Contemporary R&B Music Videos: A Manifesto

Glitz. Glamour. Fashion. Fame. Sensuality.

Contemporary R&B artists embody all of these things. Their music videos shape who they are as artists, and how they present themselves to the world. They showcase the talents of these artists, from singing to dancing to fashion. These talents are often portrayed in a very sexual way. Yet, R&B music videos attract a wide range of people, regardless of race, age, or gender. Their popularity and sexual nature lend them much potential to promote social change. Video makers must be conscious of this potential, so that R&B music videos are used to reinforce positive self-images and social norms regarding women and gender equality.

Some R&B music videos sexually objectify women. They show unknown bodies and pretty faces dancing provocatively in skimpy outfits. The purpose these women serve in the video? To cater to the male artist’s desires and ego. This message must not be shown to the world. A woman’s sole purpose is not to serve a man. Her sexuality is not defined in his terms. She has desires and talents of her own, and these must be demonstrated to the world.

Female R&B artists demonstrate these things. Makeup, high-heels, and sex appeal. These women know how to use their music videos to show off what they got. And what they got is usually pretty sexy. But their sex appeal is not their only talent. They write lyrics, sing, and dance, providing entertainment to millions. Take Beyoncé’s “Diva” music video for example. I’d like to see a man walk in those heels, let alone dance in them.

In music videos like these, the artists’ overt sexuality does not objectify her; in fact, it does quite the opposite. It shows that a woman can be confident in her sexuality and also be extremely talented. She has a personality, a successful profession, and all the fame and glamour a person could dream of. Yes, sexuality is one of her many assets (pun intended); however, she has complete ownership over it, and it is not her only skill. Her stunner looks simply augment her status as an independent, successful, and powerful woman. So basically, these videos portray female sexuality in a positive light. This is the message R&B music video creators need to send. We need to let the viewers know that it’s no longer the 1960s, and that they’re not Don Draper. And sure, women’s capabilities are much more recognized in today’s society, but we’re going for complete gender equality here. None of this subtle bias towards men that creates statistics like how men on average earn more than woman who do the same job. If you’re a guy reading this, I’m pretty sure Beyoncé gets paid more than you. But I could be wrong.

Anyways, I applaud female R&B artists, who show us that women can be successful like men and look good doing it. Music video creators should illustrate this fact. They must use their powers of creation to continue portraying female sexuality in a positive light. Not only will they be creating something visually appealing and entertaining, but they will also be reinforcing a lesson in gender equality. Videographers, you not only have the power to entertain, but you also have the power to promote social change. Realize this potential, and embrace it.



The Future of R&B Music Videos

R&B music videos have evolved quite a bit since the slow, single shot performance based videos in the 1950s. Contemporary R&B music videos visually portray sexual lyrics through story based videos, dance videos, or themed videos. The jazz, gospel, and blues rhythms of early R&B music evolved as it blended with pop, rap, and hip-hop genres to create contemporary R&B. With its quicker and/or more pronounced beats and rhythms, contemporary R&B music videos have much faster cuts to a wide range of scenes to match this beat. These cuts got more and more advanced over the years, showing overlapping and fading images like in Miguel’s “Sure Thing” video and quick, neon flashing lights and graphics like in Kanye West’s “All Of The Lights” video.

Contemporary music videos also tend to be less performance based, as opposed to videos from the early 1900s. While contemporary R&B music videos most often do cut to a significant number of scenes of the artist singing, they also incorporate a wide variety of other scenes, from Diddy Dirty Money walking alone in a huge, barren desert in “Coming Home” to Kelly Rowland dancing in a large warehouse in “Motivation.” Rowland’s video also portrays the over sexuality and sexual confidence expressed by the majority of R&B artists in their videos. Sexuality is a central theme in nearly all of these videos, and is reinforced through the lyrics of the music, the beats that the artists and backup dancers dance sensually to, and the provocative costumes that the women featured in these videos wear (whether they are the female artists or are unknown girls who male artists are singing about). The videos have also evolved in that they advocate contemporary club and hookup culture. Nicki Minaj’s video for her song “Beez In the Trap” involves many aspects prominent in contemporary music videos, including many fast cuts, bright lights, and overt female sexuality that highlight provocative and profane lyrics and prominent, dance provoking beats.

