STEREOGUM: In [Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s] great oral history I Want My MTV, they spend a lot of time delving into this idea that there was this Wild West moment in music videos where a sudden need for content outpaced the utility of corporate controls and all this insane, surrealist, adventurous stuff was made for a few years until the gap closed and MTV had more at stake monetarily and “video director” became an actual career and there was less of a need to humor more eccentric artists. Is the internet a place where something like that moment in time is happening again?
OK Go vocalist/guitarist Damian Kulash: Partly, sure. Most of what we thought of as music throughout the twentieth century was a very stable because there was such a robust economy around it. Music was whatever you could put on a twelve-inch piece of plastic. And later a five-inch piece of silver plastic. It doesn’t matter that a hundred years prior to that recording didn’t exist and music was this ephemeral experience you had to be in the same room with someone else to make happen. All the stuff that surrounded that creatively was promotion, but that was the commodity — that’s what we grew up with music as conceptually. And, to me, it seems the internet has done a very good job of destabilizing that stable idea and reminding us how arbitrary those definitions are. It used to be that film was acetate and music was vinyl. We all know the difference between our eyes and ears but both [mediums] included visual and aural elements always: It’s been a long time since silent films and I can’t remember a single pop musician dating back to Elvis or Dizzy Gillespie who you can’t imagine visually. I mean, when I hear a Beatles song I could tell you what haircut they had at the time. Now that everyone makes ones and zeroes there isn’t a functional difference between what I make and what someone programming for the Xbox makes or what someone writing for Stereogum makes. We’re all turning in our quote-unquote “content.” And we all shudder at being placed in that disgusting box because we would like to think of the things we make as inspired and artistic. But at the end of the day we’re using the same tools and maybe just creating different types of experiences … [T]he things that inspired us to make stuff were not necessarily related specifically to music. Like, reading David Foster Wallace was more inspiring to us than watching another music video. Just getting inspired to make shit and having that as your outlet was just sort of like, “That’s what’s here. That’s what in front of us.”
STEREOGUM: When you conceptualize videos like these, does it open up new avenues for you to explore your own songs in ways that you might not otherwise?
KULASH: There are kind of two answers to that question. First, with respect to individual songs, what changes a song most is playing it over and over again live. It is always the case that what I think a song will be while I’m writing it is never what it is when it’s done. The hard and fast ones turn soft. And the soft ones turn dance-y and loud. Out in the world, songs just change. A similar thing happens with the videos. For instance, when we went to make the treadmill video, we actually had a different song in mind. We were going to do “A Good Idea At The Time,” but walking at that tempo just felt weird. So we went back to the record and … “Oh my God, ‘Here We Go Again’ is such a funny song to put to treadmills!” You know, “Ha-ha! Pun!” And that’s now our most well known song. Which means, basically, videos can definitely change the cultural arc of a song.
The second answer, though, is the success of these videos full of our weirdest ideas and most homemade stuff did change the way we approached our own music. By the time we were making our third record the only thing that unquestionably worked for us has been following our own instincts and not trying to thread the needle. You know when you go back and read the things you wrote in the past, or listen to songs you wrote in the past, and you basically hate them? I can go back two records and still like our stuff and I think it is because that was the moment we started being honest with ourselves about what we actually liked and didn’t like and stopped censoring ourselves based on what we thought the world wanted to hear.