Sign ‘o’ the Times

Still aus Bill Konersman's video for Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987) by Prince
© Warner Bros 1999 (DVD)

This video appeals to a form of so-called letterings that is still one of the most popular today, in which parts of or even the entire text of the lyrics is shown in the context of the video. In the present case, it was presumably done to focus the viewers’ attention entirely on the content of the lyrics, which lament the deplorable state of affairs of civilization—illness, drugs, youth crime, fear of war, and death—and contradictions overwhelmingly take the form of brief narrative vignettes. Despite the dominance of poverty, people are traveling in space, and dying in the process—the Challenger catastrophe took place just a few months before the song was recorded.

The visual equivalent to the form of the text is a field in the center reserved for the lyrics, which is surrounded by a frame in which pulsing elements reveal the basic beat. The alternating simple geometric forms and strong, clear colors are based on the films of the computer graphic pioneer John Whitney Jr. (especially his film Side Phase Drift of 1965). By appealing to Whitney’s abstract creations, the film is able to resist the universal flood of unambiguous images by depicting animated geometric forms in which several statements are superimposed, as they are in the lyrics. For example, where the latter work with the various meanings of the word fall (But if a night falls and a Bomb falls / will anybody see the Dawn?), the crisscrossing structures of the video function, on the one hand, as a neutral scheme of graphic order and, on the other hand, can also be interpreted as crosshairs, in keeping with the text that has just been heard. Likewise, the bright green stripes of color running along the edge of the picture initially recall the movements of the hands of a watch—in a visual correspondence to the title of the song—but also suggest a radar screen.