[This is intended as my second entry to the Short Film Week Blog-a-thon hosted by Seul le cinema and Culture Snob.]
Oh, Kenneth Anger, damn you. His fast editing and use of music marked the beginning of the end: MTV. The format of the music video really should have been the perfect format for directorial experimentation, but instead has become the staple of musicians of meager talent to distract the poor music with flesh and neon lighting. This isn’t to say the music video format hasn’t provided us with some brilliant works of art, and that’s what this post is for. Here’s 20 music videos that broke the mold, beamed with artistry (or, in some cases, extreme lack thereof), exploring possibilities instead of resorting to masturbatory showmanship. I've included links to each of the videos, though I apologize if you're reading this much after I've posted this, as they may not work any longer. I would also like to mention that these aren't the finest 20 videos you'll ever see, but more examples from my personal history of music video viewing of art in video.
1. Kylie Minogue - “Come into My World” - dir. Michel Gondry
Who knew a music video could be so technically astounding and so beautifully meta at the same time? Kylie’s brand of pop music has always exceeded her peers (though with little success stateside), but it’s perhaps one of the few pop music videos I can recall that directly addresses the very nature of pop music. As Kylie walks in circles around a Parisian block, she multiples, along with her settings, in technical bravado. It’s the sort of visual brilliance that would only lose its majesty by discovering how it was done, yet Gondry fully understood what he was doing, turning the pop songstress into robotic, alien-like clones of herself; how perfect for a pop star who, especially considering her mythical existence in the United States as Europe’s biggest star, might as well be a product herself (check out her official website, where you can buy Kylie scented drawer liners… seriously).
2. Björk - All Is Full of Love - dir. Chris Cunningham
Though “Pagan Poetry” probably remains her most (in)famous video and "It's Oh So Quiet" her most popular, Cunningham’s “All Is Full of Love” brilliantly compliments Gondry’s “Come into My World” in its critical assessment of the music itself underneath such ecstatically astounding technicality. Here, two robot Björks (literally) embrace romantically, their movements controlled by an unseen force. Unlike Kylie, Björk is probably a bit more attune to the very nature of her own music, a sort of artpop that’s garnered her obsessive fans for over ten years. The video is cold and eerily sensual, yet would it surprise you that, unlike whatever self-congratulatory rap video you could find on MTV, Cunningham is cleverly jabbing at Björk’s undoubted self-love? It sure wouldn’t surprise me.
3. PJ Harvey - “C‘mon Billy” - dir. Maria Machnacz
I must give thanks to Bradford for calling my attention to the wonderfulness of this video from PJ Harvey, my lifelong obsession. For most, PJ’s videos are less assuming and memorable than others; she constantly works with Machnacz who’s hardly as striking as one of those Palm Directors Series guys, yet it’s hard to deny that Machnacz understands PJ Harvey. Many have discussed her subtle chameleon-like personas as Harvey shifts images with every album she’s released, albeit more quietly than, say, Madonna, Annie Lennox, or David Bowie. With To Bring You My Love, Harvey exudes her most theatrical, “more drag queen than any drag queen could ever hope to be,” as Bradford said, a sort of cross of Marelene Dietrich and the loving parody of a woman most drag queens exemplify. Harvey was a woman of desperations with that album, probably best known for the haunting “Down by the Water,” which introduced the MTV world to her, yet “C’mon Billy” explored the multifaceted image Harvey portrayed with To Bring You My Love, amplified emotions, harsh aggressiveness, and a girlish vulnerability. To Bring You My Love, perhaps her most widely lauded album, is also her most schizophrenic, with its chaotic blues, and “C’mon Billy” is probably the finest example, video-wise, of Harvey’s stirring progression of altering egos.
