Listening with Eyes Wide Open — The Rise of the Visual Album


From established artists like Kanye West, Fall Out Boy and Janelle Monáe to indie acts like Noah and the Whale, it can feel like these days every artist regardless of genre is trying their hand at visual albums. But visual albums as we have seen them in the present are relatively new and brought about by the accessibility the internet provides.

While there have long been movies set to an album’s soundtrack in-between scenes with dialogue, an entire film with the only audio being the album is relatively new. The Beatles’ iconic A Hard Day’s Night and Prince’s Purple Rain were still pioneers for presenting their albums with a more visual medium, but because their fans were only able to see those films in a movie theater or later on VHS or DVD, it would have been too difficult for most artists to make an entire film with only the album’s audio accessible and appealing to the general public. These films also had the corresponding album as a soundtrack with the majority of focus on the storyline and dialogue when the music was not playing, which separates them from our current definition of a visual album. But with online streaming through sites like YouTube, fans or people simply interested in their music can watch these massive bodies of work with limited hassle.

Now that it is essentially guaranteed viewers will have access to these films, artists typically have to worry less about whether their work will be accessible in a certain form. This has offered a great deal of creative freedom that didn’t exist prior. Regardless of how well-known and influential some of the following visual albums are, this is still a relatively new medium that not many artists have explored. However, with more mainstream artists moving to try their hand in visual albums and greater internet accessibility, we can expect to see an increase in their creation. Especially considering the release of an entire visual album can generate more anticipation than the release of a regular album. The following are prime examples of artists who used visual albums in the way that best suited their purposes.

Lemonade — Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s Lemonade was a cultural bombshell resulting in a tremendous impact on the music industry, the genius behind its marketing, and the use of the film in restoring her public image. Lemonade is brimming with symbolism, persistent themes, and a sense of creative genius that cannot be ignored. The film’s narrative begins with Beyoncé on stage opening a curtain as the words of the first track begin to play, and the song “Pray You Catch Me” lays out the discovery of her husband Jay-Z’s infidelities. Though the movie starts with this brutal realization, the focus is on Beyoncé’s feelings and the growth she goes through in dealing with generational and present wounds. Imagery for each stage of healing (where each stage is a song on the album) serves not only to emphasize the lyrics for what phase Beyoncé is in emotionally, but also to paint out the historical context for their relationship in white America; it is as if two stories happening at once that converge frequently. Subsequently, the film has been heralded as significant for women recovering from infidelity in their relationships and for the representation of the black community as a whole.

While it’s clear that Beyoncé was deeply invested in the film being a work of art beyond outside influence and context, the strategic release and placement of Lemonade cannot be ignored in an argument about its effectiveness. Before the release of the film as well as the album, there was much speculation about the state of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s relationship. Some leaked security footage in an elevator on the night of the 2014 MET Gala showed Solange (Beyoncé’s younger sister) wailing on Jay Z briefly before the doors opened with Beyoncé unresponsive to the whole thing. There was radio silence from the Carters until Lemonade with no warning dropped into the world like a wrecking ball. The opening scene of the film is that much more significant because it’s Beyoncé opening the curtains to tell the story on her terms with unabashed honesty and self-reflection. This swiftly curbed much of the rumors and attempts to harm her public image as well as Jay-Z’s. And the lack of warning or advertising before its immediate release when Beyoncé is such a massive star (so much so that almost everyone knows of her) was a brilliant act of marketing in itself because suddenly everyone wanted to know what was happening.

In this same vein, her entrepreneurship flourished with the release of Lemonade because both the album and the film were only available on Tidal: a streaming service that Jay Z and Beyoncé have majority stock in. This remained the only way to access her latest work for three years and drove all legal downloads and sales through the app. While this may have lessened the amount of revenue she could’ve gained from releasing on more popular platforms, Beyoncé by this point had enough financial stability to take risks for other business endeavors, and to an extent, this paid off. It could also be argued that the reach of her work was lessened by this choice, but Lemonade still had a huge cultural impact. The lemon emoji trended for weeks because of the release of this album on Twitter and reached an amount of use that was never charted before, there was a sales spike for Warsan Shire (the poet who wrote the poems Beyoncé adapts throughout lemonade), and the film is currently being used in academic contexts for educating about black culture (specifically black feminism). The range of how her film was successful is unavoidable.

