Last week, Halsey dropped the third chapter of what we presume to be some sort of hopeless fountain kingdom music video trilogy. In April’s “Now or Never” music video, Halsey pursues a romance with a man she can’t have (and cuts off her long, electric blue locks). In August’s “Bad at Love,” Halsey is on the run from the police. And in this month’s “Sorry,” Halsey finds herself alone and stranded in the middle of a desert wasteland, surrounded by broken cars and limp bodies.
Based on the above descriptions, the three videos seem to have almost nothing in common. But eagle-eyed watchers may notice that they all contain a continuous through line—certain characters from “Now or Never” pop up in “Sorry,” the insect insignia from “Now or Never” is etched on to the back of Halsey’s “Bad at Love” leather jacket, and Halsey wears essentially the same outfit in “Now or Never,” “Bad at Love,” and “Sorry.”
Halsey is probably the most recent artist to construct a pseudo-short film using music videos, but she’s far from the first. Artists of all genres have used music videos to tell grand, overarching stories for years, though doing so has become increasingly common in the 2010s (as watching multiple music videos in one sitting has become commonplace with the rise of YouTube and other video streaming services). And we’re talking about overarching stories that take place over several videos as opposed to ones that begin and end within a single video, like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé’s “Telephone,” or Jay-Z’s “Family Feud.”
Some music video series, like Halsey’s hopeless fountain kingdom trilogy, use recurring images and motifs to tell stories or convey messages. Sia’s “Chandelier,” “Elastic Heart,” and “Big Girls Cry” videos, for example, don’t necessarily form a cohesive narrative when you play them one after another. But Sia has nevertheless described the videos as a trilogy, as they all prominently feature dancer and performer Maddie Ziegler. And while each video does so differently, they all illustrate Sia’s feelings about herself and the music industry’s obsession with superficiality in interesting and emotionally provocative ways.
Kings of Leon’s “Waste a Moment,” “Find Me,” and “Reverend” music videos are connected to one another in more obvious ways than the Sia videos, but they’re probably just as (if not more) abstract. The only thing we could gather from the “Waste a Moment” video is that a cheerleader living in a small town seems to have secret, possibly lethal powers. In “Find Me,” a bunch of people from the small town go missing and local police suspect an elderly long-haired man of being behind the whole thing. “Reverend” supposedly wraps up the story, but we’re not quite sure how.
The band’s attempt to build a story using music videos was certainly ambitious (though Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill admitted that the videos are “more about mood and themes” than anything else). But unlike Sia and Halsey’s videos, “Waste a Moment,” “Find Me,” and “Reverend” don’t make a ton a sense whether they’re viewed together or on their own.
Troye Sivan’s Blue Neighbourhood music video trilogy is the complete opposite. In “Wild,” we see a young Sivan develop a close bond with his childhood friend (portrayed in later videos by model Matthew Eriksson) despite the abusive behaviour of Matthew’s homophobic father. Sivan and Matthew become romantically involved in “Fools,” but Matthew’s father catches on to the nature of their relationship and forbids his son from seeing Sivan ever again. “Take Me Down” is a little more ambiguous—Sivan and Matthew briefly speak at what appears to be Matthew’s father’s funeral, but some fans have speculated that Sivan jumps to his death at the end of the video and that the funeral is actually his (Sivan and/or Matthew at least consider committing suicide in the video, as links to various suicide prevention hotlines can be found in the video’s description).
Morbid “Talk Me Down” interpretations aside, the Blue Neighbourhood trilogy does exactly what a music video series should do. “Wild,” “Fools,” and “Talk Me Down” all make sense and can be enjoyed on their own. But every video takes on a new, more significant meaning when viewers watch them in sequence and thus gain a better understanding of Sivan and Matthew’s deeply moving history.
The same goes for ScHoolboy Q’s 2016 video series. In the music video for “By Any Means,” Q and his buddies wander around the city and try to make a pawn shop purchase none of them can afford. In the “Tookie Knows II” video, the group robs that same pawn shop. Eventually the police find and arrest them, and in “Black THougHts,” Q’s daughter escorts him out of the house and down the driveway, where a bus waits to transport him to the county jail.
Again, “Black THougHts” will make sense even if you haven’t watched “By Any Means” or “Tookie Knows II.” But the motivations behind ScHoolboy Q’s crime and the impact that Q’s sentence has on his family only becomes clear when all three videos are viewed together, in sequence.
Artists have always used music videos to tell short-form stories, and music video series allow those artists to experiment in ways that they may not have previously considered. Take Florence and the Machine’s nine-part “The Odyssey” series, for example. Like the Sia and Kings of Leon’s series, “The Odyssey” doesn’t adhere to a clear-cut plotline. Instead, according to lead singer Florence Welch, each “Odyssey” chapter depicts a different layer of pain and confusion she experienced after she ended a relationship. Or, in the words of “Odyssey” director Vincent Haycock, it “follows Welch’s cinematic journey through the storm of heartbreak.”
Rock quartet Born Ruffians recently completed its first music video trilogy, in which lead singer Luke Lalonde falls in love with a dummy and, as an old man, reunites with the dummy thanks to a mysterious girl wearing a yellow jacket. And in 2017 The Lumineers completed a musical short film called “The Ballad of Cleopatra,” a story about a woman who unexpectedly turns down a marriage proposal, gives birth to a son, and eventually grows up to become a taxi driver.
It took The Lumineers nearly a year and a half to tell “The Ballad of Cleopatra” story in its entirety—the first chapter of the story, “Ophelia,” dropped on February 11, 2016 while the full “Ballad of Cleopatra” short film came out on April 27, 2017. But the wait was well worth it, as Cleopatra’s story (which The Lumineers told out of sequence, without revealing that the pregnant women in “Angela” is the same starry-eyed young girl we see in “Sleep on the Floor”) concludes in an old age home, where Cleopatra reminisces both about the life she lived and the life she could have had.
There are many possible reasons why artists choose to link their music videos together. Sometimes it’s to create games for fans and keep them on their toes, like Taylor Swift does with her infamous music video Easter eggs. Sometimes an artist may want to boost the profile of an underrated or little-known track. Marshmello’s music videos for “Alone,” “Summer,” “Moving On,” “Find Me,” Blocks,” and “Take It Back” all follow his character’s journey through high school and into college, and yet only “Alone” and “Moving On” were released as singles.
And sometimes linking your music videos together makes more sense than not linking them. When you’re Beyoncé, people expect you to put out something profound and cinematic. So why not start off all your videos with buzz words like “Forgiveness” and “Apathy” superimposed on screen?
From using music videos to open up about your personal life (like Troye Sivan) and experiment with nonlinear storytelling (like The Lumineers) to making grand statements about the music industry (like Sia) and creating a mythos around your wholesome marshmallow-headed alter ego (like Marshmello), music videos are capable of being so much more than fancy, well-lit commercials. They can deliver important messages. They can strengthen an artist’s relationship with his or her fanbase. And with many artists either turning to big-time Hollywood directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Ava DuVernay to direct their music videos or deciding to try out directing themselves, who knows where music video miniseries will go next?