4. Rollins Band - “Liar” - dir. Anton Corbijn
This video is just about fucking perfect. Like the videos already mentioned, Corbijn exhibit’s a serious understand of his artist here and, specifically, the hilarious duality of the song itself. It’s almost like watching someone else’s nightmare (more amusing that it’s not yours), with Henry Rollins as your devil-in-diguise, jumping from glasses-donning “understanding guy” to red-painted fiend. Rollins does his best bit of acting here (much more so than in Lost Highway or any other shitty horror film he’s later starred in), flexing his neck to unbearable strains, and in the foreground yet out-of-focus no less. It’s alternately hilarious and frightening.
5. Young MC - “Bust a Move”
Okay, a little less reflexive and artistic, this video made my early MTV days. It’s was kind of like that cafeteria scene in Fame, only way cooler. Who didn’t want to go to a school where the kids get up on their desks and, well, bust a move. It’s refreshingly unpretentious and unchoreographed, sort of a House Party-meets-Breakin’ in a music video, and who wouldn’t love that?
6. The Smiths - “The Queen Is Dead” - dir. Derek Jarman
You know serious business it to be had when the video is introduced as “A Film by Derek Jarman.” This isn’t any old music-fucking-video, and it’s probably the most remarkable thing Jarman ever did in short format. It’s kinetic, gorgeous, and almost the perfect heir to Kenneth Anger. Jarman similarly used the overlapping imagery in his segment in Aria, but The Queen Is Dead is so much better… and even more startling would be the absence of Morrissey, Johnny Marr, or any of the other Smiths within. The video’s a perfect depiction of the angry, romantic British youth beneath Thatcher; though Brian Eno’s music suited most of Jarman’s work flawlessly, Jarman here has perfectly complimented someone’s music instead of the vice versa. The link above only contains the video for “The Queen Is Dead,” though the “film” itself also contains Jarman’s videos for “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “Panic,” which make for the perfect trilogy of London youth via The Smiths. [Also, why not also check out Jarman's video for Marianne Faithfull's "Broken English."]
7. U.N.K.L.E. - “Rabbit in Your Headlights” - dir. Jonathan Glazer
While Glazer has yet to prove himself a formidable feature director, his talents on the music video circuit are undeniable. U.N.K.L.E.’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” is probably his most rewarding. French actor Denis Lavant (Beau travail, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) walks through a busy tunnel to the voice of Thom Yorke. In fact, for cineastes, it’s hard to disassociate oneself with Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, where Lavant plays a fire-blowing homeless man in love with Juliette Binoche. Glazer also adds to the video Lavant’s indistinct mumblings, almost alleviating the video from the song itself without disrupting rhythm. As Lavant continues to get hit by passing cars, the video becomes more and more exquisite, climaxing with such luminous beauty. With the cars swirling and Yorke singing something about a “Christian suburbanite,” social relevance peaks through, but without eclipsing the visual power and intensity.
8. Aphex Twin - “Windowlicker” - dir. Chris Cunnigham
I wanted to stay away from multiple entries from the same director, especially when they’re as renowned as Cunningham, but he’s such a visionary that I couldn’t mention “All Is Full of Love” without “Windowlicker.” More than just a condemnation of rap culture and its related misogyny and excessive luxury (which makes Ali G in Madonna’s “Music“ video look pedestrian by comparison), it’s an uproarious funny horror flick, with those terrifying Richard D. James masks, sun-kissed, booty-shaking cellulite, and the most pervasive use of the word “nigga” since Quentin Tarantino burst onto the film scene. It’s arguably the finest music video I’ve ever seen, and words only spoil its luster. If you want another example of Cunningham's genius, check out his other Aphex Twin video, "Come to Daddy," which is ten times scarier than any horror film you can put in front of you. “Shit, bitch, you make a nigga wanna fuck!”
9. Busta Rhymes - “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” - dir. Hype Williams
Busta Rhymes was once a serious innovator when it came to the world of music videos, sort of the male counterpart of Missy Elliott, one of the few other rap artists that embraced visual experimentation and alarming surrealism over glossy indulgence. Like Elliott, Busta fuses his videos with a humorous self-image, neither as parody or slapstick. Plus, it’s one of the few times where a fish-eye lens is actually used effectively. Busta's further collaboration with Hype Williams includes the wonderful Looney Tunes parody "Gimme Some More."