As the years progressed, the way that women were portrayed in the genre changed drastically. When the videos moved away from being solely performance based, women were used by male artists as the sexual objects that they were singing about. Still appealing to a predominantly African American audience (although it is more diverse in modern times), these women are frequently African American also, and have large curves that are shown off by scant, sexual clothing. They are often featured dancing provocatively, reinforcing their purpose in the video as emphasizing the male artists’ ability to have lots of sexy, beautiful women surrounding him, for example in Akon’s “I Wanna Love You” music video. Women’s role as sexual objects is reinforced in the lyrics of these music videos, such as Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow”  in which he says outright: “bitch I own you.” The female dancers in the video visually reinforce their objectivity.

Female R&B artists are usually portrayed as very sexual in their own videos as well. However, instead of being a man’s sexual object, these women exude sexual confidence and ownership of their own sexuality. These women also tend to have curves, promoting a healthy weight, unlike many other genres featuring female artists (for example, pop artists like Taylor Swift in music videos like “I Knew You Were Trouble”). Artists like these portray unrealistic weights and are so thin that they appear unhealthy. This is not the case for most female R&B artists. A great example is Rihanna, one of the most popular R&B female artists today, and who is considered by many popular culture magazines to be one of the world’s sexiest women. Like many other female R&B artists, her outfits and the dancing she does in her music videos (which match the beats and lyrics of her music) show off her curves and establish her extreme sexual confidence. She, as well as other artists like Nicki Minaj, often wear dramatic makeup and unique costumes to set the theme of their videos and portray their sexuality. Rihanna’s sexual confidence and use of costume, dance, and setting to create a theme to match the lyrics and beats of her songs is demonstrated throughout all of her music videos (as well as her live performances), with one example being her music video for “Shut Up And Drive.”

Based on the evolution of this genre, I think that R&B music videos in the future will continue to portray male and female sexuality through catchy beats and provocative dance and costume. This is far from the 1950s music videos showcasing a single man singing innocent love songs to a jazzy tune. I like the provocative edge that the contemporary R&B music video genre provides, and how it seems to push boundaries in terms of portrayal of female sexuality as normal and socially acceptable. I hope that in the future, more R&B music videos for male artists portray female sexuality in a more positive light as well, with less female objectivity. I definitely believe that this genre will not move backwards in its evolution, and that it will continue to push boundaries of how much sexuality is socially acceptable to portray. Thus, I don’t think that the genre should return to its roots. I think that it should continue to expand upon them, and continue to move towards a portrayal of more sexual equality between men and women. Even if it only progresses in subtle ways like more advanced editing and special effects, I don’t think that people will get bored of the genre. If in the future it stays pretty similar to the way it is now, which I believe it will, I think that contemporary R&B music videos will continue to be a very popular genre that continues to be provocative and fun to watch and dance to.

More R&B Music Video History

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the videos have an unseen voice introducing the majority of them, and then show a live performance with very few cuts, if any at all. Some are in color, such as Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” video from the 1950s, while others are in black and white, like Ray Charles’ 1960s “What I’d Say.” The lyrics of these songs were slower than contemporary R&B music, and more about romantic love than sexual love.

In the ‘70s the color of the videos got a lot more vibrant, for example in The Jackson 5’s “I want You Back.” However, the videos were still completely performance-based and had few cuts. The lyrics were still predominantly about women, but about love instead of sex.

In the ‘80s, the videos were still performance based and set on a single stage. However, the songs got a little more provocative and these backgrounds a little more complex, with more cuts. For example, Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” music video has bright flashing lights that flash with the beat, and have more cuts in the video including a split screen in which he is shown twice on the same screen. His lyrics proclaim that “I’m going to rock with you all night.”

In the 1990s, music videos started portraying Contemporary R&B music. The videography became much more advanced, with many cuts and vibrant, clear colors. The videos were no longer completely performance based, but instead contained shots portraying multiple scenes that were cut to throughout the videos in order to tell a visual story or create a theme. For example, one of the most popular R&B songs from the 1990s was “No Diggity”  by BLACKstreet feat. Dr. Dre. There are people in the video, predominantly women wearing scant outfits, who are not the artists performing; instead they are used as sex symbols to set the scene. The cuts in this video match the beat of the music, and the video cuts to many scenes that vary in location, color scheme, and people. The lyrics of this song are also very sexual, matching the women portrayed in the video. The women are also dancing very sexually and provocatively (their knee pads are a nice touch). This style of contemporary music video continued into the 2000’s, with more complex storylines and dance based videos like Usher’s “Yeah!”  music video that mixes dancing with showing scenes of Usher with a girl throughout the video. As videography has continued to become more advanced, music videos made in the past few years have even more interesting and complex ideas, some of which involve special effects such as Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” music video that involves lots of cool colors, shadows, and added images like lips that give the video a less realistic, more artistic flair that matches the lyrics and beat of the song.

