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.

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