10. Peter Gabriel - “Sledgehammer” - dir. Stephen R. Johnson
Former Genesis member Peter Gabriel still remains one of the few artists who managed to look like he had fun making his videos, and even one of the fewer that allowed his audience to have fun with him. Really, his videos often looked like extended stop-motion segments from Seasame Street, but what’s wrong with that? I guess, if I wanted to be nicer, maybe if Jan Svankmajer directed a segment of Seasame Street. Is that better?
11. Justice - “D.A.N.C.E.” - dir. Jonas et François
Whether you love Eurotrash earnestly or ironically, French electro-duo’s “D.A.N.C.E.” is the best video released last year. MTV USA even nominated it for “Video of the Year,” eventually losing out to that flaccid Rihanna video for “Umbrella.” Nominating the video without giving it the award was sort of like when the Academy gave David Lynch a nod for Mulholland Drive; a snub would have been better than a consolation prize. Both the band and the video lovingly recalls the heyday of Daft Punk, musical and video innovators, and somehow exceeds them with a single transformation of the T-shirt.
12. Junior Senior - “Move Your Feet” - dir. Shynola
In keeping the trend of possible flash-in-the-pan Euro-electro duos, Danish brothers Junior Senior’s pervy tribute to Atari-like pixelized cartoons exquisitely matches the band’s addictive quirkiness. Like the band, there’s something about the video coming from Europe making what would have been silly become fascinatingly entertaining. There are just certain things that Europeans and Japanese folk can get away with that no American could even begin to repilicate (see François Ozon’s 8 femmes for your feature-length example). Juicy!
13. Fiona Apple - “Criminal” - dir. Mark Romanek
Romanek’s video for “Criminal” remains probably one of the most misinterpreted videos of all time. Apple, then eighteen, got nearly overnight stardom with her album Tidal, a bluesy, soulful, personal sung diary of a “bad bad girl,” with its breakout single “Criminal.” Apple notoriously made a fool of MTV (and in many people’s eyes, herself) as she accepted the Best Female Artist video, solidifying the delusion of her video against child pornography in fashion. Romanek’s camera turns toward furniture and anonymous body parts opposite scantily-clad Apple and others is so magnificently Antonioni that it somehow, in retrospect, comes as no surprise that no one got it. How many of the MTV-viewing public would have understood the final moments of L’Eclisse? Venturing a guess toward “zero” wouldn’t be too terribly off base. But to the ill-informed (read, young teenage boys like myself), the waifish, seductive Apple became the girl dreams are made of.
14. R.E.M. - “Everybody Hurts” - dir. Jake Scott
R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” feels like the best elements of Gus Van Sant and Richard Linklater combined into a single video. It’s perfectly sparse storytelling, with subtitles of thoughts beneath the crowds of people in a Weekend-esque traffic jam. In just a single image and an abbreviated sentence, Scott, son of Ridley Scott, touches and breaks your heart. Say what you will about the end of the video, where everyone gets out of their cars, in listening to the Michael Stipe’s lyrics, it could end no other way. It’s a hope that’s not compulsory, but unnerving and lovely.
15. Massive Attack - “Protection” - dir. Michel Gondry
Perhaps there’s always going to be an important linkage between cinema and music video. In Gondry’s “Protection,” the camera pans across an artificial apartment building à la Rear Window, or maybe more accurately, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire with its somber curiosity. The camera pans to the various members of Massive Attack, scattered actors, and guest singer Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) in single-take splendor. The video is the perfect counterexample to Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, a somewhat misstep for the director which still embodies, even if unsuccessfully, the video elements he displayed in “Protection.” It’s no coincidence that the video follows R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” on the list, as both exemplify unity in loneliness, though Gondry’s exists in a purely candy-coated, toy-model realm.
