If music videos arose to fill a gap left in the demise of the Hollywood musical, then perhaps the resurgence of the form we’re witnessing now is just a sign of the music video giving a little bit back. Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and Dancer in the Dark all feature the frenetic editing and motion necessiatated by the brevity of the music video form, which is a far cry from the more fluid, generous motions of the musicals of yore. More to the point, Dancer is nothing if not a misanthropic, feature-length remake of Spike Jonze’s clip for Björk’s “Its Oh So Quiet,” while Moulin Rouge is itself a series of refashioned music video pastiches of late Eighties/early Nineties chart toppers. As more and more directors make the jump from the short to long form with widely varying results (The Good: Jamie Thraves, Jonathan Glazer, The Mixed: Spike Jonze, and The Ugly: Jonas Ckerlund, Tarsem, Michel Gondry), expect to see more cross-pollination than ever before. If the long-form musical truly makes the comeback Chicago’s Oscar wins portend, it’ll be fascinating to see where both forms go next. Below is a sampling of videos noteworthy in some form or another. By no means comprehensive, but perhaps a look into work of the next generation of filmmakers.
R.E.M. “Bad Day”
R.E.M.’s been involved in innovative musical video productions since almost the beginning of the medium (and well before Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and the rest could even hold driver’s licenses); trying to imagine the landscape today without the 1991 Tarsem-directed clip for “Losing My Religion” is near impossible. Their latest is for a song that’s new in name only—“Bad Day” is the finished version of a 1984 warm-up to their signature track “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” and it couldn’t be more relevant given the whiff of Reaganism in the air these days. Befitting their status as elder statesmen of rock, the boys from Athens shed their sensitive diaristic side (witness the atrocious “At My Most Beautiful” video) and morph into the “Morning Team” for an unnamed television channel, miming reports on the economy and freak weather occurrences. With his pitch-perfect turn as anchorman Tod Allen, Michael Stipe offers a case study in possibilities for music video as a medium to showcase performance, though Bill Berry is sorely missed as Buck and Mills end up playing multiple, nearly indistinguishable roles. The video loses its shape near the end with the repetitive usage of a Matrix-like special effect, but the whole enterprise nicely avoids the didacticism that could have been pulled from a song so full of frustration and critique. Instead, the ebullience of the music paired with a sly concept ends up providing a strange ray of hope sorely lacking in today’s modern rock airwaves. It’s fitting—the title of the song is “Bad Day.”
OutKast “Hey Ya”
A triumph in which the best, most subversive pop single of the year is matched by a video that not only recognizes its cultural significance, but explicates it visually. OutKast has long been considered one of the most forward-looking groups in hip-hop, and “Hey Ya” destroys generic labels and makes strong stab towards ensconcing them as legends within the wider pop canon. What better forum to situate such an ambitious project than a British variety show complete with screaming young female fans of all races and retro-b&w studio cameras? The Beatles hubris is completely justified—when Andre 3000 and his backing band “The Love Below” (Johnny Vulture, Possum Jenkins, Dookie, Benjamin Andre, and singers “The Love Haters”—all played in inspired turns by Andre himself) kick off the song, he effectively completes the hip-hop invasion into white consciousness that’s been happening since the Eighties, and shows all the kids who really started the rock. The video seems to take the increasing intensity of the song as a challenge—every time it feels like it might settle down, it cuts: to a black family grooving in their Fifties-style living room, to a screaming fan being dragged off-stage, to an older white woman who ends up moved enough to get up and dance. The song’s already made its way into promo spots for teen-TV dramas, so it’s hitting on a cultural moment. There’s a good chance the video will do the same.
The White Stripes, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself”
Sofia Coppola must not be listening to naysayers who expressed reservations at the massive screen time in Lost in Translation devoted to Scarlett Johansson’s butt. This video for the Stripes’ Burt Bacharach cover is a silky black and white vision of a near- naked Kate Moss pole dancing, and nothing else. Sexy for what it’s worth, it should provide plenty of ammunition for those critics who acknowledge her as a filmmaking talent in the rough, but attack tendencies towards post-university navel-gazing, and fashion show aesthetics. Given her propensity for tracking her films with shoegazers past and present, I think her sensibilities might gel better with the Dusty Springfield version than this more rough and raw take. The only reason the pairing probably exists at all is to satiate some hipster wet dream brought up at an industry mixer and it’s not wholly unsuccessful at that. And given the current ubiquity of the husband/wife/brother/sister duo I’m glad for the chance to look at something else, even if it’s only this.
Britney Spears (w/Madonna) “Me Against the Music”
Taking shots at post-kiss Britney is about as hard as beating a one-armed man in a wood chopping contest, but when a song and accompanying video manage to completely embody all the myriad ills of current pop culture, note must be taken. It hurts right from the start—witness the foregrounding and lingering gaze cast on the shiny new vehicle Britney pops out of to enter the club. In seconds you’re forced to wonder: What the hell is she wearing, and who thought it would be a good idea to put her face on a soda lid? Were there fees involved in licensing all the moves copped from Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video? The appearance of fading Queen of Pop Madonna seems to signal less a passing of the torch than an attempt at career glomming, though it’s hard to tell who’s trying to leech off of whom. At the very least, it offers one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the year: “I’ve got something to show you” Madonna cries to Britney, as she takes her cane (signifying her status as Britney’s pimp, her age?) and slaps it right into her crotch. As the two chase each other in and out of the epileptic editing scheme through the back of some sort of ramshackle Thai sweatshop there’s at least hope for a salacious ending. That’s dashed by Madonna’s vaporization immediately pre-kiss, leaving Britney alone trying to express disappointment. Makes one long for the halcyon days when she was not a girl…not yet a woman.
