As you might know, The Verge has consistently and proudly presented a column called One Video for the last 21 weeks and will hopefully continue to do so for 2,100 more. In this column, Lizzie Plaugic and I tell you just one music video you need to watch every week, why, and for how long. Usually the “why” has something to do with innovation in the music video arts, which are always changing and generally thrilling. Sometimes we’re sleepy and just think the song is nice.
But this week, to celebrate the column’s coming-of-age, I’m talking to music video director and cinematographer Glassface (aka Josh Goldenberg) about the animated Lil Yachty lyric video “Forever Young,” which was not chosen last week but was referenced. It’s a trippy cartoon, with characters drawn by 20-year-old animator Tristan Zammit. It looks like the hybrid of sleek digital art and the SNICK-throwback that just about every web brand is constantly clamoring for.
Appropriately, Lil Yachty — a rapper whose career was built off viral SoundCloud success — discovered Goldenberg on YouTube when he and co-director Rahil Ashruff made the viral video for fellow Atlanta rapper OG Maco’s debut single in 2014. Goldenberg first worked with Yachty on the video for “1 NIGHT,” the breakthrough marketing campaign for the self-proclaimed “King of the Teens,” and a fascinating collage of aesthetics that Rembert Browne recently referred to in The Fader as “rolling Tumblr, MGMT, Lisa Frank, and Montauk into four minutes of film.” There are dozens of recognizable memes and bits of ‘90s pop culture, as well as a cast of extras rounded out by teenage Vine stars and Instagram influencers.
Goldenberg’s work is crafted to travel on the internet, and “Forever Young” was designed to be broken into GIFs that could then be uploaded to Lil Yachty’s official Giphy page. You can pull out essentially any moment from the video and envision how it would move across Tumblr or Twitter, which Goldenberg says is the part of the goal of the “content” he makes. (He also made the sequence in Target’s Grammy night commercial in which Lil Yachty visits an animated lake through a Samsung Gear VR headset.)
The internet has obviously changed the way music videos are distributed and shared, and how they become hits or launch careers — with YouTube and Vevo duking it out to be the new MTV. But it has also, more subtly, changed how the music video looks and feels. I spoke to Goldenberg over the phone recently to hear a little bit more about how creators like him are shaping the music video’s new aesthetic.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you land on this idea of doing this style of animation work in rap videos?
I’m from a graphic design background, so that’s kind of how I started out. I made my way into motion graphics, and then editing and directing. To me, a really good music video, or any piece of video content, usually incorporates a bunch of different mixed media. So that’s kind of how that developed. It was just kind of a mix of all these different skill sets I had gathered over the years. For “Forever Young,” I did some animation and I also hired a cartoonist to get it exactly how I wanted it to be.
I think animation in music videos traces back to a few things. For me it stems from ‘90s nostalgia — watching cartoons, The Simpsons, Nickelodeon, One Saturday Morning. I learned to do basic animation [when I was] young, and it was natural to incorporate it into VFX and music videos. I think it’s also recently linked to how accessible it is to draw on [top of] video with certain programs. People can easily add layers of animation to a video, and specialized animators can take it to another level and make full cartoons and 3D worlds.
It’s been done in the past in videos for people like 2Pac, Gorillaz, Kanye [West]. I think directors are starting to experiment again with the medium of the music video more lately. It’s necessary, in my opinion, to push the art forward and keep it interesting. The definition of a “music video” is always changing and it’s never really been fully defined or locked down. You can make it what you want, whether that’s a VR experience, a movie, a cartoon, or a 24-hour stream of somebody chopping wood with the song on loop. A “music video” is just a piece of visual art that stems from the song, hopefully takes it to another level, and brings the viewer closer to the song in some way.
For “Forever Young,” are there specific visual reference points that you used?
The tactile, textural stuff is just kind of part of my style. I submitted a treatment for that, so I kind of broke down the aesthetics and the ideas that I had, and built it around the TV set. I wanted the TV to be a vehicle to be able to show all these different types of media. It was a loose concept built around that.
They wanted the lyric video just to kind of start the promo for this song. In some cases, like for “1 NIGHT,” we dealt directly with Yachty and his manager, Coach. [It] was the same for the Target commercial. In this case, his label reached out and they were like, “We need a music video or a lyric video,” and they had six days to get it done. I just threw [the treatment] together in an hour after I talked to them on the phone, and that was just to get everyone on the same page so they knew what to expect.
You’ve used the TV thing in other videos, right?
Yeah, I’ve definitely done that before. There’s this video called “Four Seasons” by Rome Fortune and OG Maco, and we actually filmed that the same night we filmed “U Guessed It,” which was OG Maco’s breakout video. I like having that meta element to it. I like using the TV as a way to move in and out of different worlds, and kind of expand the constraints and break rules visually.
