From the start of the MTV era until the rise of YouTube, music videos have been a ubiquitous presence in pop culture. As stories or shorts, they can pack a punch, but their directors are often uncredited, lost behind the fame of the musicians.
But when it comes to the director behind many of Japanese American indie artist Mitski’s most iconic music videos, Maegan Houang’s style is unmistakable. Filled with lush detail, powerful female characters, pervasive melodrama, and more than a touch of horror, Houang’s creations aren’t just music videos, they’re immersive experiences.
The Los Angeles-based writer and director wants to explore the “crushing absurdity of the human condition,” in his own words, and interrogate the power dynamics we often take for granted. Although their day job is in editing and story writing, they have worked on special effects Shogun and Season 2 of the Starz show Counterpart— their hearts are in directing, which they fell in love with after taking an introductory film course in college on a whim.
And as with “Happy,” which tells the story of an Asian American woman whose husband is a serial killer in the style of 1950s melodrama, Houang’s videos for Laurel Hell reflect Mitski’s signature style: they are emotionally complex, evocative, and often filled with a sense of foreboding. “I love the theatrical moments,” they say. “That’s what interests me in film, television and all art – it’s not reality. I’m not interested in creating reality. I’m more interested in creating a real experience emotional experience that I have experienced through all of these other means.
Horror is a means to that end, something Houang sees as a “tool” in their kit. “The thing about horror and music videos is that it’s a genre that creates a shortcut that lets you tell a more concise story,” says Houang. Using this kind of emotional shortcut allows them to create worlds that convey human emotions in the most drastic terms. “The most important thing in a film is the emotional storytelling. It’s creating an experience for the audience.
Creating this kind of experience on such a short timescale, within the strict three-minute limits of a song, makes every stylistic choice a crucial decision. In Houang’s videos for Mitski, this includes elements such as the intimate and precise choreography of Jas Lin, who worked on the “Heartbreaker” and “Stay Soft” videos; or set design – for the “Happy” video, which was shot in Houang’s own home, they rummaged through weekend estate sales to find the perfect sets that would only be visible for the briefest of moments.
All of this with the goal of creating something that really makes the viewer feel something for those three minutes. “What I love about the genre is that you can use big ideas to spark something that concerns everyone,” says Houang. “I think life is pretty awful.”
This sentiment comes through strongly in their most recent works – whether Mitski runs through a forest, leaving fiery devastation in his wake or escaping an attack by masked intruders in his private garden of Eden, the horror is not really into what’s happening on screen. It’s in the feelings evoked: whether it’s fear or anger or vulnerability or love, it’s a feeling so great that it eclipses the sun.
This desire to create a genuine emotional experience and response in viewers/listeners is something Houang shares with Mitski – their creative partnership is organic, built on the deep trust they have in each other’s vision. Then there’s the element of identity: “My connection to Mitski’s music isn’t separate from the fact that we’re both mixed race,” says Houang. They tend to gravitate towards creators who are women, and women of color in particular, in terms of the artists and their team behind the scenes. “It’s more organic, I guess, than intentional,” they say. “It’s to whose work I answer.”
As well as being organic, there is also a practical element to it. The music videos, they explain, don’t make them any money: they’re passion projects, which they’ve sometimes funded with their own money from other jobs, so of course they’ll only work on projects that they really like. people they deeply respect. “I feel like an angsty teenager saying this, but I hate the system,” they add. “Then why do I keep doing them? I mean, I love doing stuff. I only make videos for artists that I love, because I love music so much and I love directing. It’s a love you can see on screen, in every shot and camera angle, a love that will stay with you even after the three-minute song is over.
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