Mediamatic Magazine vol 3#3 Marijn van der Jagt 1 Jan 1989


Words are taking revenge. It’s just no fun anymore simply being uttered or written down. They want to go on the offensive, to appear alarming.They want to breed and multiply and take over the image. They no longer serve language as the means of communication rather they visualize its volume, its substance, speed and strenght. Just as the voice has regained its power thanks to the rappers, words and letters have achieved prominence by graphic means. The first two articles in this issue of mediamatic focus on the fulfilment of that one great miracle: the word is made graphic.


No -

In the days when pop programs still mainly consisted of studio recordings, large letters where often used as stage sets. Heavy, three- dimensional capitals - TOP POP - which the musicians could stand on top. The advent of the videoclip has robbed space of its real dimensions. And the letters have acquired a new freedom. They have shed their volume and consequently their sluggishness: they can appear at any moment within the flat image, changing format, colour or direction, intrusively filling the screen or providing it with rapid marginalia. They have a life of their own.

JULIA fordham woman of the 80’S. The singer’s name and the title of her record pass by in slender, pastel-coloured letters. Not as a stage set but as a large scale newstraiter within the image. Meanwhile there’s the singer who sings, jogs, throws a javelin and swims. The clip lasts just the time needed all the letters to appear, their purpose is achieved once the words are spelled out to the viewer. JULIA is advertising her new life-style and the letters are advertising her song.

KNOW WHAT I MEAN? COMPRENDS? WEETJE WEL? VERSTEHEN SIE? All at once these texts appear somewhere in the middle of NENEH cherry’s clip and vanish again almost before you have time to read them. Yet they reveal her song’s most important message. The rest of the story is of little importance, everything concerns the catchphrase you know what I mean? It’s about neneh’s extraordinarily beautiful eyes and lips and her strong and aggressive rapping voice. To see and hear NENEH is to understand her.

UH hey uh nanananana. The catchphrases of the heaven n singer leap across the screen in various formats the moment they are uttered. Their visualisation makes the words hesitate, as if they are frozen for a second. Train of Love in Motion consists of recordings of a live concert that happened at some other place and time. But the letters bridge that distance: the singer burst onto the screen with the physical power of his voice and the image moans and shrieks along with him.

wicked GUITAR BREAK! The commentary of hiphoppers BOMB THE BASS consists of a series of cheeky scribbles. Go, Tony, Go! cheers on a boy who flashes past on a skateboard. A friendly explanation of Boyz Lamping accompanies a series of incomprehensible but essential hiphop arm movements. A hand scratching a record is given extra visual sound: SKRTSJ, just like the fights in the old batman films. The group’s name is cheerfully written across the screen: Bomb the Bass, Bom, Bomberdumm. The screen is an empty surface that begs to be covered with graffiti. The nicest text is the announcement of a nicked guitar solo: Wicked Guitar Break. These texts depict the essence of hiphop: everything you sign is yours.

Alphabet Street

From the stately procession of the letters of julia fordham to the scribbles of BOMB THE BASS: the letters have become faster looser, more satanic. It now seems just one small step to prince’s Alphabet Street where the letters have jumped out of their context and flutter across the screen like confetti. But the way in which prince works with letters differs fundamentally from everyone else. In most clips with texts the letters have been simply added to the images, they are an extra element alongside other visual material. With prince the letters have a self-evident presence, they are a part of his universe. The Sign O’ the Times clip just consists of letters. The song’s text appears against a black background, word for word, letter for letter. Exactly in the song’s tempo. There is plenty of variation in colour, size and direction, but this variation is the logical consequence of the speed or intensity of the words being sung and is not only intended to delight the viewer’s eye. It’s typical that prince only used letters to illustrate this song in particular, with its panoramic and poignant summary of life: my sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it and still we’re sending people to the moon. As if images, not words fall short. Hence this is the absolute antithesis of Michael jackson’s commentary on the world’s ills in The Man in the Mirror, in which the tear-jerking images of the starving, wounded demonstrators and politicians shaking hands are simply too much and have become preposterous. In Sign O’ the Times prince restores the job of representation to the text. Not to words but to the material of words: letters.

