So I’m wandering around The Art of Pop at Fact, making notes into my iPhone, deconstructing the concepts, contextualising the cultural signifiers and generally being a twat. Then I stop, and decide to just bloody enjoy it.

FACT’s Art of Pop is a head rush of an exhibition, throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks. It does, and it’s a delight.

But here’s the thing. Watching the videos sans headphones is a curious thing. There’s something magically symbiotic about a truly great pop video. Put the Sennheisers on and it’s like that moment when your eyes adjust to those magic eye pictures, and you suddenly see the Bambi in the forest. Together, sound and vision in perfect harmony is a truly transformative thing. Transcendental even. And there are plenty of transcendental moments in this brilliant show.

But what amazed me is how fickle my love for the art form really is. Reunited with long-forgotten favourites in the downstairs gallery, I’m sort of embarrassed about our shared history.

Here’s the thing: the videos I once thought of as cute, clever and genre changing just haven’t aged well. Spike Jonez’ dance troupe, contorting themselves to Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ just looks mannered, contrived and, well, shit now. For ‘fictitious community dance group’ – read ‘do one Spike’. Sorry.

In the world of the pop video, inauthenticity shortens shelf life considerably. See also Bono, wanking around in the black and white promo for ‘Stay (Faraway So Close)’, from Wim Wenders upstairs. In fact, no, don’t.

But even the old flames are still bloody fascinating to watch. If only to hit that Madeleine moment, and recall your beautiful, carefree youth. When Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer made your jaw drop.

Pop videos are your discarded rave pants, your Smash Hits posters and your dusty CD towers. They are our shared DNA. The acne, the awkward first-date fumbles and the Friday night parties at your place.

But what of today’s exhibits? Lady Gaga’s Jonas Akerlund-directed ‘Telephone’ – a car crash of primary colours, shallow posturing and deeply empty emoting – will, no doubt, lose its flavour quicker than cheap bubblegum on the bedpost, as will the cringe-inducing Jamie Hewlett Gorillaz videos (so quaint they seem like period peices now) whereas Air’s grainysexycool Kris Kramski-directed Cherry Blossom Girl (Kramski is an adult film director by day, or maybe night) will live forever. Why? Is it the song? The images? No, it’s the magical intersection of both. And the fact that the video is the thing: bigger than the brand, bigger than the star, and better than the sum of its parts. No wonder it killed the radio star.

That’s probably why cutting-edge technology (from any era) doesn’t fair too well either (we make an exception for the brilliant 3D Bjork video in the space vacated by the gift shop). On the evidence here, it just gets in the way. Watch The Pet Shop Boys’ captivating Wolfgang Tillmans-directed video for Home And Dry: no more than super-8 shots of mice cavorting on the rails of the London Tube, and the song (an also-ran in their canon) is transformed into an elegiac masterpiece of rodent ennui. And no CGI, Paintbox or digital voodoo needed.

This is the power of a good pop video. And you don’t need Andy Warhol (The Cars’ ‘Hello Again’) or, in general, Madonna. You need bored kids on BMXs (Arcade Fire’s brilliant ‘Suburbs’) stupidly primitive gurning Einsteins (M’s ‘Pop Musik’) and curious eastern Europeans riding elephants (Lyapis Trubetskoy, ‘Capital’).

There is a nod to ‘art’ stuff upstairs, in a forlorn room of super-sized projections – but they don’t have music attached to them, so they lose, big time. Even though they encourage you to hoola hoop. This is FACT leveraging its desire to ‘look at the genre in more conceptual way’. It should have held its nerve, and just used the space for more great videos.

Because, at times like this, the hug of a brilliant three minute pop video goes a very long way indeed.

The Art of Pop Video
FACT, Wood Street
14 March – 26 May 2013

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