If you’re under the age of 50, you’ve seen a music video directed by Joseph Kahn.
He’s the mastermind behind 500-something creative visuals for artists like Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, U2, Eminem, Mariah Carey, Ricky Martin, Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Gwen Stefani and Maroon 5, to name a few. His impact on popular culture surged this year when his music video for Swift’s “Blank Space” became one of the most viewed videos online of all time. He outdid himself months later when the 1989 singer approached Kahn for the “Bad Blood” visual. The star-studded collaboration saw more than 20 million views in its first day, breaking Vevo’s record for most plays in a 24-hour period at that time and helped rocket the song to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Kahn is undeniably our generation’s music video wizard capable of dreaming up scenarios so impactful they find a comfy spot in our brain forever, “implanting memories in your head,” as he puts it. Kahn opened up to BreatheHeavy.com in an exclusive interview to chat about his recent feats with Taylor Swift, working with Britney Spears on the long lost “Perfume” music video, Madonna’s influence on his creative outlook and why staying on top of all things popular culture is key to maintaining a fresh perspective.
What are some of the key differences between music videos now and the mid-’90s?
My perspective of music videos goes further back than that. I started studying music videos in the ’80s. The mid-’90s is when I actually entered the music video world. I guess it’s 20 years later… god I’m fucking old [laughs]! I think if you want to go back strictly to the ’90s, I think when I first started it was a weird period. When I first started in ’93-’95, the music video business was split into white people and black people, quite frankly. There was really no pop at that point. It was either Pearl Jam or Snoop Dogg and Dre. It was the period of grunge in the tail-end of the ’90s. They had some pop stuff, but it wasn’t really that interesting… The vast market was dominated by grunge or hardcore gangster rap, and so I entered through gangster rap. I think over the course of time as we got into the pop video world… that’s when I was very interested. In the late ’90s and early ‘2000s with Britney and stuff. There was a very specific type of video being made for a bigger audience, and that was the entertainment style video. The world has always been two types of videos from that point on: the big entertainment style videos that quite frankly a lot of directors may not really respect, but that’s what I specialized in, and the artsy videos that only other art students like. To this day, it seems like that split has gotten even further so there’s these pop videos that actually, in my opinion, aren’t even well made anymore. They’re just replicating things you’ve seen before with less money. Or, there’s all these super low budget (and there’s a ton of them) artsy videos where the attempt is to get viral and get two or three million hits and the band disappears.
We live in a Vevo Certified era. What’s your take on videos where the artist is gunning for that most viewed video title versus the artsy independent visuals?
Here’s the reality: I could bullshit you and tell you my job isn’t about views… but my job is about views. No one is going to spend all this money to hire me so that I make an artistic statement that only 50 people see. I will have blown a lot of cash and the record company will send hitmen to kill me somewhere [laughs]. The balance for me has always been: how do I make really big pop work that I personally love and draws upon things that I like so that they’re made legitimately… so they’re legitimately great videos, and they’re legitimately pushing new ideas or new types of execution to legitimately entertain people; to make it feel fresh. I don’t think that that means that I’m trying to make pretentious videos, or make unpretentious videos. It just means that I’m trying to make good videos. That’s really the agenda for me.
What do you consider a legitimate video?
[Laughs] I think any video is legit if it reaches its audience. If I’m doing a Taylor Swift video, or a Britney Spears video, the audience has to be much bigger to justify the money they’re going to spend. A legit video for Taylor Swift is… you could possibly do a concert video and 100 million people are going to watch that concert video no matter what she puts out. A legit video in that particular case is… what is a video that can tell a story? That’s what she does with her music. For me, what’s the best story that I’m telling? One that tells the story and gets the message across and presents her side of whatever she’s trying to do in an honest way.
You wouldn’t make a Taylor Swift video unless it was telling a story?
Let me put it this way: there have been videos of Britney in the past where people go in and they try to make artsy videos… I remember they did an animation video for one. I love animation, I love claymation, I love all that stuff, but I just wouldn’t do that with Britney. I think it’s wrong for the audience. It’s not what the audience wants from her. They want to connect with her. They want to know what’s going on in her head, they want to know what’s going on in her heart. As a director, when I do that, I am going to go in and try to figure out what’s the best way to present that particular song, and I have to listen to the song and figure out what the meaning of the song is to do that. I could possibly do the greatest claymation Britney Spears music video ever, and get a lot of props from other directors going, ‘hey, look at that fucking dope claymation technique you used,’ but I would just be wanking off her money.
