Representations in Music Videos

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Massive Attack – “Unfinished Sympathy”

Background information:

  • Distributed through Circa Records on 11 February 1991.
  • The choice of using the name “Massive” (instead of “Massive Attack”) was done to avoid a radio ban as its release coincided with the Gulf War.
  • The name is a pun on Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”
  • The video was filmed in a single continuous shot from 1311 South New Hampshire Avenue to 2632 West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.
  • The gang at the beginning with the dog – they were real, they lived there.
  • The video for Unfinished Sympathy is generally regarded to be the very first promo music video to be shot in one take.


The meaning. I’d agree it’s about beginning to get involved with someone who then pulls away– “How can I have a day without a night, you’re the book that I have opened, and now I’ve got to know much more.” These both suggest she’s had some kind of contact with the person but only a limited amount and it’s left her wanting more. “Like a soul without a mind…” beautifully conveys the feeling of emptiness as a result of this desire, she is missing something she needs. Also perhaps a resignation to the fact she won’t get what she wants. The line “You really hurt me baby…” expresses her angst and despair about the fact the other person pulled away or does not requite her love, I don’t think it’s a reference to a previous relationship or questioning whether she will get hurt if she enters a relationship.

“Then there’s the hand, with its fingertips lopped off the top of the record. One finger is a different texture to the others, perhaps wrapped in a plaster with frayed edges – blood seeping through cloth. It’s a fitting image for a song about pain and recovery, calling to mind thin skin growing thicker.”

“The limit of sympathy is a theme”


  • Streets/urban
  • Black people
  • Gangs/bikers
  • Young
  • Disabled
  • Homeless


 “Unfinished Sympathy” released by Massive Attack (going simply by “Massive” for this particular record) in 1991 in the midst of the Gulf War. It was this event which lead to the group ultimately dropping the word “Attack” from its name, as it was feared that it would lead to a radio ban. The video, filmed on a stedicam and directed by Billie Walsh, is noted to be the first music video to be filmed in a single continuous shot, from 131 South New Hampshire Avenue to 2632 West Pico Boulevard in LA.

Whilst it does follow vocalist Shara Nelson, the music video does not feature any star or main character. It takes a more realistic approach, portraying Nelson as an ordinary person walking down a street. This is a binary opposite to other music videos produced before or at the time, and almost every music video made since; instead of Nelson being the main focal point of the video, the movement in the background and Nelson’s unforced facial expressions and walk shift the focus off Nelson, pushing the background characters and the vocals to the foreground focal point of the video. This can maybe be interpreted as establishing a sense of “oneness”; a society that is more about bring people together then making individuals stand out. This is highlighted perhaps by the fact that a diverse range of people – ranging from an amputee to a biker gang to a group of homeless men, etc. – are brought together in the video, despite how different they may appear.

The diversity of people offers a range of representations. Beginning at the start of the music video, we see a group of gang members. Interestingly, the group of men shown weren’t actors – they were real people. The video plays to the idea that gang members are violent; they done tattoos, some of them cover their faces, etc. Furthermore, they walk towards the camera slowly and in a pack which leaves the viewer intimidated, heightening this sense that gangs are violent.

Similar things can be said about black people. The shot to the right depicts a young boy holding a gun. The representation of this is that similar to that of gang members, only this time it is heightened by the young boy playing with a gun. This could also be a nod at the representation of genders – boys play with guns whilst girls play with dolls which naturally incline men to more predatory and violent then women.

These two points could be disputed. Nelson, the lead singer, is walking carefree down the pavement near these people. Typically, a women represents someone who is a damsel in distress. If that were true, we would expect to see Nelson fearful whilst walking down the street, but we don’t. This is therefore done to challenge the representation of women.

This also perhaps challenges representations: the amputee in the background is fully capable and looking after himself. Furthermore, the media has long been criticised for  showing disabled people’s inability to interact in normal daily life is a direct result of their physical and/ or mental impairment, and how they are “distanced” from the audience as their disability defines characters. However, in this music video in the disabled man in shown in the same way as everyone else in the street, which may be the band’s way of reinforcing this idea that everyone is equal.

Queer Theory

  • Rejects mainstream, conventional ideas, including sexual identity, race, gender, disability, etc. Also rejects the notion of binary opposites existing (male/female, gay/straight) and suggests that instead people are much more fluid in their identity – ‘queer’ is the thing in between binary opposites.

Judith Butler:

  • Says gender is not biology, it is a socially constructed idea. Media and culture are culprits of reinforcing the myth of gender.
  • Sees gender as a performance, an act.
  • Exaggerated representations of gender on TV, i.e: hyper-femininity, hyper-masculinity, creates ‘gender trouble’.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out or favour information that aligns with our pre-existing ideas and ideologies instead of searching out information that challenges it. Often, we ignore information that we don’t agree with. When there’s an ambiguous text, you interpret it to only support your idea.

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It’s important to understand confirmation bias because it may affect how we interpret and retell information. This means that pro-Brexit people will likely ready pro-Brexit newspapers for example, as they will report issues concerning Brexit in a pro-Brexit fashion. When Brexit was being negotiated, the majority of main stream newspapers favoured leaving the EU, which may have had a significant impact into the outcome of the result.

Why do we do this? Research has suggested that we do this because it is easier to repeat actions and ideas rather than altering them. Furthermore, fans of something will remain loyal to that particular thing because it gives a confirmation of identity through belong to a ‘tribe’. Political parties in power are more likely to remain in power because naturally we are wary of change.

Different types of Signs

Semiotics is the study of signs and how meaning is created by them. There are three major types of signs which are detailed below.


Iconic signs: These are signs that physically represent what they mean, i.e: a picture of someone’s faces – although it is not directly that person, we know by seeing their face it is meant to represent that person. Pictures, drawings and photographs are usually iconic signs, as long as they look physically like the thing they are representing. Words that have sound behind them, i.e: ‘splash’, carry some type of iconic sign. The problem with iconic signs at times is that physical resemblance is hard to measure, how similar must a sign be for it to represent the object?

Icons can be influenced by cultural conventions. For example, if most people see a picture of a man on a door, we’d recognise that as a public restroom. To someone who lives in a remote tribe and South America, they would not be able to identify it as a restroom.


Symbolic signs: Symbolic signs do not look like the thing that they are representing. Examples of symbolic signs would be language (both spoken and written), gestures, facial expressions, etc. Symbolic signs require you to have learnt the meaning behind the sign. Symbolic signs do not necessarily mean the same thing for everybody, i.e: hand gestures in one country do not always mean the same thing in a different country. In summary, symbols are easily removable from their context and are closely associated with large sets of other words.

Indexical signs: are defined by some sensory feature (smell, sound, etc.) which correlates with a sign or memory. An example of this would be the smell of chlorine reminding you of holidays, where you are often surrounded by pools filled with chlorine, hence the link. For an indexical sign to work, you must first detect a trigger, and then by able to innately know it correlates to an event, person, place, etc. We often say that indexical signs have a causal link to what they signify, such as a smoke having a causal link to fire.

Indexical signs can be observed or inferred – there are natural signs, like smoke or footprints, medical symptoms, like pain or a rash, measuring instruments, like weathercock, thermometer or clock, signals, like a knock, pointers, such as pointing with your index finger and recordings, like a film.