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When pop stars become auteurs

The visual album is a key, genre-defying vessel for pop music titans transferring the symbolic power of their music to image-making.

An essay by Anna McKibbin

Visual albums are not quite poetry to film’s prose, nor are they a chapter in film’s fictional development. Rather than a trend or a style, they function as a discipline, taking the expectations of traditional filmgoers and upending them, building something fresh and lively that breaks free of a story’s traditional structure. In this way, they feel more like the comic book to a film’s novel. As in comic books, the visual album’s story is suggested, tucked into the gap between frames, observers implicated as storytellers in viewing. The best stars pour the history of their music, the stories that lay dormant in the writing process, into the waiting structure of the visual album, filling it with non-literal meaning. Visionaries from Prince to Kate Bush understood that music and film are only ever a few feet away, twin creative impulses on an inevitable collision course.

Of course, where there is art, there will be auteurs: people whose ideas and expressions are curbed around immovable objects and events that fill their vantagepoint. The visual album has become a touchpoint for our most formidable pop singers, their recognisable fingerprints clinging to every newly released image. Every few months, a new iteration of the visual album is released, prompting the next wave of frustrating discourse, both denigrating the skill in launching such a project (treating it as an overlong music video) and overstating the artistic impulse necessitating its release (which is always tied to the marketing of a personal brand). When Jennifer Lopez released the trailer for her bizarre and unexpected passion project entitled This is Me… Now: A Love Story, it prompted a round of questions (Opens in a new window) surrounding the precedent and legitimacy of this storytelling mode. 

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