Music Video Analysis: “I Know the End” by Phoebe Bridgers
by Colin Hodgson
When I first watched Phoebe Bridgers’ recent video for “I Know the End”, I was immediately hooked. I couldn’t stop watching, even though I had never heard of her and usually don’t listen to indie rock. The song and the video were both very good, but I was surprised to notice that by the end I had chills. I can’t remember the last time I had such a physical reaction to a video (or a song, or even a movie or TV show).
I wanted to find out why this happened, so I began to analyze the video. What I realized, though, is that it was something more abstract and subliminal than simply the images or the lyrics. It sent me down a weird path that somehow ended with VAK learning styles, which I believe helps to explain the effectiveness of both Bridgers’ song and the accompanying music video. Before I get into that, however, I’ll give a brief analysis of the narrative of the video. I know for most people that’s much more interesting than how different learning styles affect music videos. So, here’s my short analysis:
The song is Bridgers’ way of grappling with the idea of endings and death (hence the title and its placement as the final track on the album), and the video is a continuation of this struggle. The woman in the locker room who rolls her the apple can be seen as her younger self and the apple signifies her realization of mortality, like Adam and Eve. This prompts her to run from death and creates agony within her since there’s no escaping it, as depicted by the flashing cuts to her thrashing in the tub. The elderly woman is Bridgers as an old woman, and their make-out sesh represents her acceptance of death. The empty stadium around them suggests that although there may not be others with you when you die, in a contradictory way you are not alone because you have yourself, and you should take comfort in that.
Now, on to the main analysis.
First, a brief explanation of VAK learning styles. VAK is short for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. They are the three ways in which people learn, and a lot of research has gone into how to use this understanding to most effectively teach students.
Here’s a quick summary of their findings. Although everyone has one or two dominant learning preferences, people do not necessarily learn more efficiently if they’re being taught in their preferred style. Instead, it’s more effective to center the VAK style around the material, not the subject. For example, if you’re teaching someone about steam engines, showing a photo or video would be more effective than describing in orally, even if the student is an auditory learner.
So, the manner of presentation doesn’t matter as long as it fits with the material. It’s a little more nuanced than that, though. If you were teaching a group of people about World War II and the first thing you show is a brutally graphic video, you may have gotten the visual learners’ full attention, but you also completely turned off the kinesthetic learners. Although each group can learn from any manner of presentation, each one is attracted to a different approach. It’s up to the teacher to deliver the information in a way that keeps everyone hooked and engaged in the material. This is true for any form of “teaching”, including movies, books, and music. The best creative content takes VAK learning styles into account, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Here I examine the music video for “I Know the End” By Phoebe Bridgers, which follows this structure perfectly. It engages each type of learner, strengthening the message of the song.
Phoebe Bridgers has quickly grown to be one of the most critically acclaimed indie artists in the last few years, beginning with her breakout debut album Stranger in the Alps in 2017. Her second solo album, Punisher, was released on June 18, 2020, to positive reviews as well, solidifying her as one of the top singer-songwriters of our time.
Punisher is an album tinged with sadness and loneliness, making it a fitting soundtrack for the world under quarantine. The final track on the album, “I Know the End”, tackles the root of these issues — the finality and inevitability of death — in a fitting close to the album. The music video, which was directed by Alissa Torvinen and released on July 29, 2020, picks up and expands upon this subject with subtle use of symbolism and a few clever cinematography and editing tricks, as mentioned earlier.
When giving a presentation or performing a song you want to attract all three types of people, but each is interested in a different manner of presentation. Kinesthetic learners prefer a calmer approach because they prefer to interact with what they’re learning, and a slower pace gives them more control. Auditory learners prefer mid-level energy since they’re drawn to the standard pace and pitch of oral communication. Visual learners often like high-intensity music because they’re less interested in the words being said than the visuals that the sound creates in their minds.
While this presents a challenge when creating a song, there is a method to create interest in all three of these groups. You begin slowly, often with only the vocals and a piano, to hook the kinesthetic people. Next, you ramp up as the drums or bass kick in to hook the auditory people. Finally, you increase the intensity to engage the visual people. This method works because auditory and visual people are less likely to turn the song off if it’s slower, and kinesthetic people will accept the subsequent energetic sections because they’ve already been hooked in the beginning. You can see this structure used in cinema (setup, rising action, and climax), as well as some of the best songs ever written, like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Stairway to Heaven”.
“I Know the End” follows the same arrangement. It starts soft and slow, builds through the middle, and ends with an outburst of metal. The video mirrors this form with its camera movement and editing rhythm. The first section (up until she takes a bite of the apple) begins with a very slow, 45-second push-in. There is minimal camera movement and Bridgers moves slowly. The average shot length is 7.2 seconds.
Bridgers picks up speed in the second section (between the bite of the apple and when she begins to run) at a steady pace, and the camera follows at the same speed. There’s constant motion in this section, although the length of each shot remains relatively high, at 6.4 seconds per shot.
The final section includes dozens of quick cuts. Despite being 22 seconds shorter than the first section, it has more than four times as many cuts. Bridgers runs, thrashes in the tub, and spins and falls on stage. Her bandmates equal her intensity and the camera moves in disorienting ways. The average shot length in this section is only 1.33 seconds.
The focus of the camera emphasizes the different styles Bridgers and Torvinen appeal to. In the kinesthetic section, the camera lingers on tactile actions such as Bridgers washing her hands and the magician doing card tricks. In the auditory section, the focus is primarily on Bridgers’ face and mouth. It’s the section where she lip-syncs the lyrics the most. There aren’t any actions or objects that would appeal to someone who prefers tactile learning. Finally, the third section has short blasts of powerful images to appeal to visual people. This includes the startling flashes of her flailing in the tub and the strobe lights in the stadium.
A more subtle technique is used throughout the entire video: the aspect ratio. The first two sections are 4:3, while the final section is 16:9. The 4:3 aspect ratio helps create a calm, introspective feeling that is more appealing to kinesthetic and auditory people. Meanwhile, the shift to 16:9 literally increases the visual space. Along with the quick cuts and drone shots, it creates a cinematic feel that visual people are drawn to.
Were Phoebe Bridgers and Alissa Torvinen thinking of the VAK learning styles when they created “I Know the End” and its music video? Probably not. But, as the last track on the album, Bridgers likely wanted an epic finale, and is even quoted as saying she “wanted to have a metal song”. Since she is not a metal artist, and her fans most likely do not listen to metal, she needed to keep her fans (mostly kinesthetic and auditory people) engaged.
She intuitively structured the song along the lines of an effective VAK approach because it keeps everyone engaged. Likewise, the music video fits the mold of the music in the hopes of enhancing it. The pacing of the cuts and the movement within the frame are directly related to the tempo and intensity of the song. It is a cinematic music video, but it’s cinematic because the song is cinematic, and the song is cinematic because movies (and all effective stories) follow the VAK approach.
I hope this helped explain why the music video for “I Know the End” was so powerful, and if you’re an artist I hope the VAK approach gives you a new way of looking at your own structure and style.
Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on September 17, 2020.