For a bright, shining moment in our cultural history there was an art form called “music video.”
Some clever people once ushered in a golden age, transforming “promotional video” into a legitimate, vibrant art form. Then they killed it. We still have music videos, of course, but the glory days are long gone, aren’t they?
There are a lot of “greatest video” lists online, some quite thoughtful and others … less thoughtful. Look them up and see what you think. For today’s #SVR, though, here are my top 20, in no particular order. If you have issues with the list don’t feel bad – I change my mind, too.
Death in Vegas: “Dirt”: First up, the video I’ve always sort of regarded as the best ever: “Dirt,” by Death in Vegas. Avant gardiste to its core, and very much in step with the non-linear mode of the era, this short, directed by Andrea Giacobbe, assaulted us with image and discontinuity.
I had heard about “Dirt,” but had never been able to catch it (and this was pre-YouTube, of course, so some effort was required – either you were watching when it came on or you set the VCR and fast forwarded through 90 minutes of tape, kind of like a hunter opening a trap and hoping there’s something inside). It was a Sunday night, around 11, and I had been working all day at my computer. I shut everything down and prepared to go to bed. Something stopped me as I hit the lights, though. Hmmm, I thought. I flipped on MTV and there it was, just beginning. If I believed in fate, I’d be a little weirded out. But I don’t, so I’m grateful for the coincidence.
I can’t find the original version, just this pointlessly extended one, but you get the idea.
Blues Traveler: “Runaround”: Artistically the antithesis of “Dirt” in a lot of ways. Whereas “Dirt” was imagistic and non-linear to the nth degree, Blues Traveler’s “Runaround” (directed by Ken Fox) was built around a more conventional narrative mode of storytelling and an incredibly clever riff on The Wizard of Oz. If you want to know what the band thought of the music industry, pay attention, and if I’m Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, I’m probably not flattered by the portrayal of the lead singer in the lip-synching band in front of the curtain.
Orbital: “The Box”: I was known to use this in classes when discussing cyberculture. The video, directed by Luke Losey and starring Tilda Swinton, “won a silver sphere for the best short film at the San Francisco Film Festival and got nominated for the best video award at the 1997 Brit Awards. It also closed the Edinburgh Film Festival and opened the London Film Festival.” Swinton, portraying an anachronistic ingenue, stop-motions through an accelerating city landscape trying to fathom the pace and decay of contemporary urban life, and I think most viewers come away empathizing with her bewilderment.
a-Ha: “Take On Me”: This is what I think we can safely call a consensus pick. a-Ha was a one-hit wonder, but Steve Barron’s explosively innovative visual technique (accompanied by a neat storyline) makes this an all-timer.
Soundgarden: “Black Hole Sun”: I don’t think I fully appreciated the vision of this one when it was first released, but in retrospect there’s a reason it’s on every best of list on the Net. The video is funny, smart and dark, a perfect partner for a song that understands things aren’t quite right with the world.
U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday”: Bono once said “it is still an extraordinary thing to behold the sound of a rock and roll band in full flight.” I’m not sure any band ever flew higher.
There’s nothing technically innovative about U2’s iconic Red Rocks moment. It’s just 5:53 of raw power and passion from the greatest band on the face of the earth at the time, performing in the greatest venue in the world, and doing so in one of those transcendent, near-mystical High Country nights. It’s as though the gods of music planned the evening for years. Look at the weather – you realize this was shot in June, right?
Johnny Cash: “Hurt”: Some of my choices may be unfamiliar to you, but here’s one you’ve probably seen. Johnny’s cover of the NIN classic got some attention when it was released, and for good reason. I guess there’s an institutional critique to be had here – industry sees a buck in having fading legend do stripped down cover of successful tune by contemporary artist. I can’t see any valid argument about the result, though. The pain is palpable, tangible. Both song and video are nothing short of brilliant.
Nine Inch Nails: “Gave Up”: Not safe for work. Or home. Or anywhere else. I used Nine Inch Nails’ “Gave Up” in a class, as well. We were talking about censorship, and I decided that we should have something in front of us that would challenge anybody with even the slightest censoring bone in their body. The original version of this appeared on the Broken video release, and you should know the version here is considerably less disturbing than the full, unprettied original. It’s so valuable because of how it destroys the homogeneity and emotional distancing effect of television, which allows us to filter the genuine horrors of the world around us in a way that doesn’t upset our dinner. Here, Reznor wants the viewer to fucking get it. To quote a famous American, “mission accomplished.”
