Thursday, September 10, 2009

VJ For A Day(The Lost Art Of The Music Video)

VJ For A Day (The Lost Art Of The Music Video)
When I was born music videos already existed and I assumed they would be around forever. When MTV realized there was more money to be made with “reality” based programming they marginalized the Music right out Television. What was the long standing pejorative of serious minded film critics, teachers, and the type of nay saying adults liable to blown out of a window by a suddenly appearing Twisted Sister, the "music video" and "Mtv style" is now a dead language, gone the way of poetry and the dodo bird. Now that we have a little historical distance, we can look back at a small renaissance in experimental film, that has yielded up directors like Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Tarsem Singh, Sophie Muller, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry as well as guys like Micheal Bay, Hype Williams, Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and Joseph Kahn (Torque and more disturbingly the upcoming adaptation of William Gibson’s classic Nueromancer…). So movies as a whole have taken a few steps forward and a few steps back with this mixed bag of cinematic auteurs in waiting, but I was only bringing them up as a bridge to a past which is no longer accessible. They will remain, but the videos, like Celine Dion's "heart", shall go on.Even the scenes of Beavis and Butthead mocking music videos have been cut from their DVD releases (for various copy right reasons), and though it was not exactly the high water mark of criticism, it was at least some possibilty that vidoes might be preserved as a cultural signifier. There is real possibility that kids born today will grow up in a world were only BET still shows complete videos, and those they show are not worth watching. For better or worse Generations X and Y (or is it Z now?), have had their sensibilities for images increased, speed up and fragmented by twin blasts of music videos and commercials. But since the prospect of seriously picking out our favorite commercials makes me want to put a gun in my mouth, let’s take a look back and some of our/my (really just mine) favorite music videos. Yes videos are products of Record industry marketing but isn't all of pop culture, some manifestation of market forces? Instead of feeling caged in by an artificial history or lamenting as so many critics(who never watched videos anyway) have, we should try to find and focus on the "real" in the machine; the sincere, the political, and aesthetically daring which connects all peoples to all forms of art. I’ve collected a few of those I think are the best and some the worst which deserve a special kind of merit and mention. It would have been easy to make this just a retrospective of the best (all the vidoes of Michel Gondry), or the most important, but I wanted to avoid a VH1 special too.If Ive left out a favorite of yours I apologize, but this will not be the last music video related post, so be sure to put anything in my suggestion box, because for future posts, which Ive already started like Music Vidoes as Politics or Music Video Vs. (where I’ll pick two videos on a similar theme and make them critically square off like a monkey knife fight to the death) I will need all the contributions and refreshers I can get. Don't be shy. Music videos are a cultural island in the adolescence and childhoods of some, but Ive been haunted by them wherever I go. My first girlfriend in college was an extra as one of “the mud people” in the Smashing Pumpkins “Zero” video and plenty of my friends have shot unofficial videos of songs by their favorite bands for their own film projects, like this one my good friend John Duarte shot as an unofficial Death Cab For Cutie video
(Expo 86:, where I chase a friend of mine down a hallway briefly. This lost sub-cinematic genre called the music video may have to be recounted to your grandchildren one day (who will no doubt look at you as if you have tentacles coming out of your ears, as you prattle on about the good old days when men wore eyeliner, women “dropped it like it was hot”, there was some serious metaphysical debate about the spatial relations between "the windows" and "the walls" and the new songs always came accompanied by a little movie), so you better take notes. Without further delay I present... Joe Sylver’s Top 20 Music Video Countdown

0. Thriller by Micheal Jackson
Obligatory I know. I just said this WOULDNT be a VH1 special, but I would be lying if I didn't include this in some form. I inherited a love of Jackson’s music from my mother who was a rabid J5 fa. It’s so expected for any music video list to include this I almost decided not to, but 0 exists as a place holder for a reason in mathematics, and at the 0 music video capacity above all others, yet forever separate is the late MJ’s immortal/undead classic.

1. Tonight Tonight By The Smashing Pumpkins
My favorite music video of all time. I like it better than “Trip To The Moon” on which it was based, the birth of cinema as we know it (not to mention modern scif-fi and fantasy). This video is a perfect marriage of music and imagery, each complimenting each other so well, it's easy to believe the Pumpkins just recorded a normal day in their lives. Ex Pumpkin's Bass player D’arcy apparently liked the sets so much she had them taken to her barn where they sit to this day. If she sold tickets I would go and visit.

