Mic check

One of my favourite activities on the weekend is watching music videos and often I find myself pondering the role of the microphone in this medium, since most of the videos aren't shot while recording the song.

Shannon Noll is arguably one of the most intriguing performers in this arena, from his silly lip-syncing gag during in the clip for his duet with Natalie Bassingthwaite through to his pseudo-performance with a mic that isn't plugged in for his lead-in-to-the-footy-ad-break-anthem Loud. Is it supposed to be ironic that the lyrics even say "because you know I can't fake this"?

Sometimes I wonder if Noll might not be taking the piss. After all, he seems to stir controversy on tour when audience members and die-hard fans go on to argue in the letters section of local newspapers as to whether he was too pissed to be performing. It made me wonder if the subsequent single Everybody Needs A Little Help wasn't addressing this debate with it's faux performance.

More recently I've become obsessed with learning the model of microphone that Gabriella Cilmi is misusing in the clip for her song Sweet About Me. The mic gets a starring role, possibly because it's the closest thing to the 16-year old singer in this clip with a bunch of hot and sweaty blokes. (The drummer really nails it IMO, his performance makes me wonder why you don't see what he's sitting on!)

Note how much screen time the mic gets from the opening shot. It makes me think the way that Cilmi is singing into the top of a side-address mic must be a deliberate joke. However, Cilmi isn't the only singer using a big old fashioned chrome-plated microphone in her film clip though and it's this trend that I'm going to try and stay focused upon.

If I take a lead from Roland Barthes and attempt a semiotic analysis here, it seems old chunky mics play an important role in establishing the credentials of the vocalist in a film clip. After all, we're used to seeing the walls of amplifiers to show the band are loud and some drummers rely on an abundance of tom toms and cymbals for credibility to the point where they're all you see when looking at them playing the drum kit.

Actually, here I'll digress but I think I spotted an interesting new trend for drummers in the clip for Motley Crue's Saints of Los Angeles - just have a look at the size of the kick drum!

But to get back to microphones, let me suggest some of the messages you might associate with seeing a contemporary singer pretending to sing into an old fashioned microphone.

First, a big chrome mic looks serious. It's probably no coincidence that there are clips like Prince's Sexy Motherfucker where he's holding a microphone that looks like a gun. Hell, it's probably no coincidence that there are mics called shotguns. You wouldn't mess with someone with a gun so you'd better take that gun-shaped mic seriously. Really.

Second, you could take a Freudian view and see the phallic shape as making the user look powerful. After all, porn and fashion are built on fetishism and Freud argued that fetishism derives power from being misplaced phallic power. Check out this clip for Mercy by the wannabe Duffy and tell me she wouldn't look like a porno actress if you substituted her mic with a cock. (The opposite is also true, try substituting the knobs being fellated on porno covers with Shure SM-58s and it's like magic, the actresses look just like pop starlets!)

Third, the old fashioned mics give reference to the old fashioned singers that used them. Want to give the idea you're in the same league as Elvis or Frank Sinatra or whoever? Easy, use their props and if there's any room for doubt then add a bunch of attractive actors admiring the singer.

For an example of the latter, look at the earlier clip for Mercy by Duffy - which I'd guess must've failed to convince the younger audience because there weren't enough young people in the clip for them to feel interested.