Interstella 5555 — Daft Punk

The increase of visual albums in recent years because of easily accessible streaming platforms does not mean that they didn’t exist before. Interstella 5555 was one of the first visual albums in the way we think of them now. In 2003, Daft Punk partnered with Toei Animation to produce an hour and a half long animated film where the only sounds are tracks from their sophomore album Discovery. This film was released on Blu-ray and DVD in addition to being aired in 4 parts of Cartoon Network, which is a heavy departure from the other visual albums featured in this list that used online streaming platforms (primarily YouTube with the exception of Beyoncé). This shows that while the internet increased the likelihood that artists would eventually experiment with this medium, the desire to produce visual albums already existed and was successful. The film was given 86% on rotten tomatoes and BBC reviewed the movie as a “visual and aural treat of intergalactic proportions.”

As for the movie itself, Daft Punk’s electronic music with flares of the ’70s and ’80s influences mesh perfectly with the stellar visuals throughout the film. The brightly colored animation takes you through the story of an extraterrestrial band that gets kidnapped by a rich producer, who later turns out to be the leader of a massive cult who for centuries would kidnap alien artists and disguise them as humans to then profit off of their work. The narrative building was excellent, and it paired perfectly with the overall critiques being made about the music industry without coming across as too manufactured. After all, the plot begins with aliens in space being kidnapped for their musical talent, it allows for a lot of room for what is or is not plausible. For its enjoyable storyline, clearly communicated themes, and positive reception, Interstella 5555 was a highly successful visual album.

Sound and Fury — Sturgill Simpson

One of the most successful uses of the medium when thinking through an objective lens is the Sound and Fury visual album by Sturgill Simpson. The central theme of the film, critiquing and showing the horrors of senseless violence, is unavoidably overt throughout. Though there is a central narrative of a daughter avenging the death of her father’s close friends, there are 4 short films interspersed for about 4 minutes each of completely different storylines in an equally dystopian world. Each of these plotlines displays different aspects of violence and the effect it has on its subjects: at some points bringing viewers to tears with brutal empathy. In case the visceral imagery wasn’t clear enough for the audience, at the very end of the film “Dedicated to the lost souls and the victims of senseless violence around the world” is displayed.

There were about 3 years in between the release of this album and the previous one, and because the album was released on the same day as the film on Netflix it can be inferred that there was at least some sort of a marketing strategy of amplified buzz with two big works from this idiosyncratic artist being released at the same time. While the artistry and labor put into this movie are indisputable, the actual impact/reach it had was minimal, possibly because the concept of a “country” songwriter scoring an anime film was alienating or because Simpson himself had moved on from this creative phase and was uninterested in promoting it. For those aware of its existence it was met with praise — Simpson’s album Sound and Fury was nominated as Best Rock Album in the 63rd Grammy Awards and has been acknowledged for Simpson’s fearless exploration of music despite his previous success tightly within the bounds of country.

Downfalls High — Machine Gun Kelly

The actual cinematography and plotline for Downfalls High are a bit less fine-tuned than the others included in this article, however, this doesn’t mean it was unsuccessful. Machine Gun Kelly (Colson Baker) capitalized on a newer invention made possible through the web: internet fame. Instead of casting quality actors or himself for the lead role (as artists often do), Baker hired quite a few people that were extremely popular from various parts of the internet. For example, the lead role as Fenix was played by Chase Hudson, better known as Lil Huddy. Hudson first became popular with TikTok in late 2019 where he then founded Hype House which grew to be one of the most influential content creator houses with internet celebrities like Addison Rae and Dixie D’Amelio. Landon Barker and Jaden Hossler share a similar level of stardom as Hudson because they too rose to prominence on TikTok. Maggie Lindemann acted as Scarlett’s best friend in the film, and she is also internet-famous though for her music with songs like “Pretty Girl” and “Obsessed” receiving millions of streams around the world. Last but not least, Sydney Sweeney was the main love interest in the film (also known as Scarlett). Sweeney didn’t gain stardom from social media, but the internet fell in love with her at an alarming rate for her role in Euphoria as Cassie.

