In the fall of 1984, Madonna’s video for her single “Lucky Star” was in heavy rotation on MTV. The clip — a key turning point in her trip from NYC nightclub notoriety to full-blown pop stardom — shows Madonna dancing against a solid white screen, sometimes using structured choreography with two dancers behind her, sometimes writhing on the floor solo with the camera close on her face. It’s a pretty simple concept, but at a time when artists and directors were beginning to do flashier and more complex things with this newly popular medium, the spare video felt instantly iconic. And while she wasn’t yet a legend at the time of the single’s release, Madonna cast herself as one, complete with a subtle homage to Audrey Hepburn’s signature sunglasses. The implication was that Madonna didn’t need the smoke and mirrors seen in some other popular videos — she traded in the special effects for one hell of a gaze.
As music has become increasingly free and easily downloadable, the fate of the big, expensive music video has wavered. Decreased budgets have forced many musicians and directors to turn to green-screen and other low-frills concepts; with more people watching music videos on their smartphones than they do on their televisions, lo-fi videos made for consuming on tiny screens or in GIF form are in vogue. “Lucky Star”–style minimalism has enjoyed something of a renaissance in music videos in recent years, from Robyn dancing on her own in a strobe-lit warehouse to Drake’s pink-hued, James Turrell–esque “Hotline Bling” set. Sia’s “Chandelier” video, starring Maddie Ziegler as a Sia avatar gorgeously freaking out in a decrepit apartment, is going into the vault with the most memorable videos of this decade. Justin Bieber could have released a hand-wringing, sad-boy video portrait for his dancefloor tearjerker “Sorry,” but instead he got a gaggle of colorfully dressed female dancers to get down to his pain. Synthpop band Pillar Point enlisted artist Kia Labeija to vogue around Bogotá for their stunning “Dove” music video.
With “Work,” Rihanna has given us two dance videos in one. The first clip recognizes the track’s sweaty-smoky-club potential: As the camera slow-mo obsesses over bodies grinding in a crowded room, Rihanna becomes obsessed with her own dancing reflection in a wall mirror far from the crowd. The second clip is more understated: Dim, pink neon light bathes Drake and Rihanna as she slowly undulates for the camera and (maybe, maybe) for him. It’s playful and confrontational, intimate because of the chemistry between the two leads but ultimately made for the viewer’s pleasure, with stars who stare you down from the other side of the video screen. Rihanna’s awareness of the audience’s desire to look at her is not new, but the second “Work” video luxuriates in our voyeurism.
One of the reasons why artists still choose to make simple dance videos — even someone like Rihanna, who can command the budget to make million-dollar mini-films if she so chooses — is because they’re undeniably classic. They hearken back to live televised music performances on shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train, when just watching people dance to music was a program worth tuning in to. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and Feist’s “1234” videos have a basement Bob Fosse vibe to them. The dance video places artists within a history of performance in which pop artists were expected to be triple threats, to thrill audiences with laborious routines. And when these dances translate an artist’s music into a dazzling, physical spectacle that viewers can’t even begin to imagine themselves doing, it puts these performers’ talents on an almost superhuman plane.
In 1998, Cat Power’s Chan Marshall took inspiration from Madonna’s “Lucky Star” for her stark “Cross Bones Style” video. “I’m sure I’ll chicken out, though,” Marshall said before making the video. But that’s part of what makes this subgenre so enthralling: These videos leave the performer with nowhere to hide. One of the best minimalist dance clips of the past few years is Ciara’s 2010 video for “Ride.” Against a white backdrop, Ciara showcases her jaw-dropping, professional dance skills. The whole video is intimidatingly hot, but it’s the scenes where she’s just dancing in leggings and a hole-filled t-shirt — wiping the floor with her body, balancing on her tiptoes like a ballerina in Adidas — that really impress. The clip underscores the song’s bluntly physical “ride it” message with another one about knowing you’re on top of your shit, about fashioning yourself as an untouchable star. It’s a video that revels in its own tell and show (and show, and show).
The no-frills dance video is an inherently confident music video genre. When the artist is centered as the video’s main dancer, à la Rihanna, Madonna, and Ciara, the entire video hinges on the artist’s talent. But even when the artist enlists a dancer, as Bieber and Sia did, that same confidence comes through. The dance video is a power move that says This song is so killer, just watching people dance to it is enough. Keep your 10-minute cinematic epics, your celebrity-cameo gimmickry, your complicated narratives that don’t pay off in the end.
The dance video highlights the gap between artist and audience, with the former delighting in the demonstration of how a body might move to this music. It testifies to an artist’s ability to render their music physical and palpable, whether they’re spinning center stage or soundtracking the steps of another. There’s an obvious pleasure in watching a body flawlessly moving to music on a screen, but it doesn’t always have to be sensual. Ultimately, these videos are an invitation. They invite projection when a dancer expresses intense passion for this music with their body in a way that few viewers can. They invite you to dance yourself, to not just watch the video but to use it as a motivating blueprint for getting lost in this music. But more importantly, these videos are an invitation to celebrate your own idolatry. Drake, Ciara, Bieber’s colorful cohort: They’re dancing for us viewers, no matter who else is in the video.
Devoid of narrative embellishment, the minimalist dance video makes the transaction between pop idols and consumers as direct as possible, satisfying viewers’ desire to see their favorite musicians deliver a song-and-dance performance. Videos like “Ride,” in which the artists themselves dance onscreen, place stars and their talents on a pedestal that demands worship. In “Chandelier” or “Sorry,” the artist frames non-celebrity dancers as expert interpreters of their music, as crucial fans who convey a song’s energy. Either way, the simplicity of these performances, with their audition-tape levels of directness and barren spaces, creates an intimate production for viewers. The dance video lets you vividly see how a person’s body — famous or not — is affected by the strength of a song. It’s a genre that lets you bear personal witness to the corporeal power of a star and their song. However many millions of times we stream Drake and Rihanna dancing in that neon back room, it never stops feeling like we’re getting a private performance.