While some videos are made to document important events and capture memories, music videos have long been an art form that gives audio tracks a visual accompaniment. Some music videos follow the narrative flow of the song, becoming a visual and literal rendering of the music. Other music videos have no correlation to the lyrics of the song and present musical artists with the opportunity to be creative visually as well.
Kanye West’s music video for his song ‘Power’ is a prominent example of an artist using a music video to express himself visually and elaborate on the message of the song. Directed by artist and filmmaker Marco Brambilla, the video holds deeper poetic meaning than I realized at first.
The 1:15 minute video features West in the center of an elaborate moving neoclassical painting. Starting with a close-up shot of his face, the video slowly zooms out to reveal the whole scene of various historical and mythical allusions of power, all moving in extreme slow motion. Despite the video’s simplicity in camera angles, it incorporates lots of elaborate computer generated imagery and, of course, scantily clad women.
Referencing the public reaction to West after he infamously interrupted Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009, Bramilla constructed a narrative about West’s transition as a celebrity and paint an epic portrait of power. “In one sense it’s both the rise and fall of a celebrity in a way and that’s one of the things that interested me about working with Kanye,” Brambilla said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
The overall visuals of the video are intoxicatingly beautiful. The elaborate costuming and the muted tones blew me away. While the symmetry of all the elements contributes to the video being both aesthetically pleasing and poetic, the juxtaposition of the stillness of West and the extremely slow movements subtly add to the commentary about power.
While I was thoroughly impressed with all the symbolism and imagery in the video, I thought the most poetic visual representation of the uncertainty of power is the sword that hangs above West’s head through the whole video, a reference to the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles. The story is told of a courtier, Damocles, who was given a chance to trade places with the king, Dionysius II of Syracuse, for a day. To illustrate the constant fear that he lives in and the impermanence of power, the king arranges for a sword to be hung by a horsehair above Damocles’ head, threatening to fall and kill him at any time.
Roman orator Cicero wrote in the Tusculan Disputations that the moral of this anecdote was that there could be “nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms.” West, in this song about how “no one man should have all that power,” is illustrating very poetically that he lives his life with the fear that all his power could come to an end at any time.
With so many superficial videos with shallow cheesy narratives in the music industry, it was refreshing to experience a video of a successful attempt at dealing with the deep and poetic discussion of celebrity and the nature of power. I believe when a music video becomes more than just visual accompaniment to the song, and instead an extension of the message, it is art.