2. Bastards Of Young by The Replacements
My second favorite video of all time. The Replacements have a song called “Seen Your Video”, which repeats the lines “seen your video, that phony rock and roll we don’t wanna know” over and over again after a two minute instrumental build up, so it’s safe to say they didn’t like videos. They had to make one when they switched form an indie label to a major in the late 80’s and their response was to make this anti-video, where a static camera shows us a speaker and a foot taping. Though intended as a middle finger to the label who had just singed their checks, the video ends up being very appropriate to the song itself, which is about dashed hopes, squandered dreams, and the rock star and hippie "dreaming is believing" carrot dangled in front of an entire generation to keep them pulling the wagon of quick spend capitalism through the dung hill of lowered expectations. “Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled, hippies picking cotton are waiting to be forgotten” sings Westerberg. The only false note is toward the end when the foot moves dramatically (this is what keeps the video out of the number one spot), but it’s an enjoyable moment for a band that would never make it big, despite being hailed for a moment by critics as “the Beatles of Minneapolis.”

3. Take On Me By Aha
I still actually get excited when I see this video, it’s so care free and quintessentially 80’s its hard to resist it’s charms. Take On Me's real life/animated fantasy combination would later become a standard video fare, but here it was still fresh, naive, and even sweet. For all of the common cynicism of today its incredibly easy to fall right into the video's and the ridiculously catchy song’s sugary traps:
4. Karma Police by Radiohead
There was a time when videos were short films with great soundtracks. Few videos express this sentiment more clearly than Karma Police, although Radiohead’s Just( does a pretty good job too.

5. What They Do by The Roots
The Roots “What They Do” is not the only rap video about “the sad state of hip hop” but it is the most effective. While searching for the video I discovered that Universal Music Group, has removed the captions from their “Official” version of the video. Many fans noticed the alterations, if you read the comment talk beneath the vid. It really does the video look like just another rap vid, but don't take my word for it, compare for yourself. The Universal Music Group inc. version:

6. Watermark by The Weakerthans
The Weakerthans are too smart and literate for the “pop punk” and “emo” crowds that took some of their contemporaries to stardom, and though I wish the band success, this little-indie-that-could from Winnipeg Canada is probably better off for their obscurity. They sing songs about talking cats and Artic explorers having conversations with Foucault, and seek to create more melodic modern versions of the political labor and union songs that inspire them. This video has some of the best use of split screens I’ve ever seen, which is a common trope in videos but rarely capitalized on.

7. Thirty Three By The Smashing Pumpkins
What is important to know about this video is that it was basically a flip book; after hundreds upon hundreds of photographs were taken they were layered one after the other to achieve the effect of motion. I know what your thinking "Isn’t that what movies already are and can’t film already achieve such a disjointed effect by removing frames?" If film can do this I’ve never seen it done this well, and considering several of the vignettes seem directly inspired by Dian Arbus (one of America’s greatest photographers), I think the photogenic quality does add something different. YouTube is the wrong format to really get an idea of the difference, but it’s the best I got at the moment.

8. 500 Miles by The Proclaimers
This is not a special effect or mushroom flashback, The Proclaimers were twins. This video is the Passion of Joan of Arc of 90’s pop nostalgia, the story is literally written all over their faces.

9. Province by TV on The Radio
Ac/Dc has a great song called “Shot Down In Flames”, about just that, hitting on and striking out with girls. This song "Province" which features David Bowie on backing vocals (a huge supporter of the then fledgling Brooklyn band). What’s as refreshing about TV On The Radio as their exploratory sound for a mostly black band in a very white male dominated world of “indie rock”(The Dear’s “Whites Only Party” highlights the subject in specifics), is their approach to videos which is surreal without being to serious and ironic without being soulless. “Province” is a simple video about the resilience and bravery it takes to make a romantic gesture and attempt an emotional connection in a cynical and sexually saturated world, “love is the province of the brave”, but even the brave have to get knocked down from time to time. If only life came with such lovely slow mo.

10. Virtual Insanity by Jamiroquai
Napoleon Dynamite might have ruined (because I hear it too much now) his “Canned Heat” but thankfully Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” still lives. My freinds and family will not let me wear a Jamiroquai hat outside the house, which I know I can bring back into style if just only given the chance. Also like Springstein’s “Born In The USA” and The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah” this is a pop song that will be remembered more for its hooks than it's sympathetic attempt at social commentary. “Ok Go” and there treadmills were suckers and hucksters, by comparison. Jamiroquai is the real deal, a man so cool the floor comes to him.

11. Around The World by Daft Punk
Around The World is not Michel Gondry’s best video, but it is my favorite of his amazing body of work. I had to resist the temptation to just make this a Gondry retrospective, as he is easily the finest film maker to rise out the music video world, whose videos are comparable in craft and excellence in general to his cinema. If you haven’t seen those videos rent, steal, beg, or borrow for a copy of his collection.

