Like most kids growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I watched music videos non-stop. I have a secret timeline in my head of what was number one on VH1’s countdown as opposed to TRL. I could practically write out the storyboard of most videos from 1995 to 2005 shot by shot. Videos for me weren’t so much advertisements for music (which essentially they really are) as they were miniature visual fantasies of the impossible. The videos that captured me most were the ones that used technology and mind-blowing conceptual ideas (at least for a teenager) that made the song much more than just pop.
Enter, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” If not spectacular enough with MJ killing it while dancing with people from all over the world, the last minute of the video features faces of lots of races and genders jamming to the song and morphing into each other. The technology was so new at the time that it sent shivers down my spine.
During the next 10 to 15 years, the use of morphing in music videos skyrocketed. All of the hottest directors from Hype Willams to Mark Romanec and Chris Cunningham jumped on the bandwagon. Sometimes high budget (some of the videos in this article are among the most expensive videos ever made) and sometimes low (editors just spliced scenes together), the effect was used to change the images of our favorite pop stars right before our eyes. Here are some of the highlights:
What’s swoonier than a young Nick Carter with a middle-parted bowl cut? A young Nick Carter morphing into Kevin Richardson morphing into Howie Dorough, of course. And in the Backstreet Boys’ video for “As Long As You Love Me,” it was as easy as clicking a TV remote. The boys keep turning into each other, which makes it so much harder to really decide that age old question: which BSB is my favorite?
Not to be outdone, the other boy band, ‘N Sync (or is BSB the other boy band? but that’s another discussion entirely) had to show off their morphing skills in their “Pop” video clip. They bust some classic early 2000s dance moves during the mid-song break down, including the always sexy high-plank-hip-thrust, all the while changing in the blink of an eye from one outfit to another. The dancing and the instantaneous costume changes embodies everything that is pop: fast, luxurious, excessive, ephemeral.
Morphing wasn’t just a boy’s game. Mya’s video for “My Love is Like Whoa” features her in an Adidas running getup that changes from blue to red and back to blue as she uses her tightest dance moves to prove what her love is like. This clip only pulls the morphing off thanks to great editing and Mya’s precise dancing skills because it’s clear that director, Paul Hunter, didn’t use any fancy technology, but the effect is the same: pop stars have a huge wardrobe.
Not only Michael, but the whole family got in on the morphing trend during the ’90s. Michael indoctrinated Janet into the fold in their epic “Scream” short film. Everything morphs into everything: Michael into Janet, Warhol into Pollock, Buddha into Magritte. The Jacksons had the power to have whatever they wanted and, when they got tired of it, they could just turn it into something else. Janet used the technique again in her collaboration with Busta Rhymes, “What’s It Gonna Be?” Rhymes and an entire marching band morph out of a silver water wall à la Alex Mack in order to parade around a purple leather-clad Janet.
Madonna’s “Frozen” shows that morphing isn’t just about excess and showing off how many styles you can flaunt in one video. Her spooky and contemplative clip demonstrates that not only can she wear whatever she wants, but she can be anything she wants. She morphs into a flock of ravens and into different versions of herself just to prove that she will always be the baddest witch in the desert.
But let’s be honest; when I think of morphing, I only think of one video: Bjork’s “Hunter.” The image of a stripped down, bald Bjork slowing turning into a struggling polar bear will forever be imprinted on my brain. I think it’s the most powerful example of the technique because it speaks to the transformative power of pop music. This is why we listen to it, for just a few moments to be someone or something that we’re not.
Despite the fact that morphing technology has improved over the last decade and it is constantly used in movies and TV shows, music videos feature it less and less, probably due to decreased video budgets and declining record sales. It’s a shame to see such a dazzling technique fall to the wayside in favor of twerking and metallic lip gloss. Please add recent examples or your own favorites in the comments!