New Order: “Round and Round”: I remember being just blown away the first time I saw New Order’s “Round and Round,” primarily because of its staggering minimalism. At first you’re struck by just how little is going on, but the more you watch, the more you’re intrigued by how much is going on.
The Art of Noise: “Paranoimia”: Edison Carter’s alter-ego is having a hard time getting to sleep. This vid captured a precise moment in popular culture – Max Headroom, the show, was a phenomenon, and a wildly underappreciated one artistically, and then there was the Coke commercial featuring the riveting AI journalist himself. For 15 minutes, everyone had to cash in as hard as they could, and The Art of Noise slyly critiqued cashing in by, you know, cashing in. How very postmodern. Was anything ever more ’80s?
Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody”: By this point Queen had already produced three very good albums, and this, the lead single on A Night at the Opera, was the moment they exploded into superstardom. For most people, this video was their introduction to a band that would become one of the undisputed all-time Rock greats.
By modern reckoning there’s nothing technically special about the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” – in fact, the “swooshing Freddie” effect seems positively primitive. I was watching The Midnight Special the night it debuted, though, and can testify that at the time it was beyond mind-blowing. Youtube says it currently has 412 million views; while we don’t decide greatness based on raw plays, it’s certainly a comment on the video’s enduring relevance.
Michael Jackson: “Thriller”: The biggest song ever. The biggest album ever. The biggest video ever. And Vincent Price. Not sure what else I can say.
Peter Gabriel: “Sledgehammer”: A rare perfect storm, where a brilliant musician at the top of his form produces a song and an album that are both artistic genius and popular successes, then teams up with a stellar director with a vision. There are a lot of “best of” video lists on the Internet. If Stephen A Johnson’s wildly inventive vid for Peter Gabriel’s smash “Sledgehammer” isn’t on one, keep moving.
Bob Dylan: “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: In 1966 Bob Dylan starred in this simple, yet incredibly clever video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The cue cards motif has been aped many times, with perhaps the most famous being INXS’s “Mediate.”
Ministry: “NWO”: The Reagan/Thatcher years were marked by an utterly bizarre shiny/happy pastel sheen spread liberally across a decidedly apocalyptic doom. Listen to songs like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Forever Young” and “It’s a Mistake” (and watch the videos). The aesthetic seemed to be “we’re all going to die in a nuclear holocaust, of course, but at least we can be alternately romantically beautiful or positively chipper about it.” But at the end of the decade Reagan’s charisma gave way to the cynical years of Bush the Elder. The happy buzz gave way to a mean drunk, and then the hangover set in.
By the early ’90s, the tone of the political landscape had darkened considerably, and a growing anger was mirrored in our music and the videos that accompanied it. Here’s Ministry and their love song to the Bush years.
Bad Religion: “American Jesus”: Meanwhile, Bad Religion turned its attention to the xenophobic, hateful Christianity fueling America’s lurch to the right. (Directed by Gore Verbinski.)
Pop Will Eat Itself: “Ich Bin Ein Auslander”: They were dealing the the rise of the right across the pond, too, and Pop Will Eat Itself attacked this new fascism head on in “Ich Bin Ein Auslander.” Few political rants manage to capture the essence of the problem quite as keenly as this track did.
It’s almost relevant for 2017, innit?
Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: Once upon a time there was Def Leppard and Motley Crue and Skid Row. Then this happened.
The Prodigy: “Smack My Bitch Up”: I’m not sure there was ever a more talked about video. Controversial. Violent. Misogynist? Banned. Fucking everybody up in arms.
The Buggles: “Video Killed the Radio Star”: What needs saying about this, the first video to ever appear on MTV. Hard to imagine anything more appropriate.
David Bowie: “Space Oddity”: We’ll close with a tribute to the man who transformed the form – without him it’s hard to say what video would have become. David Bowie didn’t invent music video – The Beatles, for instance, were doing seriously fun things a few years before he came along and the very first music video was actually produced in 1894. But “Space Oddity” changed the game.
As always, your thoughts are welcomed.