Shelter and Powerful Storytelling in Music Videos
Music videos aren’t what they used to be.
Back in the pre-broadband internet years, they were much bigger cultural touchpoints. Remember music-focused channels like MTV and Myx? They were mainstays in our TV-watching habits. We looked forward to seeing the music videos to the songs we loved, as they added a lot to our enjoyment of them.
They were also a pretty cool thing to talk about with your friends. It was fun to discuss whether the video did justice to the song, and to try to decipher the meaning behind the more cryptic ones.
But nowadays, we consume music and media much differently. Waiting for your favorite music videos to appear on TV is now an old memory from a much simpler time. Today, you just open up Youtube or Spotify, and you can watch/listen to your favorite songs anytime.
This constant accessibility has changed our relationship not just with music, but with media in general. And when everything’s so easily accessible, everything can’t help but feel more disposable.
As a result of all this content competing for our attention, way fewer music videos cut through the clutter these days. Just think about it. What was the last music video that really made you go, “wow that’s fantastic?” I can’t recall of any since Kanye West’s Power.
But then, last week, I saw Shelter. It’s a collaboration between Porter Robinson, Madeon, A-1 Pictures (an anime studio) and Crunchyroll (an anime streaming site).
Here, I’ve embedded it below for you. Watch it first before reading further. It’s just over 6 minutes long, and it is worth every second of your time.
Finished it now? Beautiful, isn’t it? I got emotional towards the end, and you probably did too.
But before we dive into the analysis, here’s a little background on Porter Robinson, in case you don’t know the guy. He’s an electronic music producer and DJ who’s obviously very into anime.
His debut album, Worlds, is one of my all-time favorites. It featured a really unique blend of sounds and musical influences that were unlike any of his peers at the time.
Every listen was a great experience. The music had a transportative quality to it, which really helped me through a rough time in my life.
Despite the vague lyrics, the sonic imagery would fill my head with these amazing fictional worlds that I couldn't help but get lost in. Here, have a listen:
Needless to say, Porter is a very talented musician. And with Shelter, he’s shown to be a pretty capable writer and director as well.
Creating the music video for Shelter was a life-long dream for him, one that took almost a year and multiple trips to Japan to complete. Even without watching the behind the scenes video, you know immediately that a lot of love was put into this project.
This brings us to the story in the video itself. It’s so simple, and impossible to misunderstand. And yet it packs quite a punch, thanks to magic of animation and music. This is what the best music videos do; they tell a story that perfectly captures the atmosphere in the song, while also breathing new life into it.
In just six minutes, you see a lifetime’s worth of story unfold. You felt like you’ve lived the same life as the girl’s, being stuck somewhere with no real direction to go to. That probably has something to do with our current reality. Seeing this now in quarantine makes it a more powerful viewing experience than when it was first released in 2016.
On some level, we can all relate to that girl’s struggles. Even with all the endless wonder that the internet, Netflix, food delivery apps and unlimited free time can bring, we’re all stuck here, starved for human affection and genuine connection. It’s sad, and painful. We just want it all to be over.
But that pain is important. The memory of what we had and what we lost is the only thing that keeps us going. Those treasured moments remind us that our current state isn’t all there is — that there’s a future for us somewhere.
I think that’s such a beautiful, hopeful message, even though the music video itself ends ambiguously.
We don’t know if the girl gets rescued. And that uncertainty can feel terrifying when applied to our life. Things can stay the same, or change for the worse. No one really knows.
Still, I love endings like this. That’s cause you can imagine whatever conclusion you want. And I for one, have always been an optimist. I choose to believe that somehow, somewhere, she’s eventually rescued, and wakes up in the real world.
I want that to be simply because I want her father’s sacrifice to matter. I want that woman to have an actual life, one that would make up for all the tragedy she had to go through.
And if you want to imagine the more depressing alternative? Well, you can too.
You have that power, because the creators left it in your hands, much like the father in this music video did.
There is real power to short stories that end this way. The ambiguity gnaws on your mind. It forces you to not just be a passive digester of content, but to really engage with it — to put your own imagination to work.
If it had settled for a Hollywood-style ending, it wouldn’t feel the same. You can just move one with your day, happy that the girl made it out okay.
But then it would just be another hollow story with no real stakes. And it certainly wouldn’t have earned its ending, as the short length isn’t enough to make the girl’s suffering deserve its rightful end.
I think it’s perfect the way it is. But understandably, some very passionate fans want more. They want to turn Shelter into a full-blown anime, but that defeats its purpose.
At the end of the day, it’s a music video, and it is structured like one. To change any of that would be to forget what made it so powerful in the first place.
Remember, every work of art is bound by its medium’s limitations. Working with the constraints and producing a great story within them is the challenge. And when a miracle of efficient and impactful storytelling is pulled off as beautifully as Shelter does, why would you want to change that?
Of course, I understand the impulse to create. To build on something you love. And that’s great — if you’re doing it yourself. But to ask the creators to do so? Knowing full well that they’re already happy with what they’ve accomplished? Please don’t. Respect the artist’s vision and let them conclude projects on their own terms.
Short stories that hit this hard are nothing short of miracles. Especially since they have so little runtime to establish their characters.
That’s why most of them tend to use a family member’s death as a shorthand for a tough life. Everyone has lost someone, so the audience doesn’t have to imagine the hero's sense of loss. Sympathy is automatic.
However, when used improperly, it can make a story feel cheap. It diminishes the value of human life as just a plot point; a mere sidequest for the protagonist on their journey to self-actualization.
But when done well? Oh boy. It is the closest thing we have to actual memories being implanted into our heads (which could be a reality soon). The best visual stories are empathy generators, engaging us on a level that few other forms of media do.
In the case of Shelter, (especially when viewed in the context of quarantine) we are made to examine our reality, and how we deal with it. It’s a beautiful video with a lovely message, one that we all could find value and solace in these days.
And if I may dig deeper and get a bit personal, perhaps the real impact of this story all comes back to how I’ve been living lately. I relate too well to getting lost in my own world too often, forgetting that reality is always there. I will eventually have to go back to it, no matter how sucky it is.
I’m probably not alone in this sentiment. We’ve been too drained with reality, and have retreated back into the comfort of an endless stream of content to take our minds away to a better place. Technology makes it too easy to do so.
And yet, we can never escape the lingering dissatisfaction. It will always be there, and the only way to relieve it is to move forward, even when and especially when we don’t want to.
For that is what it means to be human.
You can’t stay in your own bubble, safe from the harsh truth. You have to face reality eventually. It’s the only way forward.
Because to give up hope, and to exist just for the sake of it, is a hollow existence. It’s a waste of life, and it diminishes the sacrifices your parents have made to get you to this point.
So if you’ve also been struggling, know that it’s okay to feel down. Just remember that this won’t last forever. We may not have wanted to be here this long, but we will get through this someday.
Until then though, let’s keep going. ❤