Music

Washed Out music video controversy shows the hardest part is accepting AI is here to stay 

The new music video from Washed Out is the first to be totally AI-generated

Washed Up video

Illustration: Big Issue

Youth, love, birth, death, dreams, ageing and regret – the video for “The Hardest Part” by US synth-pop musician Ernest Greene, aka Washed Out, does it all, in one sweeping four-minute sequence. The camera follows two protagonists in constant motion as they travel through the tunnel of life bathed in a blaze of retro nostalgia, it’s sexy, trippy and darkly romantic. 

And yet, something feels constantly askew. The dark-haired Hispanic boy and his red-permed paramour never appear to be quite the same people in any two consecutive segments – as if they’re being played by a procession of squiffy lookalikes. The camera performs impossible, queasy swoops and sudden surreal shot transitions. The human movement is stiff and unnatural. Everybody’s got strange hands.  

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All common shortcomings – or qualities, if you look at it another way – of AI-generated imagery. Of which the video is entirely made – making it a world first. To some it’s an exciting milestone. To others, it’s a source of outrage.   

The video’s director Paul Trillo says he’d had the concept for “an infinite zoom of a couple’s life over the course of many decades” for 10 years, but he hadn’t attempted it until now “because I figured it’d be too ambitious for a music video”. 

OpenAI’s Sora, which can create semi-realistic video entirely from text instructions, presented the potential to change all that. When Greene – an alumnus of the late-2000s chillwave microgenre – suggested a collaboration for the first single from his forthcoming fifth album Notes from a Quiet Life, Trillo seized his chance. 

Sora isn’t yet released – OpenAI are working with creatives for feedback. Its glitches and gremlins are plain to see, but Trillio sought to make a virtue of them. “The surreal and hallucinatory aspects of AI allow you to explore new ideas that you would have never dreamed of,” he said. “Using AI to simply recreate reality is boring. I wasn’t interested in capturing realism but something that felt hyperreal.” 

Technophiles have been excited to see Sora in action, and there’s been a lot of positive reaction from Washed Out fans. Many, however, have been scathing. Not only of what they believe to be a bad piece of art, but because they also fear it’ll push humans in the creative industries closer towards  obsolescence.

Posting on X, Trevor Powers, aka Youth Lagoon, an US electronic pop contemporary of Greene’s, went in hard. “This Washed Out AI vid says nothing, does nothing, is nothing. Ugly slog too.” 

On the same platform, Trillio came in for a barrage of criticism, including, “whatever your job is (it clearly isn’t ‘artist’) I hope you lose it to a machine”. 

The YouTube comments thread got so grim (“nightmare fuel” read one of the politer remarks), that Greene felt compelled to step in. “Whether you’re scared, excited, or undecided about these new tools, they are here to stay,” he defended himself. “We just need to collectively figure out the most responsible ways to harness them.” 

AI has been used in music videos without provoking as much anger. Earlier this year, Billy Joel’s video for his song “Turn the Lights Back On” blended real life footage of the 74-year-old piano man with AI de-aged younger versions of himself. AI-generated album art and gig posters are already everywhere. 

While I understand some of the fury directed Washed Out’s way, it also reveals some naivety as to the extent to which the music world has been upended by technology in recent decades. Not to mention the paranoia about the unstoppable onrush of AI in practically all walks of life. 

Most video budgets these days are in the low thousands of pounds, if not the low hundreds. Videos are no longer designed for MTV rotation, but for streaming on smartphones and tablets. Many are still beautiful, a few are still spectacular. But most are lo-fi and perfunctory – a bit of eye-candy as a conduit to online clicks and shares.  Surely anything that helps cash-strapped  creatives realise bigger, perhaps even previously impossible ideas, is a good thing?  

AI stirs a profound fear lurking in every human soul: that we are all replaceable, perhaps even erasable, by technology. It’s not so different to when 19th century portrait artists railed against photography, nor when the Musicians Union tried to ban synthesisers because they believed they would end orchestras. Did video kill the radio star? Not really. 

I’m optimistic in believing AI can only ever be as good as those who  instruct it, that it’ll never truly be able to decode complex human emotion, and that it’ll prove at best a new tool in the box of creators. Conversations around ethical use need to be had, and videos like “The Hardest Part” are a great point for starting them. “I hope that the video can play a role in amplifying that discussion,” comments Greene.   

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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