Jake Owen re-creates the World War II love story of his grandparents.

Chris Stapleton becomes a Lego superhero, destroying a sea monster with sonic waves in the middle of an animated concert.

The five finalists for the Country Music Association’s video of the year award are all distinctly different. But those efforts have one thing in common: Each of them conveys and enhances the core emotion of the song they promote.

“The very best videos make you experience and feel another layer of the song emotionally,” says Trey Fanjoy, director of Lambert’s “Bluebird” clip. “Sometimes I’m a very narrative storyteller, but sometimes I like better visual metaphors than I do straight on the nose. I like to tell it so that they hopefully feel another layer, something that is not just so obvious in the lyric.”

With “Bluebird,” Lambert’s 10th video to earn a CMA nomination for Fanjoy, she creates a gorgeous palette (Lambert is adorned in blue feathers and Swarovski crystals) and an unspoken tension while capturing the hope at the heart of the song.

Along with its four competitors vying for a win at the CMA’s Nov. 11 ceremony, “Bluebird” neatly underscores the creative advance in production since the August 1981 debut of MTV ushered in the video age nearly 40 years ago.

The industry’s earliest efforts were frequently referred to as “promotional videos” — they were distributed for free to promote the song and artist on TV — though the sophistication around them is more uniform in the current age. They are much more ubiquitous, available on demand at multiple sites and integrated more thoughtfully into the marketing of an artist, both on a creative level and as a branding tool.

“Every video is an opportunity to sort of enhance the brand of the artist and allow that to be an opportunity if you want to deliver a slightly different viewpoint of the artist,” says Patrick Tracy, who directed “10,000 Hours.” “If you want to stamp a new era, we’ve done that with Dan + Shay throughout various album cycles with different colors. You’re evolving the brand through those visual impressions, but at the same time, you also have to think about the song itself and make sure you’re doing justice as a one-off, stand-alone piece.”

Directors use three standard methods to create those pieces: the narrative video, which conveys a story; the concept video, featuring a series of images that add up to an emotion or provide a sense of what the song is about; and the performance video. Most videos employ at least two of those approaches, as “I Hope You’re Happy Now” does with a pair of actors playing out the song’s post-relationship narrative while Pearce and Brice re-create a performance in a small club.

“You don’t want to be on the nose with a video,” says “Hope You’re Happy” director Sam Siske. “When you’re watching the video, you [usually] know the song, you follow the artist, so when you want to see the video, you want it to bring something new to that thought, but in a positive way and not detract from it. One thing I saw in each director’s work this year was, ‘How can we progress this song?’ “

Owen’s “Homemade,” directed by Justin Clough, brings out the old-fashioned values — dedication, simplicity, congeniality — at the heart of the song with a plot based on his grandfather’s sweet, but persistent, pursuit of his grandmother in the 1940s.

Stapleton’s “Second To Know One,”  directed by Pure Imagination Studios’ David Coleman, utilizes Lego animation to make a cartoonish adventure out of a burning track. Both the song and the clip are built on conflict, though the video puts a lighter spin on the recording’s fiery emotion. The video drops a number of Easter eggs: details that reward Stapleton superfans or might inform more casual listeners. For example, a stage crasher is inspired by an incident from a real-life Stapleton concert, a Picasso-like painting of him draws from the lyrics of his 2017 album cut “Up To No Good Livin’,” and a bird of prey is a nod to the mascot at Stapleton and Coleman’s high school alma mater in Kentucky: the Johnson Central Golden Eagles. Blasts from Stapleton’s animated guitar also embrace the value in his vocation.

“The power of music can defeat this giant entity, this thing that seems insurmountable, this thing that looks overwhelming,” says Coleman. “Music helps you get through that, and especially the kind of music that Chris makes.”

The power of music is central to the power of the video, too.

“You can make the most amazing video, but if it doesn’t have a song to support it, it’s not going to have the impact that it needs to have,” observes Siske. “It’s not going to be the piece of art that it needs to be.”

One way to judge a hit video is similar to the test of a hit song: It needs to wear well with successive exposure.

“The replay value” is key, says Tracy. “If you watch a video once and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s what the lyrics are talking about,’ you might as well just close your eyes and listen to the song. I think when videos are able to tap into a different interpretation of it, it leaves the viewer with a little bit more to sink their teeth into.”

That includes the artist’s personality. In each of the nominated videos, the act had some very specific ideas about how to present the story and imagery in the project, reflecting their own history and experiences. In Stapleton’s case, he sought out the Lego involvement, a fantasy approach that fits with his surprise appearance in an episode of Game of Thrones.

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“Chris likes to push boundaries,” notes Coleman. “He likes to do new things and to create sounds that are unique to him. We tried to do that same kind of thing in the video.”

Ultimately, as the video business evolves, this year’s CMA trophy will assuredly go to a project that does what a great video should — supply a stellar song with a clip that lifts it to another level.

“I am definitely of that MTV generation,” says Fanjoy. “I have to have enough to hold my attention.”

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.


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