Music
Tune in and turn up
Nicki Minaj /Youtube

For years, music videos have been exclusively shot in a landscape perspective. It’s a medium originally made for TV, after all. This becomes frustrating whenever you try to watch them on your cellphone — there’s flipping, rotating, and oftentimes plenty of stopping and starting required. But recently, artists and directors have been attempting to remedy this by promoting the “vertical video,” shot in portrait mode and optimized for phone-screen viewing. The last few months have seen “official” vertical clips by Saweetie and Tinashe, whereas high-profile stars including Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Nicki Minaj have all released vertical clips alongside their singles’ “official” videos.

But will they ever catch on?

Back in 2012, a hilarious viral faux public service announcement warned of “Vertical Video Syndrome,” a “dangerous” phenomenon flooding the internet with tinny, phone-lensed footage compressed into a tiny strip of the screen. The three-minute clip was populated by puppets conveying same message: “We aren’t built to watch vertical videos!”

The critters supported the claim by pointing out how computer screens and televisions are horizontal. Obviously true. But the fact is, we don’t consume all of our media in this way anymore. Statistics cited by CNET last summer revealed that almost 57 percent of video plays worldwide were on cellphones, a figure that reflects the growing number of people owning smartphones. Platforms such as YouTube and Netflix have stormed ahead of live television — the new generation favors streaming, and streaming is infinitely easier on a mobile device.

The music industry has followed suit. More musicians are experimenting with creative ways to optimize their videos for mobile viewing, a trend sparked by a series of lesser-known creatives years ago. Perhaps the best early example is a 2015 clip, “How Can It Be?” by electronic band Harrison, which consisted entirely of a text message break-up thread complete with details of an affair. Not only was it a fully realized story that tugged on the heartstrings, it was also way more relatable — both visually and in terms of content — than any glitzy, high-budget song-and-dance clip. After all, who hasn’t endured a shitty text break-up these days?

Since then, a steady stream of artists have tried their hand at the format to varying degrees of success. Earlier this year, XO signee Nav showcased an innovative example of the form with an animated clip for “Wanted You,” his collaboration with Lil Uzi Vert. Created by rap cartoon specialists RoughSketchz, the visual is slick, imaginative, and artistically impressive — in other words, an example of vertical video at its best.

Saweetie and Tinashe’s vertical videos are slick, engaging, and work as well as any horizontal alternative. Both examples show how, with time and effort, the format can be highly effective.

It’s also worth pointing out the format’s various advantages. Not only does it allow for quicker turnaround, offer greater ease of use, and require a comparative lack of budget, it’s also optimized for the social media generation — the biggest consumers of modern pop music. And like how the internet made it easier for unsigned musicians to get attention, vertical videos open the door for would-be directors and artists from all backgrounds and classes. After all, videos often have more impact than standalone tracks, a fact demonstrated by the ongoing popularity of “visual albums.” With enough creativity and ability to generate online buzz, artists can potentially release a slew of vertical videos without having to invest in big-budget directors or top-end equipment.

This all ties into the ever-growing strength of social media. More stars than ever garner huge buzz through viral videos. Rapper Ms Banks recently released a phone video as part of the #pengamechallenge and received such a huge response that she reworked the viral freestyle for recent mixtape The Coldest Winter Ever. Meanwhile, Saweetie’s own strong social media following resulted in viral buzz for “ICY GRL,” landing her a record deal with Warner Bros.. The young Californian has since risen to stardom, defending her skills — despite the doubts of HOT 97’s DJ Ebro — and garnering acclaim along the way. The fact that the vertical video for “B.A.N.” is her first major label visual shows how record execs also see the medium’s potential.

The relative ease of producing vertical videos has allowed companies to cash in, too. Spotify is a key example. As the company fights with Apple Music to incorporate music videos and drive app downloads, numerous high-profile stars have been enlisted to create exclusive clips.

Put simply, though, most haven’t really added much to the conversation. The vertical clip for Taylor Swift’s “Delicate” was recently described as “not necessary, but nice,” which sums it up nicely. Over the last few months, stars including Ariana Grande, Christina Aguilera, and Nicki Minaj (and soon Travis Scott, it seems) have all quietly released videos that are either extended selfies or spliced-together clips comprising behind-the-scenes footage. All have been overshadowed by their official counterparts, and if nothing else, their very existence reveals a voracious consumer appetite for more content, regardless of quality.

On the other hand, a day after dropping the “Barbie Tingz” Spotify clip, Minaj released a considerably more heavily publicized vertical video for “Chun-Li,” and in the process confusing her Barbz. Essentially a string of Snapchat stories strung together, the visual acted as a teaser for the Steven Klein-directed masterpiece released weeks later. Before the full release, the vertical clip was followed by a #ChunLiSurprise, another teaser again made up of unrelated footage, requiring Minaj to clarify that the clips used footage different from the official video. Yet both snippets kept Minaj trending on Twitter and YouTube, with the vertical video racking up millions of views and demonstrating how the format can be used to sustain fan attention and maintain buzz.

All things considered, vertical videos still look pretty awful when viewed on anything other than a mobile phone. Nobody has found an interesting way to eliminate the black space that occupies the bulk of the screen while viewing in landscape mode, and the ongoing trend of releasing vertical “alternatives” to official clips has reduced the format to little more than a curious add-on. Despite several examples that have been well-executed, the vast majority comprise hastily compiled backstage footage and selfie videos, doing nothing to eradicate the stigma of “Vertical Video Syndrome.”

Still, our ever-increasing reliance on mobile video and the willingness of artists to share video teasers on social media offers hope that things could change in a more interesting direction. In fact, if anything, such a shift would be logical. Vertical music videos really could be the future — but only if labels and artists shape up, get creative, and invest in their potential.

For more of our in-depth pieces, read our take on how Spotify’s disavowal of R. Kelly and XXXTentacion opens the door for media accountability here.

Words by Jake Hall
What To Read Next