It is hard not to be taken by a glowing, supermodel phoenix. She has gauzy wings erupting from her shoulders and golden talons curling from her fingertips. Wearing only a bikini of skin-colored feathers that melts into her body, she gazes at the gold dust of fireworks hanging in the air as the horns from the Kanye West song "All of the Lights" suspend her image in a prolonged moment of luscious excess. She's particularly arresting as a towering, oversize projection in a darkened room of Experience Music Project, as part of the exhibition Spectacle: The Music Video. While West's multi-song, 34-minute creation "Runaway" rose to the technical standards of Hollywood feature films, it had only previously appeared within the confines of a YouTube window. Now it is in a museum.
The phoenix of "Runaway" lives in a section of Spectacle titled "Epic," with 20 other videos that share its projector, on a loop. They're immersive narratives that take well to black-box screening. I walked in to 2Pac's 1995 "California Love," bringing me back to a New Year's Eve spent in a friend's basement. Two girlfriends and I stared in agony at the video's slow-motion explosions and leather-crop-top-clad women, hoping the song would be over soon so that "Waterfalls" might come on again and I could recite Left Eye's extended rap while dressed to match the baggy jeans and black tank top she wore in the video. The little I knew of 2Pac at the time did not extend to the rapper's family history with the Black Panthers, his affinity for Shakespeare, or any knowledge of the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome movie that inspired the Oakland apocalypse of the video, all of which flare more brightly now, at EMP, where the orange-tinted, bass-booming scenes of gladiator motorcycle gangs appear as a world of references much larger than the one that once lived on television, in constant rotation.
The other 280 videos included by FLUX, the collective that created Spectacle, are compiled into largely content-, technical-, and process-based themes. There are videos using stop-motion animation, like Fleet Foxes' "Mykonos," or extra-special effects, like A-Ha's "Take on Me" and the Chemical Brothers' doppelgänger-ridden "Let Forever Be." While FLUX's approach makes straightforward set lists and emphasizes artistry, it neglects an essential element that defines the music video as its own medium: its existence in the functioning world. Unlike most art that requires visiting a museum or gallery, music videos were created to be broadcast into people's homes, devices, and lives—as advertisements. At their commercial hearts, music videos have an awareness of relevance and context necessary to sell albums.
The image of Madonna singing against a field of burning crosses in her video "Like a Prayer" is now synonymous with a time when superstars could provoke massive responses by addressing racism and exploring the relationship between sexuality and religion—unlikely sources for the Mileys and Justins of today. In Spectacle, "Like a Prayer" is sequestered away from its context, to a tiny viewing hole in a peep-show-like wall, alongside 14 other videos noted vaguely for being banned, boycotted, or banished to late-night slots due to the ways they addressed social concerns such as racism, sexism, and alienation. The seclusion of these videos lends an air of scandal to the experience of watching them (and these forbidden images fluctuate in shock value at this point in history). But even more pointedly, the peep show marks the way issues of consequence in the real world, those that extend beyond the more abstract questions of craft, are extracted from the siloed conversations Spectacle creates.
"Thriller" is the only Michael Jackson video included; noticeably absent are "Billie Jean," the artist's first MTV video, and his genre-refusing "Beat It." "Thriller" is shown simply as one Epic on the list, not as a series of images that brought black pop music into the American mainstream (read the testimonies of MTV staff and record executives on the channel's prior refusals to show videos by black artists in the book I Want My MTV by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks). Michael Stipe's concerted effort to build a queer aesthetic in R.E.M.'s music videos—the hyperfetishizing of both genders, for instance—is absent from Spectacle, where "Losing My Religion" is just part of a group inspired by visual-art techniques. And Kanye West's constant use of women as objects in his videos is portrayed as if it were an inherent part of an artistic gesture, rather than an unacceptable practice normalized on MTV from the channel's beginnings, a practice that has persisted without enough critical response to require significant change. What's missing is the historical context one would hope to find in a museum, if nowhere else. Spectacle begins the radical step of discovering the aesthetic beauty of the music video, but it misses a bigger chance to exhibit the genre's special superpower—cultural relevance—in an era that could use a reminder.