Monthly music video roundup! I bet it sounds like this is something I do regularly, doesn't it? Well, it isn't, and I doubt it will ever happen again.
As a man who did a thesis on music videos, I was excited to find that November 2009 was a month of buzz about some new work in the field... specifically, there are three new videos creating buzz, and I'm pretty impressed with them. They are, in no particular order, Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, Rihanna's Russian Roulette, and The Flaming Lips' Watching the Planets (warning: definitely definitely NSFW).
I give at least one award to every competitor. Here they are.
The winner for MOST EXPLOSIVE TREATMENT OF A FAIRLY SIMPLE IDEA:
Lady Gaga's Bad Romance
This award goes to the video that takes a story that can be summed up in one sentence ("I'm drugged and abducted, sold for sex, and turn out to be too much for my buyer to handle") and makes it into a platform for epic deconstruction of fashion, sexuality, and the body, among a number of other things. And I have to hand it to Gaga... nobody does "explosive" quite like she does. Each successive image in this video is striking, from the erotic to the disturbing, and the central themes -- fashion, spectacle, and subliminal violence -- hold them all together.
The winner for MOST SUBVERSIVE USE OF GENITALIA:
The Flaming Lips' Watching the Planets
The Flaming Lips' use of nudity has come up a lot in the buzz, but that's definitely not the most harrowing part of this video, which is so in-your-face that it's almost gruesome. The most intense part of the video is the main "prop," with its yonic orifice, and the general implication of the narrative, which portrays a reverse birthing of that lead singer guy. This is an idea worthy of Cronenberg (in fact, I'm gonna watch the Brood some time this week! Maybe I'll expand on this blog post)... we may use the womb as an image of warmth and comfort at times, but I think we all ultimately cringe at the idea of being forced back into it. There's a lot of anxiety buried under this music video concept, and I think it makes for one of the scarier images of the year, an image of profound unbeing, as the gift of life is revoked.
The winner for BEST DAMN VIDEO, DAMMIT:
Rihanna's Russian Roulette
I think Rihanna really gets what makes a good music video. You don't have time to tell an elaborate story, or make a nuanced political statement... you may be able to challenge some authoritative ideas (Like a Prayer), or evoke some powerful emotions (Closer), but what a good video comes down to is the striking power of a cinematic image. The images in Russian Roulette strike all the right chords... they're vastly suggestive without being too complex, hiding a narrative behind each composition, but never frustrating us with the lack of further exposition. They're evocative, rather than being "symbolic" per se (over-reliance on symbolism may be an issue in videos such as Estranged, although I absolutely love it anyway).
Most importantly, Rihanna's images are mysterious and beautiful and powerful, reiterating the themes of the song: frustration, lack of control, and the desperation and anxiety of living on the edge of a knife.
I like Rihanna's video the best, but as you can see from the three worthy contenders above, the music video is absolutely a living art form. It's an art form that's designed to create buzz, and as buzz becomes a more powerful force (via the blogosphere, YouTube, etc), I think the music video will undergo some serious development and revolution. Blogs like Motionographer and Shape + Colour are providing the buzz required for new creators to break into the traditionally corporate genre, and a lot of these young directors seem to be crowding onto Vimeo, where authorship is strongly emphasized.
One thing I notice about these three videos is that none of them has a "performance" section that's broken away from the main narrative/conceptual footage. This is a major tradition among video direction... even apart from videos that are completely performance-based (Bjork's Big Time Sensuality), we find performance sections even in heavily narrative pieces like November Rain, Janie's Got a Gun, and... uhhh... Behind These Hazel Eyes. Is it because the live performance aspect of music-making is being deemphasized, as remix culture and audio post-production take stronger roles in the creative process?
I don't know. I just know the art form seems to be continuing to blossom, and I continue to be excited about it.