Awe, I always thought an “out there” Britney Spears music video would be really cool for her though…
Well to be honest… that’s what I was trying to do with ‘Perfume.’ Those are all baby steps. You can’t flip it and turn Britney Spears into something she’s not. Like with any artist, if you want to take them into a different territory, you can’t just randomly punch in the dark and hope that you hit a target. You have to figure out what you’re trying to do. I had this idea with ‘Perfume’ that I felt was a bit more sophisticated and definitely took her out of the comfort zone and presented a different side, but I think I overshot.
What was the original concept?
I don’t have any emotional attachment to any of this stuff. I’ve had tons of videos. I’ve done like 500 videos probably, and when you do 500 videos, there’s going to be 20, 30 videos that just didn’t work out. Unfortunately, “Perfume” was one of them, and you move on. Whenever I do a video, I always feel like the video that I’m doing at the time is the best video that I’ve ever done. That’s the way that artists work. You’re literally going ‘how can I top myself every single time?’
At the time… when I made ‘Perfume,’ I felt it was legitimately, at that point in terms of my body of work and what I had done as a video artist, it was legitimately one of the best things I had done. I’ve moved on since then. My style has changed, I’ve learned new things since then. One of the things I thought about at that time was… 1. I love the song, I thought it was amazing. It felt like there was a certain level of emotion and I’d never done a Britney ballad, and I love ballads. I rarely get to do ballads. If you look at my history, most of it is mid-tempo to fast and so it was a great chance to do what I thought was a classic Britney ballad. I pitched this idea that it was going to take everything you knew about the Britney persona, of the videos that we had done, where she always plays an assassin or these superhero characters taking revenge on men. I wanted to flip that concept. I wanted her still to be the strong one. I wanted to do this thing where her strength would be a sacrifice. Her giving up her life for somebody.
THERE IT IS. She would be taking her own life? Or the guy would be killing her?
I still want to do this concept, but maybe as a short film or another video or something at some point because I never got to complete it.
The video’s actually done in two parts: the first part was she meets this guy, and it’s random, she’s beautiful, they fall in love. In my head I wanted to embrace all the shit people used to complain about her, like her being white trash and walking around with bare feet, and I wanted to use all that iconography and say ‘now here’s the super fucking ‘Perfume’ commercial of it.’ I put her in jeans, I didn’t have her in her big chunky boots, dressed her down and made it look like an anti-Britney. The first part of the video is that, but then you find out she’s killing people and she’s an assassin and halfway through the video, you find out the guy she’s having this relationship with… she has to kill him. It’s like ‘La Femme Nikita.’ And then I actually break the song, and there’s a moment in the middle where she’s about to kill him, and she doesn’t. Here’s where it gets a little weird… it turns into a metaphor. Suddenly you see another girl come into the picture, and that girl takes her place. Britney the character doesn’t kill him, and the second half of the video is her waiting in a motel room. Then we actually see the two characters that she didn’t kill go on and get married and have a life. Meanwhile, the people that hired her basically come in and beat the shit out of her, and we see her suffering as these other people thrive. She gave that gift to him. In my head, it was a metaphor for how… in certain types of relationships you may love someone so much and they will never know that gift that you gave them. It’s that type of love. To me it’s almost like how I view the idealistic version of what women do. Women, if they’re great mothers, they give so much to their kids, give so much to their partners, and they feel so much pain. This beautiful pain that I think traditionally is a female thing, and I wanted to express it as a metaphor. You would see Britney get hurt while the gift that she gave of life keeps moving on.
In many ways she did sacrifice her life… she became one of the most famous people on the planet and couldn’t have seen that coming at 16.
Absolutely. For me, it was kind of a meaningful expression. I think it was subconscious of how I viewed Britney, cause I’ve been through that journey with her. I was there when she was like 19-years-old and literally fresh off the boat… this perky, spunky kid from Louisiana, super smiley. Then I saw her during her ‘Toxic’ phase right before all the shit hit the fan. Then I saw her at ‘Womanizer’ which was only seven months after all that craziness came down. On the fourth go around, I just saw this woman. This woman who was damaged and beautiful but still willing to give love and still wanting to be loved. The only version that I could do was that video. That was the honest version for me, and I thought I had them on board… honestly, it’s hard to talk about the details of that stuff. Things just don’t work out. Sometimes you overshoot. Maybe the message was too complicated. Maybe the imaging was not right because she’s going to do a Vegas show and who needs this really dark video being popped out there?
You’re trying to rationalize it. It’s unfortunate.
