Dave Soltysik, Head of Media Studies and A Level Examiner
In this blog post, I will be discussing the two new additions to the music video set products, Lil Nas X – SUN GOES DOWN and Sufjan Stevens – Sugar. These videos offer students opportunities to delve into themes such as identity and cultural experience, enhancing the diversity of the specification.
Lil Nas X co-directed the SUN GOES DOWN video with the LA-based production studio, Psycho Films who have produced music videos for a range of artists. A good starting point is for students to explore the different genre conventions of music videos.
Students could consider the social and cultural contexts surrounding Lil Nas X as an artist. It is crucial that these considerations are viewed within the framework of aiding their interpretation of the music video. Students can investigate the impact of these contexts on the representations depicted in the video. This article on the Pitchfork website provides interesting context on Lil Nas X’s coming out story.
Students should explore the polysemic nature of the music video and the various representational meanings that audiences may elicit. This includes aspects related to ethnicity, sexuality (particularly queer identities) and gender. Students could also investigate the intersectionality of these representations and how the music video may allow underrepresented groups to ‘pick and mix’ different ideas to use to construct their own identities, as media theorist David Gauntlett suggests.
As a fun task, students could create 'audience profiles’ and explain how different audiences may interpret the music video differently. This way, they will be considering a range of potential interpretations.
Regarding artist representation, Lil Nas X appears as himself in the video, and the narrative seems to be a reflection on his life and experiences growing up as a queer black man. This article on the Nylon website provides further exploration of the significance of the song for the artist.
Directed by Ezra Hurwitz, with choreography by Kyle Abraham, the video for Sugar portrays a family initially enjoying a serene vintage life, which gradually unravels. This is a music video that does not have a straightforward meaning or interpretation and so invites a wide range of different interpretations and perspectives. As with the other List B music videos, the artist does not appear in the video.
The music video is very surreal and follows a non-linear narrative structure. The disconnected images of the individual family members could be interpreted as an exploration of an individual's expression. The choreography and distinctive dance motifs could be seen as a celebration of individuality and personality.
Interestingly, as the narrative progresses, the scenes become more unsettling, perhaps suggesting that the characters are struggling to find their place in the world.
The music video is also stylised to evoke a nostalgic representation, and the 4:3 aspect ratio creates a sense of looking back in time. This itself is interesting, as the visual codes of the house, the clothing codes, and the almost sepia tone to the video, all work to further the effect of capturing a moment from a bygone era.
I hope this quick read offers you some starting points to teaching these music videos to your students. Teacher guides for SUN GOES DOWN and Sugar are available on our secure Teach Cambridge website (talk with your Exams Officer about access), along with guides to all the other set music videos. A delivery guide and learner resources for the Media Language and Representation topic are also available on Teach Cambridge.
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Dave Soltysik is Head of Media Studies in a large comprehensive secondary school and sixth form in Hertfordshire. He is an A Level and GCSE examiner and moderator. Dave is passionate about exploring innovative, fresh and relevant approaches to teaching Media Studies and ensuring that it remains a vital part of the curriculum.