16. Christina Aguilera - “Dirrty” - dir. David LaChapelle
You didn’t think I was kidding when I mentioned that I was going to dissect the artistry of all of the videos of Christina Aguilera. Well, I embellished a little, but LaChapelle’s “Dirrty” is sort of a miracle of fashionable sleaziness. The video, single-handedly, drew attention to the singer’s otherwise forgettable album, allowing for a more ferocious and carnal Aguilera to eclipse the Disney-created girl-next-door of her previous album. Watching “Dirrty” is like partaking in the seediest, gayest exploitation film ever made. It’s entrancing in its fetishistic “dirrtiness.” After watching it again fully equipped with all-girl showers, misplaced Easter Bunnies, mud baths, and break dancing, don’t you kinda wish LaChapelle directed Million Dollar Baby instead?
17. New Order - “True Faith” - dir. Philippe Decouflé
New Order was one of the first bands to truly embrace the possibilities of the music video, and while their video for “Bizarre Love Triangle” is probably more fascinating, I’ve always been drawn to “True Faith,” which mixes concert footage of the band with cartoonish characters moving to the beat of the song (one of them looks frighteningly like the bald, painted man in the beginning of Jarman’s Sebastiane). Live footage can tend to be rather dull, but the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality manage to work well here. Or maybe I just chose this so as not to be too obvious.
18. Grace Jones - “Slave to the Rhythm” - dir. Richard Hunt
One would think that a Grace Jones video that didn’t feature her prominently would be an utter failure, but not here. Jones is represented here as robot, model, photograph, seldom actually making body movements. Instead, “Slave to the Rhythm” is a surrealist, sometimes Buster Keaton-esque depiction of race, both comical and visually arresting. Ms. Jones never explored the world of music video as much as we all know she should, but “Slave to the Rhythm” is a fine example of the extension of Jones’ talent and artistry.
19. Soundgarden - “Black Hole Sun” - dir. Howard Greenhalgh
I must admit that most of my video reference comes from the mid-90s, so whether Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” deserved to be one of the twenty, I can’t say objectively… yet it remains one of the more haunting videos for me as a youth, a morbid, frightening denunciation of suburbia. Looking at it now, I fucking get it; in fact, I got it before rewatching it. However, the images of this video (along with Anton Corbijn’s video for Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”) will probably never leave me. You prepared for the rapture, right?
20. The Knife - “Pass This On” - dir. Johan Renck
Also known as the only video from the Swedish brother-and-sister duo where they actually appear. Being camera shy has never necessitated shitty videos; see Aphex Twin and Daft Punk for examples. The band’s video for “Heartbeats” is magnificent, but there’s a strange, haunting beauty to “Pass This On,” in which Swedish female impersonator Rickard Engfors (who looks like Hedwig, Juliette Lewis, and Rachel Griffiths all in one) sings the song in front of a curious bunch of cafeteria folk. There’s palpable tension which is wholly mysterious and such a satisfying break of that tension. Absolutely dazzling and the best thing I could think of to end the list.
Other videos worth mentioning, albeit briefly:
Anything Devo ever made. I couldn't chose just one, so do a search on your own via YouTube and witness their brilliance in motion.
Robert Palmer - "Addicted to Love" [if only for scaring me as a child and thrilling me as an adult, his “backup band” looks like the sort of ladies I’d imagine rocking out to Kraftwerk]
Killdozer - "King of Sex" - dir. Richard Kern [easily Kern's finest video, a sleaze-fest with topless girls, Nick Zedd in drag, and blow jobs. Naturally YouTube took the video down, I'll post a link if I ever find another]
If you want to question your sexuality, no matter what it is, or perhaps even your sanity, I'd advise you to check out this video. It's a secret, but don't worry, it's safe for work viewing.
And, really, special mention should go out to David Bowie, Trent Reznor, Fatboy Slim, Missy Elliott, Daft Punk, Portishead, The Eurythmics, Nick Cave, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Madonna, and even Marilyn Manson for continuously making interesting videos, whether "good" or not, throughout their careers.