Reading the Video: A Qualitative Study of Religious Images in Music Videos

Article excerpt

   Student: "If you watched it and had to write down the three things you
   remember from that video, what are they going to be? The dead kids, guns,
   and the weird gold people. That's what you are going to remember."

   Responding Student: "And the cross. That's what you are going to remember.
   Even if you don't understand what's going on, you're going to take those
   pictures back in your memory."

As the media landscape becomes more cluttered with images vying for the viewer's attention, trying to understand how viewers interpret those images is growing increasingly important. The advent of MTV, the medium that merged the popular recording industry with short video, prompted researchers to seek to categorize and understand its images. As Strasburger explained, "There is concern that the power of the music and lyrics becomes magnified when visual images are added to them, increasing the risk of deleterious effects on young people" (1995, p. 86).

Scholars agree that the content of music videos is replete with visual images: some sexual, some violent, some materialistic, and some stereotypical. The vast majority of such studies have employed content analysis, counting the number of images shown and comparing them to the number of other images. The often-cited seminal study of Sherman and Dominick (1986), which analyzed 166 videos, found significant presence of sexual and violent imagery on MTV. Other studies (see Seidman, 1992; Sommers-Flanagan, Sommers-Flanagan, & Davis, 1993; and Vincent, 1989) looked at the portrayal of women in music videos. Tapper, Thorson, and Black (1994) examined 10 variables in music videos across several genre and concluded that the presence of white males, black males, and black females as lead performers "varied significantly as a function of musical genre" (p. 108). Baxter et al. (1985) examined 62 music videos for 23 content categories and found visual abstraction, sex, dance, and violence in at least half of them (p. 337).

Although the majority of studies have been concerned with sexual, violent, and stereotypical images, a few studies (Baxter et al., 1985; McKee & Pardun, 1996; and Pardun & McKee, 1995) have demonstrated that religious images are also used with regularity in music videos. The 1995 analysis of videos on MTV found that 38.13% of the videos contained religious imagery (Pardun & McKee, p. 44). The 1996 study found religious images present in 29.9% of the videos analyzed on MTV, TNN, and the Z Channel, although somewhat ironically, the Christian-oriented Z Channel's videos contained the fewest number of religious images (McKee & Pardun, p. 167).

Some researchers have begun to question counting images without first examining the context of those images. For example, Perloff (1997) commented that content analysis studies have found cartoons to be the most violent programs on television -- even though the audience doesn't view these programs as violent. Perloff suggests there may be a general agreement as to the limits that content analysis provides for understanding music videos, but there is less agreement on the appropriate ways to move toward a deeper, more qualitative understanding of the images of music videos. Other researchers have suggested that the prevalence of television, with its visual images, in Western culture offers it the opportunity to be the chief purveyor of images for mass audiences, but how meaning is created through the interpretation of images has long been debated by researchers ranging from the symbolic interactionists to the postmodernists and semioticians. Regardless of its theoretical position, this stream of research overwhelmingly suggests that individuals ascribe meaning to signs or symbols encountered in the media in ways that reflect a priori assumptions but which may go beyond those to ascribe new meanings based on mediated or social contexts. (For examples, see Aufderheide, 1986; Barthes, 1988; Blumer, 1969; Cantor, 1987; Fiske & Hartley, 1978; Gitlin, 1986; and Harvey, 1990). …

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