
The lyrics could have been formatted in Times New Roman and thrown on screen in a karaoke scroll, but instead, designers crafted jagged edges for the blocky consonants, turned the letter A into a scarlet mountain, and designed a distinct style of movement for the text. Even if I didn't like the song, I could savor the visual experience.
Some lyric videos push this concept even further. In the clip for "Turn Me On" by David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj, the words get so excited by the song's kicky beat that they burst out of stereo equipment. The word "oooh" flies out of a turntable; the chorus pushes fader knobs up and down; and as the tempo increases, the text changes color and shape. This is dazzling to watch, and it suggests that "Turn Me On" is such a bangin' anthem that it will take over the room.
But I'd suggest the best lyric video is for Jason Mraz's "I Won't Give Up."
Here, the lyrics are integrated into a story about a man who writes his girlfriend until they can finally reunite. Phrases pop up on envelopes and postcards, so by following the verses and choruses, we also follow the man's messages home. Then the lyrics appear in unexpected places—-on walls and boxes and floors. Suddenly, we know these people love each other so much that their relationship is inscribed on everything they touch. It's not just the letters, but their very world that unites them. The onscreen lyrics are the reason we understand this.
I've seen the official clip for "I Won't Give Up," and it's also good, but for me, the lyric video is the keeper. The rest of the industry would be smart to match the standard it creates.