That’s one of the cathartic things about doing ‘Blank Space’ with Taylor Swift. It was using essentially the same tactic that was going on [in Perfume] – deconstruct the artist’s image and use the flaws and celebrate them and make them a positive. So for Taylor to suddenly play a fucking crazy girl and going off and literally being man crazy… although it was for a different emotional tactic, that was something I really wanted to do with artists for awhile. There’s a certain point where you play that same button over and over, ‘here’s that sexy girl! they’re dancing!’ at a certain point you’re kind of like I’ve done it a million times, what else can I do with superstars?
You’ve truly had a huge year directing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” “Bad Blood” and “Wildest Dreams” music videos.
Here’s the thing… I’m not just saying this. I swear I’m being completely honest: this stuff would have happened without me. She could have done any number of these videos and it would have just exploded. The music was amazing. It’s an incredible pop album. She’s a genius. She’s literally like a genius. She’s 25-years-old and got her shit together. Super smart, super nice. She’s legitimately a cool person. It would have happened without me. I was lucky that Taylor is one of those smart people that can actually see my editing. One of the things that’s really interesting about working with her is that she’ll watch the edit with me as I shoot (because I edit as I shoot). She’ll see how I place an edit into the shot, and I can see her brain ticking, and seeing the pieces come together the same way I do. Literally as we lay the edits down, she’ll go ‘oh that’s cool’ and then she’ll do that and we’ll re-shoot something together and literally we’re like editing as we’re going along and there’s this weird communication that’s happening. That’s very rare. I honestly haven’t seen any artist really do that. She has that crazy brain. It took me 35 years of studying filmmaking to be able to do that, and she naturally has that. I wonder if it’s cause she’s so young that in her formidable years she watched all those videos. It’s part of her DNA… where she naturally responds to it because that’s her memory of what videos should be like.
Perhaps life is just one huge music video.
I think so!
Music is one of the oldest forms of storytelling. That story is usually telling something that has been related as a sense memory… my music videos, when I attempt them, I’m implanting memories in your head. When you walk away and you say, ‘oh that was iconic.’ The reason why it’s iconic is because you can remember it, and what I did was created an image so strong with an emotional value so strong that you’re literally remembering it. If you walk away from a video of mine, and you can’t remember it, it’s not iconic, and I have failed as a filmmaker. One of the things I should ever do when they give me a shitload of money is put in images that you can remember that have context to it, that frame the song and frame the artist and if I’m firing from all cylinders you’re like ‘that’s what that artist is, and that’s what the artist represents,’ and that’s the iconography of it.
If you’ve done 500 music videos, how do you dream up that many scenarios to make an emotional attachment that leaves the viewer remembering it?
That’s where you have to really listen to the artist. A Joseph Kahn video can be anything. I’m almost like a method actor trying to become Taylor Swift on a certain level, or become Britney Spears, or become Enrique Iglesias, or become Muse or whatever I’m doing… I’m trying to become a piece of them. It’s a combination of knowing them but also knowing the world they’re in. That’s why I pay so much attention to pop culture and stay on top of it. That’s my job! How do you become a pop video director and you’re not on top of pop? You’re literally doing a disservice to the people that hire you.
Were you surprised by the white-washing claims in Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” music video?
Can I be honest with you? I kind of expected it. I’ve seen artists get to her level, and I’ve worked with a lot of them, and once you hit that beautiful pinnacle of pop popularity, people are going to take shots at you and they will find anything to take you down. It can destroy people. Poor Britney is an example. She cracked a little bit. It’s obvious that she cracked, and the amount of scrutiny that was COMPLETELY unfair, and I was really mad when it was all going down cause my memory of Britney that started out was that awesome 19-year-old girl and the next thing you know… she literally could not do anything right by society’s standards. They would literally attack her for anything she did. I’ve seen that before in various situations, and I could see it coming for Taylor. If it wasn’t this, it was going to be something else. It was going to be anything. The race thing… [the media] was already gunning from that perspective earlier with the Nicki Minaj thing the week before. It was already enflamed.
