Unless you’ve been living under an even more dense and pervasive cover of rocks than I do, you’ll be aware of the series of video sensations by the band OK Go. And the less rock-covered among you will also realize the common grumbling that seems to have come along with that video success, which is: fine, great video…but I can’t remember the song.
This is usually taken as, and put forth as, a criticism of the band – either in implying that the songs just aren’t that good, or that the “band” isn’t so much a band as a gang of video-makers who’ve stumbled upon a new angle in publicizing their work: also providing their own video soundtrack and pretending to be a rock band at the same time. My own take on the band’s music (which I’m not terribly familiar with) is that it’s, uh, okay: it’s neither super-compelling to me nor is it bad or obnoxious. It’s fairly catchy, reasonably well-written, etc. If I heard the songs on their own, they might well make it into my library, and perhaps into the initial rounds of my “songs that potentially compel me to pay more attention to this band” list.
I think the reason people have trouble remembering the songs is, simply, the videos provide a more immediately compelling narrative. I use “narrative” here rather loosely, in the sense that we want to find out what happens next. I’d further argue that any unfamiliar music would end up less memorable in the context of such video. We’re narrative-loving creatures, and once our brains are focused on that visual narrative, we have little attention left to pay to the musical narrative underway simultaneously…especially because, in most of the band’s videos, the visual structure is not directly linked to the musical structure. The narratives are dissimilar not only structurally, moment to moment (there’s no visual equivalent to verse, chorus, bridge), but also in terms of pace: the playing-out of action and consequence in the video does not coincide with any similar gesture in the music. I suspect that if more of the videos did illustrate the song, and proceed and develop in tandem with the song, more people would remember the songs themselves.
I’m happy that any band has found a way to make a living with their music in this near-impossible economic climate for musicians. It is somewhat problematic, though…in that the sizzle outshines the steak, less because the steak’s no good than because we’re sizzle addicts.