12. F.K.O.(Fuck Kelly Osborne) by Subtle
There are plenty of weird for wierd's sake animated videos, that bring together 2d, 3d, and cell shaded animations among others. It’s become the standard of quasi-experimental bands and those seeking indie cred to add some obscure imagery to their songs, but in the case of Subtle who fuse any genre or style they come across like a musical blob, it is a fitting and maybe the only way possible to manifest their hip-hop based artistic patchwork. Made by Norwiegen/Japanese animation collective SSSR (whove made three other vidoes for Subtle which make for a great avant garde short film if taken alltogether), this is a video that really rewards with multiple views. I should add, the name of this track is a weird play on parody of the likes of Eminem a white rapper (like Subtle’s lead MC and vocalist DoseOne) who became famous for challenging the authenticity of teen pop stars like Christina Aguilera. I don’t think Subtle really hates Ms. Osborne, so much as they hate hatters, or those who would rather attack those who can't or won't fight back. DoseOne cut his teeth in the battle rap circuits before moving onto his Dylan Thomas and Brian Eno inspired experimental works.

13. Don’t Come Around Here by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers
"Let them eat cake" takes on a whole new meaning. I know Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is going to be a disappointment because the most disturbing version of the tale has already been made into this video. Once upon a time Tom Petty gave me fucking nightmares growing up…true story…

14. Frontier Psychiatrist by The Avalanches
This video is the equivalent of turning through stations on a radio or flipping through channels on your TV, it literally gives visual aid to almost every word in the song. The images and the music have become perfectly intertwined, which is what videos aim to do really; sell the song. Austraillian dj's have created in "Frontier Psychiatrist" a head and vinyl scracthing mini masterpiece.

15. Man Eater by Hal And Oates
Every time Hal breaks the fourth wall an angel dies, but when Oates does it again the angel comes back to life, doing this my son, the balance has been kept since the dawn of time...

16. Put All Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See by Busta Rhymes
If anyone is responsible for the visual representation of hip-hop in the 90’s its director Hype Williams, whose fish eye lenses endeared Busta Rhymes to my fragile mind along with many others. Williams has made many terrible videos and feature length films. He’s made 12 videos this year alone, but with early Busta he was allowed to be at his most playful here parodying the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” recasting Busta as the African prince of Zemunda. Clad in neon war paint and running next to elephants who appear as if they could trample the camera at any second was the result. I’ll understand if nobody likes this video but me and some nostalgic rap fans. More for us.

17. What’s Up Fatlip by Fatlip
I’m not a huge fan of Spike Jonze’s videos , the Beastie Boys “Sabatodge” or Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” would be back ups if I had to pick others, but in the end I decided to go with the lesser seen, but equally funny (at least to me anyway) “What’s Up Fatlip?”, which to my knowledge was the first genuinely self-deprecating hip-hop song. Not merely confessional but bitterly self mocking in a genre where braggadocio is a pre-condition for success. Here as in the case of the Replacement’s “Bastards Of Young”, less is more. Its difficult to fathom how trully brave a move this song was, even if he banked on "novelty", Fatlip's career has continued to be rocky before, during, and since.

18. The Rain by Oran “Juice” Jones
The Rain is a stiff standard, but not particularly bad video until we come to the spoken word “break up” part of the song, which despite the protracted performance really is a part of the recorded song, and not merely staged for the video. I imagine this inspired R. Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet”; a “hip-hopera” that recounts the lives of several characters over 24 videos, to the exact same musical track but with dialog sung in the form of a play. Kelly’s saga is the closest the music video has come to producing something like “The Room”, but “The Rain” is an original and has no point existing point of reference. Best line, “You was with the Juice!”

19. What’s A Girl To Do by Bats For Lashes
A simple and well executed concept, that wouldn’t have looked like much on paper, but cleverly comes together here in England's Bats For Lashes (who I had the pleasure to watch recently in San Francisco, where I collectively drolled like so many others, over the lovely Pakastani/Brit Natasha Khan). This video is a great example of a minimal narrative which can still fascinate and engage a viewer, one not far off from Ok Go's viral hit with treadmills. It might look more amazing to me than most, because I don’t know how to ride a bike. What was I doing that was more important than crossing this childhood stepping stone of bike riding? Well watching videos of course.

20. All Is Full Of Love by Bjork
I had to decide between this and Chris Cunningham’s Come To Daddy ( sort of, the latter of which is the direct opposite of this video. This video has the now infamous robo -esbians, but it is also an extrodinarily precicise and fairly moving piece of video lyricism. It perfectly rounds out my video collection, as a "narrative" about machines experiencing emotion, how even the lowliest device can still become transcendent. This is the true alchemical meaning of turning "shit to gold" and its as important a skill to develop in life as it is a necessity for viewing and re-evaluating the music video. If perceived from the right angle, “all [really] is full love”.

1 comment:

Arvillah said...

You're forgetting "Hidden Place" by Bjork.

...and hows about taking down that music player, my friend...