History of R&B Music Videos

Rhythm and Blues music, commonly referred to as R&B, rose in popularity in the late 1940s after World War II. R&B replaced the term “race music” as a less offensive marketing term to describe this genre of music, which was originally created solely for African American audiences. Originally, R&B was a combination of jazz, gospel, and blues, focusing on “boogie” rythms, with famous artists like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.

Traditional R&B music mainly used brass instruments and woodwinds, drums, piano, and vocals. These were also the instruments commonly used in jazz bands; however R&B used steady beats that produced a heavier sound. The lyrics of R&B songs focused on things such as racial issues and segregation, love, relationships, and dancing. During the fifties, the lyrics of R&B music became very sexually aggressive, and R&B music became associated with provocative dancing. Artists like Muddy Waters exemplified this in songs like “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” R&B included steady rhythms and numerous instruments, with catchy and interesting arrangements and musical styles that were meant to encourage dancing.

As decades passed, R&B became known as soul music. It also defeated race boundaries: people who were not African American began making and listening to R&B music, for example contemporary R&B artists like Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake. Contemporary R&B music mainly uses pop beats, giving it a very different sound than older R&B music that used gospel and jazz sounds; however, some aspects of these genres are sometimes used in contemporary R&B music as well. Contemporary R&B grew out of the 1970s funk style of music, becoming popular in the 1980s.

Music videos rose in popularity in the 1980s with Music Television, commonly called MTV. The original purpose of MTV was to play music videos that were guided by VJs, on air hosts who give information on the bands and artists. The television channel’s target audience is adolescents and young adults. MTV started playing more R&B music videos in the early 1990s, featuring R&B bands like Tony Toni Tone and Boyz II Men. Starting in late 1997 MTV started focusing more airtime on pop and hip hop/R&B music. Examples of popular R&B music videos featuring female artists and bands include Brandy and Destiny’s Child. By 2000, MTV had much success featuring a top ten countdown program that featured the top ten music videos from the pop, rock, hip hop, and R&B genres. This program maintains its popularity today, with the R&B nomination for the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards being Drake and Rihanna’s “I’ll Take Care of You.”

R&B Music Videos

I’ve chosen to write about music videos, specifically those for contemporary R&B music. Contemporary R&B, which today is just called R&B, uses a mixture of elements from various music genres, including rhythm and blues, pop, soul, funk, and hip hop. Some people call R&B “urban contemporary” music. Today, the use of hip hop and dance beats are most commonly used, and mainstream R&B’s sound is mainly based on rhythm. The abbreviation “R&B” originated from rhythm and blues music that had become popular in the 1970s. R&B is most commonly performed by African-Americans, and originated in the 1980s after the end of disco music’s popularity. The mixture of R&B with hip-hop has increased in the 21st century, with some recording artists also combining traditional R&B with different pop styles.

Music videos have 5 main genres: performance, story driven, special effects, dance, and animation. R&B music videos most commonly use performance, story driven, and dance video forms. Performance videos typically show the artist or band giving a live performance of their song in different settings that give the video a specific theme. These are beneficial in that they allow the artist to control the energy of the piece. For example, Rihanna’s music video for her song “Only Girl (In The World)” falls into the performance genre, depicting Rihanna singing in a field of flowers and other locations that give the video a surreal, whimsical theme.

Story driven music videos depict a narrative that plays out to the lyrics of the music, emphasizing the words the artists are singing. Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s music video for their song “Dilemma” uses the lyrics the artists are singing with the visual shots of the two artists to tell a story of their love for each other and their desire to be together, but how they end up with different people in the end. In Rihanna’s music video for “Unfaithful,” she is the only person singing. The video tells the story of her infidelity to her boyfriend and its effects on him.

Dance music videos depict the artist and sometimes others dancing to the beat of the music in different locations. While this form of video requires a lot of time because of the choreography involved, it allows the artist to show off their dancing skills, and the choreography emphasizes the rhythm of the music. An example of a dance R&B music video with a group of dancers is Chris Brown’s “Run It” music video. On the other hand, Cassie’s “Me & U” music video shows the artist dancing alone.

The purpose of creating a music video is to increase the fan base for the artist and make the artist more money. The most important reason for an artist producing a music video, however, is to establish an artist’s identity and shape the way that people see that artist. The intended audience for R&B music video’s is generally African-American; R&B music was even originally termed “race music.” However, these music videos also have a non-African American fan base, and focus on pop beats and culture that appeal to a wider audience.