One of the most satisfying things about cyberpunk is that its visions of tomorrow will always be a day away. Wearable tech, hacking scandals, personal drones and other items and occurrences that would once have been part of cyberpunk fiction may now be commonplace, but new futures and possibilities arrive at a rate that feels almost impossible to track.
It’s not uncommon for music videos to be viewed as handy time capsules documenting the last 30 or so years of music, fashion, dance and social attitudes. When music videos also draw upon cyberpunk iconography and tropes, this has the added advantage of showing us succinctly how the genre has evolved and adapted over the years.
The three videos discussed here are not an exhaustive list of every cyberpunk influenced music video ever; there are several that appeared during the late 90s/early 2000s nu-metal period alone, however they do help illustrate how cyberpunk is perceived at intervals of a period of over 20 years and encompass a variety of musical genres.
Billy Idol – ‘Shock to the System’ (1993)
‘Shock to the System’, from Billy Idol’s album Cyberpunk seems simultaneously quaint and prescient from a modern perspective. The video features Idol as a guerrilla journalist in a dystopian, futuristic city who captures an act of police brutality and subsequently becomes victim of one himself. Idol’s video camera is smashed and subsequently horrifically fuses with his body in a manner reminiscent of Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo films mutating him into a cyborg avatar for the city’s oppressed.
While the use of a hand-held video camera to record the authorities’ abuses might strike modern audiences as bordering on the archaic, the almost cybernetic implementation of a smart-phone with camera and internet access into many people’s basic daily inventory potentially turns most of us into a (perhaps more aesthetically pleasing) version of Idol’s character here.
The aesthetic of the video owes a lot dystopian SF movies like Robocop and The Running Man with urban decay and sinister black, corporate looking police cars keeping things at rain-slick street level. Interestingly, Idol’s transformation into a cyborg is a painful and off-putting one as organs are replaced by lenses and wires. Idol seems to be celebrated as some kind of hero by the video’s end, however, there’s a level of squeamishness regarding his transformation absent from many later depictions of cyborgs.
Kanye West – ‘Stonger’ (2007)
It’s interesting that Kanye’s video borrows so much from cyberpunk, knowingly acknowledging the song’s fusion of Daft Punk’s robo-funk to West’s human vocals. West emerges from a high-tech cocoon reminiscent of the tech seen in Ghost in the Shell, seemingly designed or improved upon by Daft Punk. Bold, clean Japanese fills the screen as West delivers his verses through surveillance-system scan lines against a stark concrete wall. Elsewhere, civil unrest seems to brewing, filmed through the same scan lines and bikers partake in an Akira inspired night-drive (a later hospital scene with West facing off against riot cops also appears to be inspired by Akira too). A holographic version of West also appears, flickering and glitching as he clutches his head in throes of emotion.
Like the Billy Idol video, transhumanism features heavily here, with West turned into something harder, better, faster and stronger. Unlike the Billy Idol video, there’s less squeamishness about it. West isn’t transformed in any way that shows externally, but he’s still something to be feared judging by the riot cops that try to stop his hospital escape. The aesthetic here is lush and clean, not grungy and decrepit. To be a cyborg has become desirable.
What’s particularly interesting here is the amount of formats that he appears in: in ‘reality’, on security footage and in holographic form. There’s probably a lot to be read into here regarding West’s star persona, but to a cyberpunk fan, the split between a real and virtual self, not to mention the self that leaves jet-streams of data on surveillance cameras, is quite fascinating and shows a lot of awareness on the part of West and director Hype Williams.
Perturbator – ‘She is Young, She is Beautiful, She is Next’ (2014)
The most modern video of the three from the youngest artist is also interestingly the most deliberately backwards looking. Drawing on a trash aesthetic familiar to anyone who hung around their local video store’s dustier corners during the early 90s, ‘She is Young, She is Beautiful, She is Next’ fuses cyberpunk, horror and post-apocalyptic dystopias while looking like an Amiga era video game intro.
The video is much better watched than described, but it follows samurai in mirrorshades as she faces off against the cyborg/demon that has presumably turned the world into the wasteland we see in the video.
At first, it’s a little disconcerting as a cyberpunk fan to see something you feel so keenly about reduced to a retro-aesthetic. However, the mash-up of occult horror and cyberpunk is a pretty fresh conceit and the sheer enthusiasm on display here makes it apparent that there’s no attempt to mock cyberpunk or appreciate it ironically; this is pure joy.
With these three videos, cyberpunk has been explored through very different prisms. Idol’s video is ambivalent at best about the World’s possible dystopian future, West’s video looks at the superhuman possibilities can bring and Perturbator’s video acknowledges that while we arguably live in a post-cyberpunk world, there’s still plenty of places for the genre to go.
Where cyberpunk is concerned it appears that change is, thankfully, constant.