PR campaigns are perhaps bigger deals now than ever - Kanye, Daft Punk and David Bowie have all seen the traditional motions shaken up, injecting mystique and summoning intrigue in order to shift discs; largely, it's met with huge success and strong sales in the face of dwindling retail markets. Whether they're playing coy with interviewers, deliberately misleading the press or shunning the rules of releasing an album, they've all sought to play the game by a different set of rules.
Music videos are a vital part of the PR machine. They drum up interest for an upcoming single by reaching other audiences, adding another method of advertisement and by being general must-see commodities. They've been taken on as more of an 'art form' these days, but when it comes down to it, their purpose is (almost always) the same as the Pilgrim's Choice advert with the little cowboy - to sell a product.
As with most advertising, word of mouth is extremely crucial. Crafting a clip that's good is always a safe bet. Adding celebrity endorsements can do the trick (and is becoming more and more prevalent as product placement becomes more important), as can appealing to the lowest common denominator. However, perhaps the best way to incite curiosity in a single is by having a controversial music video. Even now, decades later, Aphex Twin, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Duran Duran are famed for their shocking snippets.
Madonna built her career on being contrary, with 'Like A Prayer' still regarded as one of the most contentious music videos ever; there's not as much meaning behind it as she would have you believe: it was made purely to get up in people's faces. Getting a video banned is the zenith of music promos - what better way to instigate fascination than to sculpt something so outrageous, so X-rated or so gory that censors make it outright illegal? If you're told something is too explicit and uproarious to view, doesn't that then make you compulsively seek it out? It's basic psychology.
Marketing managers and label execs have greenlit controversy through the ages, but perhaps, more now with the PR campaign revolution in full swing, controversy - and videos in particular - is essential. Already in 2013 we've had our fair share of touchy subjects broached, blood splattered and naughty bits exposed.
It might not seem particularly offensive to begin with, but what soon transpires will surely have Grouplove blacklisted in North Korea - making yourselves enemies of a nation will do wonders for your YouTube views. Though it's actually a really rather sweet video, and one that's downright hilarious, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to be particularly fond (though how great would it be if he was?), and given the recent tantrums he and his nuclear-obsessed cronies have been throwing, it's not exactly the pinnacle of tact by the psych-pop outfit.
Boobies and bottoms always get the pulses racing (in both readings of the phrase): Foals have recently dropped nipple-laced NFSW-fest 'Bad Habit' onto the web, Iggy Azalea's 'Work' caused Daily Mail trouble and pap-fodder Miley Cyrus is trying desperately to shed her Disney image by learning to twerk. However, it's synth-pop trio Is Tropical who take the crown here. Banned from YouTube almost instantly, the clip for 'Dancing Anymore' sees French directors Megaforce (who also helmed Yeah Yeah Yeahs' recent 'Sacrilege') push every limit possible. Without giving too much away, a teenage boy gets to grips with his own sexuality (pun intended), there's CGI vaginas of titanic proportions, and we get to see what 50 Cent taking it from behind in Fallujah would look like. It's gold.
Legendary musician David Bowie, after the hullabaloo surrounding his initial comeback subsided, threw this little doozy into the ether. 'The Next Day' is not for the squeamish. Or Catholics, apparently; William Anthony Donohue, oversensitive hypocrite/leader of The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, labelled the video "a mess" and Bowie as "a switch-hitting, bisexual, senior citizen from London." No loving thy neighbour, Donohue?
We see a lascivious Gary Oldman, adorned in priestly garb, frolic with booze and harlots, before one particular lady of the night - Marion Cotillard - falls to the floor, stigmata spraying everywhere. There's eyeballs served up fresh (more religious imagery), and a deified Bowie. Needless to say, it got many hackles up for higher-ups in the church (and YouTube).
R&B wunderkind the Weeknd dropped the audacious visuals to his new single, 'Kiss Land'. It's a ballsy, aggressive farrago of neon lights and Japanese imagery - not only does he ignite headaches for epileptics, but due to the frequency of mosaicked areolae, a lot of censors too. It's got a big 'leaked sextape' vibe; it's all obscured amateur shots and brief panning. It's not entirely surprising that 'Kiss Land' has a video like this – the lyrics are plain filth - though it's somewhat disappointing that there aren't more reasons for the censors to get panicky.
Die Antwoord's video for 'Cookie Thumper', is, though verging upon controversial, fairly all right throughout (there's a bit of writhing, but nothing more risqué than VH1). What really sets this apart though, is the final few seconds. In the video, singer/rapper/high-pitched demon of SA Yolandi Visser plays an orphaned girl, who appears to be fairly young. We see her get spanked, smoke illicit substances and then piss herself, but the cringing caveat is watching her get painfully rammed at the end. Bearing in mind she's playing a technically ageless-though-youthful orphan, it makes for awkward viewing.
The groundbreaking record Shaking The Habitual by the Knife is brimming with political/societal commentary and philosophical discussions; it's deep stuff. Their short films - especially 'Full of Fire' - are particularly antagonistic, forcing viewers and listeners to address important issues that are otherwise skirted by mainstream media. It tackles things like gender roles, fate and Sweden's financial policies (and also features public urination). Perhaps more controversial is their promo for 'A Tooth for an Eye'. The flagrant flouting of firework safety regulations is an outrage.
We may only be halfway through the year, but due to the schemes we've already seen – which are sure to inspire many intrepid PR individuals - it's unlikely to be the last. Kanye West is yet to release any real music videos, and with Yeezus being as vitriolic and barbed and polarising as it is, his videos aren't going to be easy watching (Editors Note: The video Kanye just released the video for 'Black Skinhead' was a fake). Others could just pop out of the blue, much like Is Tropical's did. Controversial videos are becoming the norm as a way to cause a stir and attract attention.
If the amount of skin or blood or blasphemy on screen is too damn high, people are either going to have to learn to desensitise themselves to the horrors, or just quit bleating - if it's that much of a problem, stop feeding the machine. If you're offended, don't publicly decry the video, it will just make it more notorious. These suggestions will fall on deaf ears, but it's worth noting the irony of trying to get a video banned.
Frankly, videos like these are way more entertaining. There are ways of making great music videos without causing a ruckus, but more often than not, we get flaccid, vacuous pop mannequins miming with similarly dressed vapid pop mannequins. Who cares about watching a singer blankly miming/crooning at a camera? That's lazy filmmaking. If you're going to try and gather support for a single, the best way to go is controversial. Aim to offend.
Well, within reason. Don't be a dick; gore and sex are fine; misogyny, homophobia and racism aren't.