“Let me tell you a story.”
What’s the first thing that you think of? A book? Maybe a movie or a play?
How about a music video?
I was fourteen when 2Pac and Dr. Dre released “California Love.” I’m sure that I saw music videos before then — I must have — but for some reason this one stands out in my head as the first one that I can remember watching. It was a snow day. My mother was still with us. It was early-early in the morning. My brother and I had just discovered that school was cancelled. Mother switched over to MTV for some reason that I will never know. I don’t know what else was on that morning, but when the opening sequence began, proclaiming that it was the year 2095, I was completely hooked. I saw Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” for the first time that morning, too.
I was also not allowed to watch MTV, strictly speaking. My father had blocked the channel (in as much as one could in those days — all that happened was that it wouldn’t show up when you flipped through the channels, but I knew the numerals and watched clandestinely for several years — sorry Dad!), and after my mother was gone, there was to be no more Music Television in his home. Fortunately for me, VH1 was still allowed. I spent hours watching everything that the channel had to offer. My favorite was a show called Pop-Up Video. The premise was simple: several videos were featured during the course of the program, but the “pop-up” in the title referred to little information bubbles that would appear periodically, telling the watcher some fact or another about some aspect of the video that they were watching. I drank it all in. Hours and hours of music videos wound their way through my brain, teaching me a lesson that I’ve never quite forgotten: music videos can tell stories.
The BEST videos were the over-the-top mini-movies. Many, many of those videos had some element of the fantastic to them. Michael Jackson, of course, did one of the first, best examples with “Thriller.” Two decades later, “California Love” (probably NSFW; apologies for the quality of the video) appeared. It’s a full on Mad Max homage, largely taking place in a replica of the Thunderdome and featuring an epic cross-the-desert race. Even Madonna plays in the fantasy sandbox by featuring mermen in her “Cherish” video.
I could go on for a while. I really, really like music videos. (One more, because I can’t not: Garbage’s “The World is Not Enough” lets Shirley Manson be a cyborg assassin. SO MUCH AWESOME.) The point that I’m trying to make is that so many artists played with speculative elements once or twice in the visual representations of their music, but few did it on a consistent basis.
Enter Lindsey Stirling.
You may have heard of Stirling before right now. I hope you have; her video for “The Arena” was one of my recent Favorite Things. Stirling also appeared with Celine Dion at the Billboard Music awards back in May. ABC did a featurette on her, calling her a “renegade violinist.” Or maybe you remember her from way back when she was on America’s Got Talent, when she called herself a “hip-hop violinist.” In any case, Stirling’s getting bigger and better with every new single that she releases. Almost every one of those singles comes with a visually stunning video. She’s accomplished some pretty amazing things. She has chased Pikachu, wandered the post-apocalyptic wasteland, faced down a dragon, and danced her way through video after video, telling story after story.
Prior to the release of her original music, Stirling began building her fanbase by releasing a series of fantastic covers. She goes mainstream with covers of Macklemore, Nicki Minaj and Imagine Dragons. She steps into the world of some beloved video game franchises (Halo, Assassin’s Creed, and Dragon Age, to name a few). She offers her take on classic movie themes from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars to a collaborative take on the theme from Mission Impossible. Each of these videos pays loving homage to the source material. (There is a link to Stirling’s channel at the end of this piece, where you can find all of the videos listed above.)
The first time I ever saw or heard of Lindsey Stirling was not any special day in particular. I came home from work and my husband was working on his computer. “You have to see this,” he said. He pulled up a YouTube video and handed me the computer. The scene wasn’t terribly imaginative, but it was certainly striking. A young woman dressed in a gray hood was playing a violin in an icy, frozen landscape. The video didn’t tell a story but it certainly left an impression. The music itself was just as striking. Whoever thought that a violin would go so well with dubstep? The song, “Crystallize,” popped up in my life a few days later, in one of the last places you’d think to hear it. I’d accompanied my husband to our local junkyard a few days later (for I am a loving, loyal wife). Imagine my shock and delight when I heard that same song blaring from the loudspeakers. I binged on Stirling’s videos over the following weeks. I was absolutely delighted to discover just how much she relied on the fantasy aesthetic in so many of them. The trend has continued throughout her career. From the steampunk-laced old west to a postmodern neon wonderland, Stirling has danced there and played that. Here, she is a ballerina trapped inside of a snow globe. Here, she plays the part of several fairy tale heroines.
Stirling is a storyteller, just as much as any of our favorite writers. Her craft is a call back to an older time in musical history. Operas and ballet have been telling stories through music and dance for centuries. Stirling is building on that history beautifully. Nearly all of her videos have a plot to them. Most of them fall under the speculative umbrella. From horror (“Elements” draws inspiration from Dracula) to science fiction (“Heist” has a futuristic, cyberpunk aesthetic). A frequent theme in Stirling’s videos is the actual power of music. One of my personal favorite videos is “Roundtable Rival.” Stirling stars as a barmaid in a steampunked version of a classic old west town. Musical instruments take the place of weapons in this alternate universe. Durango Black, a guitar-wielding gang of bandits dares to come into Lindsey’s town. The gang attacks mercilessly and is beaten back before unveiling their secret weapon: a wagon full of speakers. Of course, our heroine saves the day when she hijacks the speakers, plugs in her violin and blasts away the gang.
The value of music and its importance is another oft-used theme. “Beyond the Veil” sees Stirling having to chase a thief who disappears into the ocean with her beloved violin. After a brief hesitation, she plunges into the water and dives deep to retrieve her beloved instrument. She swims through an underwater dreamland. The fantastic scenery offers numerous treasures to behold. Stirling rejects every single one of them. All she cares about is her beloved violin. After her beautiful adventure, she awakens on the beach where she began her adventure.
This is Stirling’s YouTube channel. If you’re in the mood for something different, musically speaking, check it out. The music alone is enough to inspire the imagination. If you have enough time, start watching videos. Hours later, after you’ve climbed back up the rabbit hole, let me know what you think! Here’s a sample to whet your appetite:
(All images are screen shots of the videos cited in the caption. I found all of these on YouTube. No copyright infringement is intended.)