Anyway, I asked the question: Now that really high quality digital video is within reach for most artists why aren't videos getting better, not worse? If you listed the best music videos ever made you could easily do the top fifty before you got to 1990. Top hundred before '95. As an experiment I decided to--off the top of my head-- come up with seven memorable current (more or less) music videos to stem the tide of nostalgia that was pulling me under. Lists are the purview of the beautiful Beth Mann (see her "10 Reasons Why Everything Was Better 'Back in the Day'", for a timely example) but perhaps she will let me have this one since the results were kind of interesting when I put them all together. This is what I came up with:
"Leave all your love and your longing behind/
You can't carry it with you if you want to survive"
I'm probably going to start hating Florence and the Machine's great, strange Dog Days Are Over any day now given its ubiquity in various you-go-girl marketing campaigns (Gossip Girl? Check. Gray's Anatomy? Check. Tampax, you're up!). But even Julia Roberts doing her White-Lady-Shops-The-World-For-Enlightenment schtick in commercials for Eat Pray Love's DVD release to this song can't undo the greatness of its video. This is actually the second clip created for the song (following a DIY effort you can still find on YouTube that Florence created using Christmas lights and starring her dad poking around in a forest.) This one was directed by Georgie Greville and Geremy Jasper and features a pleasingly disparate mash-up of cultural styles-- 60s girl-group back up singers painted a science fiction-y blue, "tribal" dancers, a native-painted gospel choir... this is the sort of thing that is never less than offensive done badly. But here it completely works for me by underscoring the weird structure of the song itself, which veers from folky harp-plinking to blue-eyed soul to power-pop and back again. Florence is the real thing, I think. If she stays weird she could be the new Annie Lennox.
"It's casual/ Not heartbreaking"
Brooklyn's Here We Go Magic are a fuzzy, lo-fi "psychedelic electro-folk" band formed by Luke Temple and Casual is a track on their sophomore album, Pigeons. Building on the simple lyric, "It's casual/ Not heartbreaking" the video, directed by directing team Peking (aka Nat Livingston Johnson and Gregory Mitnick), is set in an obscure hospital/clinic. Various bloody vignettes illustrate the ordinariness of death, dying and, in a surreal turn, birth. I won't blow the big reveal at the climax but for me the most heartrending image is Temple, writhing in pain on a hospital bed when his face is suddenly suffused by white light... which the camera reveals is only streaming from a newly opened window. Oof. Oh, and NSFW.
"It's only just a crush, it'll go away/It's just like all the others it'll go away/Or maybe this is danger and you just don't know"
The songs on LA-based duo She Wants Revenge's self-titled debut sound like lost 80s New Wave classics, in a good way. Tear You Apart is emblematic of their new-new wave sound with a dark, Bauhus-y synth crackling in the background and an urgent, angsty Ian Curtis-like vocal up front. The actor Joaquin Phoenix directed the video, which owes as much to paranoid 50s sci-fi as 80s teen romances--it's like "Pretty in(vasion) of the Body Snatchers". A couple of years old now, pre-Phoenix's scripted career meltdown, this video pushes the narrative as far as possible, providing subtitles for the short "film" he created to accompany the song.
" Yeah I don't want to live for tomorrow/ I push my life today"
I loves me some M.I.A. Born Free is built around a 33 year old sample (ouch) from Ghost Rider by Suicide and the song is propelled forward by its churning panicky energy. The video was directed by Romain-Gavras (son of filmmaker Costa-Gavras) and it caused a huge controversy for overtly referencing indigenous rights struggles from around the world including Palestine (ruh-roh) and Northern Ireland. Crystallizing an M.I.A. backlash in the press that culminated in a New York Times hatchet-job, the clip depicts US government troops terrorizing an unnamed city, rounding up a group of redheaded young men and well--you should watch it for yourself. But be warned if you haven't seen it: it is upsetting. Brilliant but shocking. Also kinda NSFW.
"I’m livin’ in the 21st century/Doin’ something mean to it/
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it"
What more can you say about Kanye West at this point? He may not be the genius he seems to think he is-- but he still pretty damn good. Kind of a whiner with a nasal voice to match, no one would accuse him of being a great vocalist. And Kanye's smartest lyrics are often drowned out by the overwrought ones (see: Diamonds from Sierra Leone). But his strength has always been his vision, which can sell an oddly personal idea with an unlikely hook, like this one. Power is also built around a sample (hmm) from King Crimson's 1969 21st Century Schizoid Man... which might be the most self-aware reference Kanye has made so far. The video, which Kanye tweeted was like a "moving painting," was directed by the artist Marco Brambilla and features model Irina Shayk. It is peopled with characters from the Major and Minor Arcana of the Etteilla Occult Tarot deck, all interacting in a shiny, slow-motion, prog-rock album cover dystopia.
I actually like the way Kanye (or his tour director) translated the images when he performed this song on SNL as much (if not more) but I decided to keep consistent and list the video itself.
"I'm the spark, make the world explode/
I'm a man-eating machine, I'll make the world explode"
Grace Jones doesn't get a fair shake. Sure, her early disco stuff is largely awful/forgettable. But Jones' New Wave turn produced some of the most memorable sounds and images of that genre. Which I guess is the problem: the images were so arresting that they gave people permission to dismiss the music. But her sound, equal parts French cabaret, Jamaican Dub and icy new wave synth was completely unique. And her covers of Iggy Pop's Nightclubbing, The Normal's Warm Leatherette and Joy Division's She's Lost Control exceed the originals, I think. Jones was ahead of her time--a video star before video, whose look was an integral supplement to her music, which is the regular order of things now whether you are Jack White or Rihanna. Corporate Cannibal was the lead single on 2008's Hurricane, Grace Jones' first new studio album in nineteen years. Unfortunately, the album wasn't released in North America and the single was pretty much ignored by the radio-- but the video, directed by Nick Hooker, was a huge hit online. And it is easy to see why. It's pretty amazing, simultaneously tweaking Jones' image and making it new for this moment. Bottom line: she is so iconic at this point that her entire image can be rendered in an inky digital blur and she is still unmistakable. How many other artists could make that claim?
"What's in the silver locket?/ What's in the silver frame?/
What's that fool around your neck?/ Albatross, albatross, albatross"
Mt. St. Helen's Vietnam Band are from Seattle. They have that crunchy, hippy spookiness I love in bands like Black Mountain and White Magic. I love this song, Albatross, Albatross-- and the video, set in the Pacific Northwest and directed by Matt Daniels, is simple but disturbing. I included it because even though it is a bit more homemade than the others on the list it is darkly suggestive without being pyrotechnic or imposing a clear narrative.
... So there you go. Now get offa my porch!