Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Meditations: Childhood Innocence in the Music Video Era

Christmas is a time to reflect on authenticity and obligation, especially when it comes to issues of maturity and disillusionment. It's an inescapable question... it's safe to say that anyone who knows the experience of the Christian holiday also knows how much it changes when you enter adulthood. Santa Clause leads the way for a loss of innocence, and over the course of a few landmark years, we stop seeing Christmas as a singular, mystical time and start to see it as a confusing mix of familial love and troublesome economic and social obligation. If any of you are like me, you probably spend a large part of the holiday searching within yourself for that excited, innocent child who could just enjoy the bright colors and ritualistic songs, and who could just indulge in attention and wish-fulfillment.

So here I am, looking into pop culture for some statements on the shifting winds of innocence and disillusionment. Interestingly, I've found the most salient themes during my diversion into the world of music video.

Sigur Ros's recent music video for the song Hoppipolla is a great example. Before you even think about the social statement it makes, try just watching it and feeling the spirit of the piece. It's simple and beautiful and thematically cryptic, but it represents something spontaneous and touching. It's a brilliant piece of short-form cinema, crafted around an excellent song.

Like I said, thematically cryptic: one of the beautiful aspects of this video is that it doesn't seem to be purveying a judgment or advocating any reform. If anything, it's an invitation to the viewer to imagine an entire life lived as a child, or at the very least, a final return to the joys of childhood at the twilight of old age.

Thus, there's something in this video calling us out of the severity of middle age, showing us the triumph of experience extracted from the prisons of ambition and self-consciousness. It's even making me ashamed to be writing about it this way... this essay is such a trite rationalization of a video that amounts to a siren's song of spontaneity and humanity. I have to write about the video, when I'd rather be creating it, or (better yet) simply living it.

But it leads me to consider another video that makes a complex statement on maturity and self-seriousness, but from a different direction. Take a look at B.I.G.'s video for Sky's the Limit:

Directed, of course, by the indomitable Spike Jones, it takes a simple casting quirk and turns it into a strange experience with traces of a complex statement on maturity within a music genre. Jonze's deadpan strangeness gives the video a different flavor than the Sigur Ros piece, and (as appropriate to the music) it's a less beautiful and more conflicted piece.

Jonze manages to bring a sense of tension to this video that makes it hard to read as message-bearing communication. We often envision rap as a posturing, inflationary cultural complex, proud but fraught with negativity. Granted, I'm speaking as a pretentious indie kid, the demographic that Jonze's videos normally appeal to, rather than as a street kid, the demographic that Biggie's music targets. Still, the very fact that Jonze directed this video... such a departure from his other source material, like Weezer and Fatboy Slim... opens up this contradiction in the first place.

Sky's the Limit is saying that beneath rap's posturing, there's something childlike. You can read this as a compliment or as a critique... are these children acting out this scenario because hip-hop is playful and spontaneous? This is a natural reading if you consider the tone of the music, which is generally reassuring. After all, [the] Sky is the limit and you know that you can have what you want, be what you want. Then again, if it makes you uncomfortable to see children in big bling, buying entirely into a decadent lifestyle of fast cars and easy women, you might see something different. Maybe the kids represent the immaturity of the rap scene, which (arguably) has spent the last ten years replacing defiance and strength of character with glamour and self-praise.

So is it about finding the past within the present? Or is it about losing the past through a painful process of disillusionment? It's hard to say... and that's what makes it a great video. Spike Jonze knows ambiguity, perhaps more than any other short-form director, and he's fully harnessed it here.

Whether you're grasping at the past or interrogating the present, whether you're searching for the sublime or for the naivety of your youth, this Christmas is probably a time to think about who you were and who you're becoming. These music videos offer one small take on an enormous question that we all have to keep asking... even knowing that we probably won't be finding an answer any time soon.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Music Video: A History of Absolute Essentials

I've been doing a lot of research on music videos lately. It's related to my master's thesis, but not in any direct line of correlated logic. Instead, it's become a little personal mission and obsession, because it's been a fascinating exercise, and because the first thing you have to do, when you're becoming a specialist in something, is to immerse yourself in that thing.

So here's what I've done: I hunted down all the recent(ish) "Top 100 Greatest Music Videos" lists I could find, all from authoritative sources in the video-music industry. I found ones from VH1 (2001), MTV (1999), Slant Magazine (2003), Pitchfork (2006) and Stylus Magazine (2007). I basically recorded every video that appears on any of these lists, and correlated the data about their places on the respective lists. I also gave them all cumulative scores, based on their positions in these lists. It provides a good cross-section of influence, and it has proven a massively interesting exercise.

I'll do a couple posts on my findings, but right now I just wanted to sum up some of the results.

By far the most highly-decorated video is A-Ha's masterpiece Take On Me. It came in within the top 10 videos on three lists (Slant, Stylus, and VH1) and within the top 20 on the fourth (MTV), and it was also recognized by Pitchfork, though Pitchfork didn't give its videos explicit rankings.

Don't tell me this is a surprise. The video was insanely advanced for its day, using the live-action/animation mix, and it combines all the most important aspects of the medium. In a sense, it represents the whole music video medium: it includes a loosely-defined plot, a highly stylized visual environment, and some solid performance footage. It's also a storyline to compete in any forum of short films, although, since it's created through the lens of pop music, it doesn't have the subtlety of the more experimental pieces.

Video number 2: Michael Jackson's Thriller. Also not a surprise... it rivals Take On Me in narrative and performance, and what it lacks in stylization, it makes up for with insane Jackson dance sequences. The walking dead... can you feel it? A world in Jacko's dance trance, unable to stop the rhythm flooding the barricades of our consciousness.

Others among those highly-decorated videos: Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, The Beastie Boys' Sabotage, REM's Losing My Religion, and Dre's Nuthin' But a G Thang. Before I took VH1's list into account, this last video... a bit of a misogynistic drunken blunder of a clip... was actually number 3 on the list. I guess it had a hell of an influence on the youth of the 90's. Otherwise, it's hella hard to figure out how it would have beaten Pearl Jam's Jeremy.

Most decorated artist? This one wasn't even a contest. Only one person could beat out Michael Jackson (#2) and Bjork (#3) for highest number of awesome videos on countdowns, and this person was Madonna Louise Ciccone Ritchie, the infamous and unbeatable queen of pop for the last thirty years. Never mind that her highest-rated video didn't come in until #11 (Like a Prayer)... she had a total of fifteen videos on the lists, most of them on more than one. Fifteen videos in four lists? Do the math. That's a lot of noteworthy music videos.

It helped that some people (VH1) liked Madonna's older stuff, like Vogue and Material Girl, whereas others (Stylus) liked her newer stuff, like Ray of Light and Frozen. I remember a surprising number of these videos myself, and I can definitely get behind her as the top video-producing musician in the history of the medium. She and her directors are goddamn geniuses.

And highest-rated director? Barron definitely had the highest average score per video (having produced Take On Me and Billie Jean, both in the cumulative top 10), but with his fourteen placements between the four lists, he couldn't possibly beat Spike Jonze, who had thirteen videos in the four lists (22 placements, one top-ten, two more top-twenties). Jonze has directed Sabotage, two award-winning Bjork videos, and two groundbreaking Fatboy Slim videos. His name will be forever inscribed upon the music video universe.

So before I write anything else on music videos, go -- go watch these award-winners, and rediscover the MTV of our collective youth, before reality shows and TRL, when music video was a respectable medium with a forum on broadcast television. I don't miss the early 90's, but there are some things I wouldn't mind making a comeback.