The target audience for TikTok and Euphoria is almost exclusively Generation Z with some exceptions; the largest age bracket of TikTok users is 18-24 with 38.8%. It can then be interpreted that these casting choices for influencers, actors, and artists dominant in Gen Z media was intentional to give this film a massive publicity boost to make it successful in terms of marketing. The entire cast, except for Sydney Sweeney and Jimmy Bennett, had no prior acting experience or real desire for a career in acting which is apparent throughout the film with the lack of genuine emotion displayed. Yet regardless of the subpar acting capabilities of the cast and the mediocre writing, the film has over 21 million views on YouTube and hundreds of thousands of likes. The film didn’t win Colson any accolades or acclaim, but he succeeded in getting people to watch it and talk about it through his casting choices.

Cry Baby — Melanie Martinez

Melanie Martinez’s Cry Baby favors Lemonade not in content, but with its intense attention to detail to storyline and symbolism throughout the film. The narrative is structured less like one or two main plotlines progressing consistently till the very end, and more like a series of key moments/plots that are stitched together in chronology. Martinez also harnesses an alter ego, Crybaby; this is markedly different than Beyoncé and Machine Gun Kelly who both just played themselves. This choice in creating a recognizable and specific main character helps emphasize the fantastical themes and colors throughout the movie seeing as Martinez hones in on concepts of childhood/growing up. This is another visual album that could be endlessly analyzed and debated for its many pieces that make up the whole.

As far as success, Cry Baby is rather unusual because Melanie Martinez is one of few artists that fully produce and release a visual album that doubles as their debut album. This is because an influx of money, time, and patience is required to create a well-done film. Oftentimes newer artists don’t have this kind of reliability from their labels for it to be feasible, let alone completely independent, starting-out artists. However, Melanie Martinez rose to prominence as a contestant on the Voice in 2012 which helped her secure a label deal to release her EP “Dollhouse” which was immensely popular peaking at number four on Billboard’s Heatseekers albums chart on June 7th, 2014. This success from the release of her EP alone likely helped her ensure the resources to produce music videos for every song on her debut album. It is also far easier now to record, edit, and distribute movies and videos in the digital age than it ever was before, making it possible for smaller artists to produce really great works of art on a relatively small budget. We can also presume that though this was an artistic choice from Martinez, as apparent from the profound creativity in the film, it also increased the public’s interest in her. When artists create music videos in succession for each of their songs on an album, and later a cohesive work, fans are given the ability to fully stimulate their senses with an immersive experience. This generates more promotion than just a couple of music videos and a normal album.

It is clear that the quantity of visual albums is gradually increasing due to mass visual streaming platforms, but the improvements to technology have also given tools to newer artists that enable them to try their hand at translating their work to a visual medium in addition to the established artists who have always had the surplus of resources and status to do so. The influx of artists creating visual albums is impactful because they have much to offer; they make it possible for a concept to be fully realized in two senses instead of just one. This has a lot of influence on the current landscape of music because of how in tune the younger generations are with streaming platforms. They are constantly exposed to visual stimulation, and visual albums are essentially speaking their language. We are seeing established pillars of the music community begin to come to the same conclusion. The VMAs in 1991 and 2016 created a category for MTV Video Music Award for Best Long Form Video; though this has only happened twice in history and The Grammy Award for Best Music Video, Long Form has started to recognize visual albums (including Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Black is King), it provides the foundation for the possibility of a greater importance of visual albums in the future. Maybe one day we will grow to see a consistent category for the medium in our most important shows of musical excellence.

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