You mentioned the “1 NIGHT” video. I read in an interview from last year that you had to ask for help coming up with what memes to include. But what in it is specifically from you?
It was definitely a mix of visually interesting things to me. The thing about the memes is like, I’m kind of up to date on that stuff, but we were really trying to hit that market and be like, “Alright, these are all relevant to this year, or they’re ridiculous enough that people are going to take notice.” I would say that pretty much the whole vibe and concept of moving through these different weird worlds and these visual scenes that wouldn’t connect together if they weren’t transitioning in the proper way, that whole journey is where my personal style and vision comes in.
The specifics were like, alright these are probably the funniest memes right now. That’s what I would outsource to people who were into that type of stuff.
YouTube, Giphy, Tumblr, these are places where people consume music videos now. Has that changed the process of creating and pitching an idea?
Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about that. I think it depends on the artist. Certain artists want a music video that’s just going to be high production value and that’s the focus. But somebody like Yachty who grew up on the internet, where he went from a nobody to being universally known, I think that’s definitely something he plays into.
If you’re on SoundCloud, Tumblr, Giphy, all that stuff, you’re looking at an endlessly scrolling stream of content. For the “1 NIGHT” video, that’s what I wanted to capture. And I wanted to make it so you could just take a clip from the video, just two seconds, and turn it into a GIF and put it online. That definitely informed the process. Yachty is more internet-focused — you want to put out stuff that’s going to be very well-received this week or this month. Other artists might want something that’s going to be higher production value, like a movie or something like that. But social media has definitely influenced how music videos are made.
Do you think there’s a point that you could trace that back to? When these considerations started coming into play?
I don’t know, honestly. I would like to say that “1 NIGHT” was the first very overt example of that, but I’m sure it was happening before.
I did a video similar to [“Energy,”]. The “Four Seasons” video that I mentioned is very similar to that, but it came out like two years before. [Laughs] But, no, not calling anyone out. Yeah, I definitely think “Hotline Bling” is a good example. I definitely looked at that at the time and thought, “Okay, I see what they did here, they kind of almost weaponized this content to be like ‘how are you not going to post these GIFs online?’” I think we took it to another level by adding even more randomness into it. The more obscure the imagery was, the more I felt like people would latch onto it.
Young people at this point have really finely tuned bullshit detectors, and do not want to be pandered to. How do you avoid that response?
It’s definitely a fine line. But honestly, if it’s a piece of content that people react to, whether they think it’s cool or whether they hate it, either way it’s a successful piece of content. Obviously, we don’t want to pander to anybody, but I think walking that line of ridiculous, polarizing content. It’s kind of like that saying, “All press is good press.” I believe that. We’re mainly there to get people hyped up, to get a reaction. Their personal preferences and personal tastes are totally up to them.
It’s interesting that you’re using the word “content.” Most people I know would use that word sarcastically.
I do a lot of social media, marketing, stuff like that. I guess, yeah, in a way music videos are kind of being bumped into the world of “content” at this point. There’s a line between music videos that are strictly for promotion and acting as content and then ones that are higher art, higher production value.
Is that something that’s changed over the last few years? Are there any other changes you’ve noticed?
I don’t get too excited to watch new music videos anymore. There’ll be like five music videos a year where I’ll be like, “Wow, this is a really good video. You can see that the person who made it really cared about it and brought a unique vision to it.” There are a lot of videos that are just out there to be the face of the song, but not really do anything apart from that. I’ve made the comparison before that there are certain music videos that are just a moving version of the artwork. They don’t need to use it, but they’re just there.
There are very few people who are really putting their all into it and doing something unique. I’ve seen a lot of derivative videos and a lot of videos that are out of touch with what people connect with. That’s kind of where I’m at with it, kind of a negative view of it.
Do you think there have been any really good videos yet this year?
This year, shit. I liked [Playboi Carti’s] “Magnolia” video that just came out. A lot of people hit me up thinking that I did that video, so that was pretty funny. I don’t know. I’m trying to think. There was a Rae Sremmurd video with Kendrick Lamar that was directed by Nabil, I liked that one a lot. All of Kendrick’s videos are great. He’s got amazing directors. He’s found a way to hit that crazy high-budget, high-quality cinematography and high-production video but also make it interesting enough for young people to actually watch it.
Are there any artists or any songs that you would really like to make visuals for?
I still want to make a video for A$AP Rocky. I started out doing music video stuff right when A$AP Mob was getting big, and he was just always an artist who, I loved his videos. I was like, “I need to get a shot to make one of these.” Ugly God is another one. I want to do more like indie band stuff. I would do a SZA video, also.
I love her new album.
Yeah, I listened to her song “The Weekend” probably 100 times. That one doesn’t have a video yet, I don’t think. So… that one.