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New book explores subversive history of the music video - and how it can be a force for social change

A Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex has written a book exploring the subversive history of one of the most widely consumed art forms of our age – music video.

Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion and Music Video, by Dr Ryann Donnelly in Art History, explores how the medium can challenge our conceptions of gender, sexuality and race.

Through a variety of case studies including George Michael, TLC, Madonna, Lady Gaga and M.I.A., Dr Donnelly analyses the iconography of various music videos, while telling the history of the medium from the inception of MTV in 1981 through to the introduction of YouTube.

Dr Donnelly said: “Music video and music performance has always been an incredibly powerful and influential medium with the ability to challenge and provoke.

“I was interested in exploring how and when the medium began responding to the concerns of its time — how it began operating as activism. We see this in videos like Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg by TLC, released in 1992. They wear condoms as accessories and talk about 'safe sex' in the midst of the AIDS crisis.

"Another example is how Beyoncé incorporates a young boy dancing in front of a wall spray painted with the words, 'Stop Shooting Us' in the Formation video, which acts as a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement."

Chapters in the book vary from the reaction of artists to the AIDS crisis in the 80s, to the introduction of ‘cyborg feminism’ in the early 2000’s. 

Dr Donnelly also draws on her own personal experiences from her time as the lead singer of a Seattle-based band called Schoolyard Heroes.

She weaves her personal narratives and experiences of musical performance from this time, alongside more detailed analytical passages which explore how marginalised voices have shaped some of the biggest music videos of the last 30 years.

She said: “I really wanted this research to be accessible to readers within, and outside of academia. Part of that project was to give it context through my own experience being a musician and music fan. Video was such a crucial medium for me to see how performance was used to explore identity and to subvert norms.

"I write about some of my favourite examples in the book like M.I.A.’s Bad Girls, Lady Gaga’s Alejandro, and Arca’s Reverie. These videos play with various iterations of queerness and feminism using performances of danger, self-possession, and sexuality that are consistently visually arresting.

Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion, and Music Video is published by Repeater Books for £10.99.

Read an interview with Dr Ryann Donnelly in Vice here.

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By: Stephanie Allen
Last updated: Wednesday, 8 May 2019