One of the most easily consumed (and equally easily disposed of) forms of film these days is the music video. And as the chorus from the ‘Safety Dance’ bounced through my skull for the fourteenth time yesterday, I couldn’t help but think about the use of the Middle Ages in these videos. Now this use of the Middle Ages is always a bit bizarre, since the music in the videos never seems to accompany the visuals, more often being in the video in order to capitalise upon an aesthetic already popular. Take for example the video for Safety Dance by 80s prog band ‘Men without Hats’:
The song is a prime example of early 1980s prog electronica. The video involves the lead singer and a seemingly random dwarf-in-a-jester-suit happening upon a medieval-ish village festival, replete with morris dancing, a maypole and a Punch and Judy show. Why? I defy you to make sense of it.
There seems no obvious connection between the two in the song, so the credit can only go to the people in charge of making the video. My best guess, without having spoken with them, is that it was picked up as a popular aesthetic to use based upon the burgeoning popularity of fantasy films during the early 80s (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fantasy_films:1980s). The environment used (actually the village of West Kington in the UK) looks not at all unlike Ladyhawke, Willow or The Princess Bride. However since seeing this video on infinite loop on MTV as a child, I instinctually associate this song with the Middle Ages, and I imagine I am not alone.
Example number 2: The video for ‘Wonderboy’, by Tenacious D
This is an epic-rock ballad by parody band Tenacious D (headed by Jack Black). True to form for the D, the song doesn’t take itself seriously– by taking itself way too seriously. Strangely though, again, the video doesn’t seem to match the song– the song is describing, it seems, a pair of superheroes (Wonderboy and Young Nastyman) with such superpowers as ‘flight’, the ability to ‘kill a yak from 200 yards away with mind-bullets’ and ‘the power to move you’. However the video shows vaguely-medievalesque medieval people trudging (not flying) through snowy mountain-scapes. Not even yak-filled ones. The video was directed by Spike Jonze of ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Adaptation’ fame. For me, the video immediately evokes the Caradhras sequence from Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, which was released the same year.
It’s difficult to know whether the two are related, especially since the Music Video was released before the Lord of the Rings film was (LOTR being released in December, this being released in October). Was the trailer enough to influence the aesthetic to this degree, or am I only drawing the link because of my subsequent experience with the film? The similarities between the two are uncanny, to my mind. Can they be mere coincidence?
Example 3: An animated music video (and probably my personal favourite of the three) for Jason Forrest’s song ‘War Photographer’
Ah, the infinite pastiche that is postmodern medievalism. Here we have the most stereotypical view of Vikings on display, the horned helmets, the drinking, the barbarity and savagery are all present. But then it becomes something else– the Vikings put on a rock concert… and then their ship morphs into a Voltron or Power Rangers like giant fighting robot. It doesn’t make sense and in some ways, it doesn’t need to. As one of the commentators on the video says: “viking + giant robots + rock n roll = i can’t hear you over the sound how awsome this vid is.” So, to some degree critiquing these based upon their representation of history almost seems silly in light of the fact that it is intentionally just a giant dogpile of awesome intended not to be understood but to be enjoyed. On the other hand, I associate the Safety Dance with the Middle Ages.
So, how do we engage with something which is not at all meant to be taken seriously, while still retaining our sense of fun? I’m sure there are plenty of music videos using the Middle Ages I’ve missed out– leave your favourite in the comment field below!