Liz Phair, “Why Can’t I?”
Truth be told, I hated this song before I even heard it. Hated it every time it came on the radio, though tellingly I don’t ever remember myself reaching for the dial to switch it off. At the risk of alienating half our readership, I’ll come right out and say it: I’ve been converted, and maybe it’s because “Why Can’t I?” is actually not that bad, probably much better. It just took a great video to make me realize. In a move that should get culture-fascists the world over to raise their eyebrows in anger, Liz dons a CBGB’s t-shirt and outrageously pop-stars and struts her way through rock history, mimicking (mocking? skewering?) a series of classic album covers contained in a jukebox started in the short prologue. The coin-in-slot first image may be perhaps the most innocent (and subversively sexy) beginning possible for a music video—none is full of more hope or pop possibility, and the spot-on art direction of the album cover framings that follow bespeaks of hosts of music just as silly and disposable as this song that is revered and gobbled up in box-set form by the very audience that’s dismissing Liz v4.0 outright. A shame, really. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Stars, “Elevator Love Song”
Sadly, the video for the second-best pop song of the year nowhere near compares with the mastery shown in “Hey Ya.” A boy-girl duet with a built-in narrative that’s a complete winner—she’s hot for a rich girl, he’s hot for the rich girl, they both work a lot, elevator takes them home—one could imagine a beautifully compressed office-bound love story along the lines of Mike Mills’s “Bubble” spot for Volkswagen. Unfortunately, what we’re left with completely dispenses with this strong narrative framework (except for one shot of a building that might be the office in question) in favor of muddy imagery marred by effects that look produced with the finest of video toasting equipment circa 1987. Yes, the album is entitled Heart, but did that necessitate an animated version superimposed repeatedly throughout the clip? And if the song is called “Elevator Love Letter” why are we treated to endless shots of cars going through tunnels? Sadly, a completely wasted opportunity.
No Doubt, “It’s My Life”
It’s easy to dismiss No Doubt—they’re ubiquitous, more than a little silly, and have a host of not-so-great hit singles spanning their ten-year existence. Yet they feature a dangerous secret weapon, one that’s been lying mostly dormant underneath layers of juvenile girl poetry until now: Gwen Stefani. It sounds ridiculous, but give her a Talk Talk cover and a ridiculous imitation Chicago-style narrative to romp around in and this overly lipped blonde dye-job catapults into true pop princess-dom. Judging from her performance as a man-killing vamp put on trial and sent to the gas chamber, the casting agents for Chicago weren’t looking very hard. Where Renée Zellweger jostles from pinched to extra-pinched in her range of possible expressions, Gwen runs the gamut, and manages a mid-video long lingering stare right into the heart of the camera that seems almost preternatural in its forceful communion. The clip’s editing and structure are a little clunky, but mostly because it’s so enraptured with our femme fatale—it can’t keep its kino-eye off of her, and with good reason. If this video means anything in the trajectory of pop circa late 2003, it has to be Gwen’s (No D-who?) big winking “fuck you” to Britney and Xtina’s attempts at reinvention. They may be hooking up with Madonna, but “It’s My Life” is a makeover in the best of directions, and exists in a class by itself.
The Strokes, “12:51"
How did a bunch of guys who could look this bored in the laser-light show Tron sets of their latest video get to be so popular? It’s the perfect setting—the song is straight Cars down to the handclaps and palm-muted rhythm playing, so where else to put these so-called saviors of rock than in a digital update of the 1983 curiosity? It’s a shame that singer Julian Casablancas looks like he couldn’t care less about what he’s pretending to sing, about Tron, about the band—more energetic performances have been given in coma wards. I’ve often wondered how music video directors manage to get their “actors” to perform—on the one hand, they’re usually dealing with natural performers, but videos are more often intended to allow a band space to act out their musical personas than anything conceptual on the part of the director. In some cases you have musicians up to crossing the line for something a little more (Andre 3000, R.E.M.), but here all the Tron production design in the world can’t erase the simple fact of a video that’s nothing more than parsley on the pig.
Bubba Sparxxx “Deliverance”
Drawing its narrative inspiration from the Coen Brothers disaster O Brother Where Art Thou? rather than the more obvious, well…Deliverance, makes the video for Bubba’s new single feel at first like any another video constructed around a borrowed narrative of only tenuous relation to the song. By the time the clip is over, it seems more a conscious attempt to right the feature-length wrong done to the South that was OBWAT? Stripped of the Coens’ pretentious and silly narrative, the borrowed images and situations shine with a new, iconic power—Bubba in prison garb rapping about perceptions of southern, hillbilly whites alone probably offers more insight about the state of the South today than anything else on the current pop culture radar. Pair this socioeconomic snapshot with a Timbaland production as successful in its mad combinations as Tarantino’s Kill Bill (really—why shouldn’t clean acoustic guitars, dirty beats, insane synth stabs and a chain-gang chorus not be considered natural bedfellows?) and the choice of source material makes a sick kind of sense. In five short minutes, “Deliverance” captures, and ends up eclipsing everything O Brother Where Art Thou? failed to be in the course of 110.