I do hear the concerns about colonialism in Africa. Colonialism in Africa is a bad thing, absolutely, but let’s be honest about this: this video is not about colonialism. It’s about an old Hollywood movie that may or may not take place in Africa at the end of the day… I always think of all videos as metaphors anyway. The vast majority of the shots isn’t whether you’re shooting Africans or a crew, the vast majority is Taylor and Scott [Eastwood]. It’s a retro beauty video set in old Hollywood glamor. I did have Africans in there. I had to be very careful because I felt like if I purposely shoved in a lot of Africans around, she would have gotten criticized. It was my call and I take full responsibility for it. I think she would have gotten criticized for rewriting history. One of the things that people extract out of it is that it’s a video about two white people overtaking Africa. It’s not about that. It’s about a film crew shooting a movie. They’re not doing anything! One of the biggest concerns we had when we were doing it is… do they look like hunters? We didn’t want to support the idea… it’s like two white people going to Africa and shooting a bunch of lions. I was trying to make sure on a certain level it didn’t look like we were killing anybody, shooting anything… nothing! It’s literally just an ode to Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. Ultimately, where do you draw the line?
It appears Taylor Swift is impenetrable.
The problem is that the more she does that the more they go ‘oh, she impenetrable, she’s an ice queen.’ She’s not! She’s just trying to survive as most people would. I think with the Britney situation it got to her. It gets to everybody at a certain point, it does. It’s just how do you handle it. I find that the entire way that people try to tear down your idols. They want to build you up and then tear you down. I just find this entire process disgusting. I hate it. I hate seeing it. And I see it coming every single time. Every single time it happens. Without fail. I don’t know why society doesn’t go ‘oh, wait a minute… here’s the time. It’s like midnight let’s go attack’ and it’s happening. Society does it but they don’t realize they’re doing it and they do it over and over and over again. It’s nuts to me. I don’t get it. That’s why I always said I never want to be famous.
Has there ever been a song you’ve wanted to shoot a music video for but haven’t?
You know it’s weird, because I started loving Madonna when I was a kid. That’s where it all started. On a weird level, a lot of these videos are like my version of Madonna videos.
Where it came from was specifically Madonna’s David Fincher era where they were doing ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘Oh Father’ and ‘Vogue.’ Especially when I heard her ‘Ray Of Light’ album, and I didn’t get to do any of those songs, like almost every one of those songs I had a vision in my head for. It’s still one of my favorite albums of all time. Whenever I hear any song from there, like ‘Music,’ I’ll see some alternate video in my head. I think it’s only because I wanted to pitch on those songs so bad back then and I never got the chance to, so I have all these remnants of video ideas that never got to be made with Madonna.
What about contributing something for Rebel Heart?
Actually I did write on it, but I think I wrote something incredibly… bad.
What do you mean?
I don’t know… maybe I offended her.
It’s possible to offend Madonna?
Writing the song… oh God I can’t even explain it. I might even use this concept… Again, if I talk about concepts that I haven’t done, I could possibly use it for other things and also other directors could hear it and then they would extract it and make their own video concepts from it, and this is a really good idea. I’ll tell you in a nutshell: Old Madonna and a young Madonna. And the young Madonna, I wanted Chloë Moretz to play her and I had this story between Madonna now and Madonna as a 17-year-old for ‘Devil Pray.’ It was a really complex story that had all this interweaving. I don’t think you ever go to an artist and say ‘hey, here’s you… and here’s a younger version of you.’ It’s just not a good fucking thing to do.
Are you implying they could be old?
That could be the message. That wasn’t the intent. It was just dumb.
I felt so bad when ‘Rebel Heart’ leaked because of a hacker… do you every worry someone could hack into your stuff?
Oh yeah. Especially when I’m working with Taylor, we keep everything offline. We’re delivering on USBs. We’re unhackable. We’re unhooked off the matrix. I flew into Vegas with it in my pocket to deliver it and actually put it in their Avid. That’s why nothing has leaked because it’s literally offline.
Leave us with a few wise words.
I just try to be a kind person. I try not to hurt people, especially when you get into a weird position like mine where you can influence a lot of things. Whether through social media, or through the work. I think what ends up happening is: people realize there are haves and have nots. If you look at pop culture… people tend to worship people. Think about the words we use: queen, king, dad, mom. Why do we say these things? We feel like we suddenly see someone that gets in front of the tribe and we’re like, ‘this person is everything to us.’ Something about human beings needing to worship other human beings. I will definitely say this… just like all religions as it is, people then start fighting over their religions. Like, ‘no Taylor is the best,’ and ‘no Britney is the best’ or ‘Nicki Minaj is the best.’ If you think about what that means… what’s going on here? Why can’t we celebrate people for their individual accomplishments instead of keep comparing them to each other. If someone gave you the gift of great music and a great meaning… take it for what it is. Why make these people compete against each other. I see that happening in the pop world right now. It’s turning into a war… I just hope when people listen to music they take it more spiritually and more in a positive light instead of as a tool to hurt other people with it for no reason at all.