In his search for signs of the times PRINCE plays with the meanings of words and their material representation. For years now he has carefully replaced words with letters and numbers in the texts on his record sleeves.

Hence, the word for has become the number 4, the word to is replaced with the number 2, You is represented by the letter U and are with R: When 2 R in Love, I would Die 4 U. You can recognize a text by prince at a glance, and the special secret language means that U isn’t some arbitrary you but contains all the significance that prince attributes to the concept of you. Word and image melt into a hieroglyph with a new and unique meaning.

It doesn’t just stop at letters and numbers. On the Sign O’ the Times album prince represents the O’ with a hand-drawn peace sign. On the latest Lovesexy album PRINCE has also found a sign for his interpretation of the concept I: he replaces the word I with a drawn eye, as if he wants to show us that it’s no coincidence that I and eye sound the same, as if he’s revealing some mystical link. PRINCE creates the same connection between the words know and no in the number <W> No. I know there’s a heaven and a hell, sings prince, but the representation of this knowledge {know) reveals resistance (no) to accept the consequence of this knowledge. Knowledge and insight do not yet result in faith. It is only after actual repentance (and PRINCE is always concerned with seduction, sin, atonement and final conversion) that YES prevails on Lovesexy, and yes is written so that it forms a heart.

PRINCE leaves his hieroglyphs on every surface he encounters as a pop singer. On his musical instruments, on the decor of his live- shows. During the Lovesexy tour letters and signs were even projected onto the stage floor and onto the ceiling. Even his body is adorned with letters and signs, prince is covered with symbolic jewels: a bracelet in the form of a reflecting heart, a peace sign as an earring, a cross around his neck. During the The Cross song from the Sign O’ the Times concert he had a white cross painted on his face. Recently words appear on his clothes: SOUND was on his shirt sleeve, Minneapolis on his jacket and prince on the upper part of his leg.

It put my name upon my thigh, he sings in the song Lovesexy, It make me dance, it make me cry. It is the writing of something that’s greater than he is, that can point to and name the elements in his universe.

B= beautiful

The whole screen is filled with letters in Alphabet Street, prince has created a world of letters through which he can speed in his father’s Thunderbird. The letters move constantly, they shrink and grow, turn on their axis, change colour, race like the highway under his car. It’s as if prince is plunged into the microcosm of his own material. Letters as molecules. One by one the letters of the alphabet jump forward out of the images, order in chaos. Each letter is given a special prince meaning (B=beautiful) and the alphabet stops at I (/ love you). PRINCE shows us round his laboratory. Put the right letters together and make a better day is his do-it-yourself advice. These are no longer the letters of the presenting program, nor are they those of the pop musician. These belong to no-one, they have their own right to existence and we can borrow them to speak with.

prince zooms out once again with <ïe> Wish U Heaven Here it’s not the microcosm but the macrocosm of prince’s world. A soft, undulating world where everything is equal: prince’s symbolic jewels, the heart-shaped word yes, the arrow-shaped words NEW power, scraps of the text, prince’s guitar, sheila e.’s drum-sticks, a gun, kissing lips and the three back-up singers (CAT, SHEILA E. and boni boyer) and prince himself all move with the same calm suppleness across the image. Words bend and undulate double so that you see their backs. Reflective objects move between the scraps of texts and word symbols and make the letters appear to have more volume. A hand lovingly strokes a guitar that floats past and makes it seem so palpable that it almost seems to break free of the image. The letters and signs in the clip are just as tangible. They don’t look stuck onto the images, rather they exist in a sweet, light world where quite by chance the camera caught them passing by. This space is not actual, real, it’s new and completely fictitious, prince’s space, filled with elements which he has transformed into His elements. The beginning and end of <s> Wish U Heaven shows the kind of power with which prince rules His universe: the clip begins with a hand plucking an apple from a tree, the symbol for Man’s first sin. At the end prince rewinds the images and the apple is returned to the tree. prince transforms not just letters but The Scripture itself and with that he changed the entire history of Mankind.

translation Annie Wright