What Happens When Artificial Intelligence Creates Images to Match the Lyrics of Iconic Songs: David Bowie’s “Starman,” Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” & More

Lyricists must write concretely enough to be evocative, yet vaguely enough to allow each listener his personal interpretation. The nineteen-sixties and seventies saw an especially rich balance struck between resonant ambiguity and massive popularity — aided, as many involved parties have admitted, by the use of certain psychoactive substances. Half a century later, the visions induced by those same substances offer the closest comparison to the striking fruits of visual artificial-intelligence projects like Google’s Deep Dream a few years ago or DALL-E today. Only natural, perhaps, that these advanced applications would sooner or later be fed psychedelic song lyrics.

The video at the top of the post presents the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1977 hit “Mr. Blue Sky” illustrated by images generated by artificial intelligence straight from its words. This came as a much-anticipated endeavor for Youtube channel SolarProphet, which has also put up similarly AI-accompanied presentations of such already goofy-image-filled comedy songs as Lemon Demon’s “The Ultimate Showdown” and Neil Cicierega’s “It’s Gonna Get Weird.”

Youtuber Daara has also created ten entries in this new genre, including Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and (the recently-featured-on-Open-Culture) Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”

Jut above appears a video for David Bowie’s “Starman” with AI-visualized lyrics, created by Youtuber Aidontknow. Created isn’t too strong a word, since DALL-E and other applications currently available to the public provide a selection of images for each prompt, leaving it to human users to provide specifics about the aesthetic — and, in the case of these videos, to select the result that best suits each line. One delight of this particular production, apart from the boogieing children, is seeing how the AI imagines various starmen waiting in the sky, all of whom look suspiciously like early-seventies Bowie. Of all his songs of that period, surely “Life on Mars?” would be choice number one for an AI music video — but then, its imagery may well be too bizarre for current technology to handle.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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