The “NSFW” Trend Is Killing Music Video Creativity

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It starts innocently enough, with a roomful of satisfied concertgoers chanting for “one more song” and a yellow smiley-face flag fluttering against a clear blue sky.

Then things get dark — literally and figuratively — as the sun goes down and the drums kick in. Suddenly, together Pangea’s “Offer” video shifts to the debauched world of nightclubs and hotel after-parties, and at 1:10, right before the LA garage trio starts shotgunning Buds, a girl goes wild, as those DVDs used to say, and flashes her breasts.

It’s at this point that your boss comes up behind you, taps you on the shoulder, and politely asks that you clean out your desk. You’re through here, Johnson. Security will escort you out. Lots of luck with that Obamacare website.

Such are the perils of being a music fan in this, the age of NSFW videos. It’s a telling acronym for a couple of reasons. First, NSFW implies that some videos are safe for work, and that’s indicative of how the industry has changed. Watching on the job means watching online, and artists now make videos almost exclusively for the internet. And why not? MTV stopped playing them in the ‘90s, and without network censors to worry about, musicians and directors can do pretty much whatever they want.

Often, that means naked breasts and buckets of fake blood. Google “NSFW,” “video,” and the name of any major music website, and you’ll see fairly quickly the trend that’s emerged over the last five years. The term NSFW also suggests most viewers have white-collar desk jobs, and because web-savvy post-grads are an attractive demographic, there’s incentive to chase clicks — be they after work or while the boss is in the bathroom — by doubling down on those old standbys of sex and violence.

It sounds great, but from a creative standpoint, is this really a good thing?

In some ways, videos have come full circle. In the early ‘80s, before Teen Mom’s mom was born and no one knew MTV had legs, labels were hesitant to shell out for videos, and directors had to get creative. This was a great time to own a rental company specializing in smoke machines or white horses, though some artists couldn’t even afford those luxuries. Flock of Seagulls made do with tinfoil and mirrors, and if Gary Numan spent more than a few hundred quid on the fluorescent tube lights he used to build his “Cars” pyramid, he got ripped off.

It was a golden age of necessity breeding invention and invention breeding mascara-slathered, neon-lit lunacy. Sadly, it couldn’t last.

As the world cried, “I want my MTV!” the budgets soared and artists no longer needed to cut corners. Making videos became kind of a drag, as rockers who’d gotten into the business specifically to avoid alarm clocks had to wake up early and jump through whatever hoops pretentious directors asked them to. That’s the gist of Noel Gallagher’s complaints in the commentary accompanying Oasis’ Time Flies DVD, and in a recent fan-made compilation of his choicest gripes, the persnickety Brit dispels the myth that making videos is glamorous.

“I’d grown out of the video experience quite quickly,” Gallagher says, right before explaining how the bloke shooting “Live Forever” stole his idea to bury the drummer in dirt. “By the third one, I was like, ‘This is a load of bollocks, standing around all day, doing the same old shit 500 times.’”

Gallagher should have been born 20 years later (and an only child). If Oasis were shooting “Live Forever” tomorrow, he could stay in his flat, get pissed, and let some upstart filmmaker make something like Eagulls’ “Nerve Endings,” a time-lapse look at a human brain decomposing. “Nerve Endings” isn’t the ideal way to meet this latest UK buzz band — the musicians themselves are nowhere to be seen — but it’s a disturbing enough concept to make you click, especially when it’s 4PM at the office and your friend is Gchatting you about it.

“Nerve Endings” will make you queasy, but it’s tame compared to what a lot of bands are doing. In addition to together Pangea’s aforementioned “Offer,” the last month has seen NSFW videos from the Orwells, Telepopmusik, and the Black Lips, who are to visuals that might get you fired what Madonna and Michael Jackson once were to videos that might bankrupt labels.

The Lips’ “Boys in the Wood” video is Deliverance for a generation reared on Jackass and Breaking Bad. It’s a backwoods nightmare filled with crack pipes, vicious beatings, and graphic rape. After three minutes in this sick and depraved world, the face-peeing scene hardly makes you flinch.

“Boys in the Wood” is well acted and artfully shot, and unlike earlier Lips videos like “Family Tree,” it justifies its extreme visuals. It’s not quite on par with David Lynch’s “Crazy Clown Time,” but no one out-Lynches Lynch, and his portrait of hicks gone mad was bound to become that sub-genre’s gold standard.

Other times, though, the nudity and gore just feel tacked on. Did DIIV really need to include topless hipsters in their “Wait” video? Foals and the Weeknd get props for their sensual, highly stylized “Late Night” and “Pretty” clips, but neither needs the nipples that earn them their coveted NSFW disclaimers.

And then there’s Polica’s grisly “Tiff” — exquisite torture porn but torture porn all the same. It looks fantastic — more David Fincher than James Wan — and it’s utterly unforgettable, but couldn’t directors Nabil and Mike Piscitelli have found a less obvious way to “show a portrait of a woman as her own worst enemy,” as singer Channy Leaneagh describes the video?

Just because you can show people pissing on each other or kicking each other’s teeth in, in other words, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should. It’s a cliché to talk about how less is more, and how the really salacious stuff is sometimes better left off camera and to the viewer’s imagination, but it’s a lesson young directors would do well to remember.

That, or we’re all going to have to spend our work hours actually working.