The Art of Music Videos

No song released as a single is truly complete as a work of art without a complimentary music video. By primarily being a visual medium, they give artists a vast scope for imaginative and innovative opportunities, and this has been greatly exploited to an impressive degree throughout music history. And in an era within the music industry that relies so heavily on technology and globalisation to attract huge audiences, the release of a music video to accompany a musician’s single has never been more important. A controversial music video, with thought-provoking, or just down right provocative imagery can help rack up a serious amount of views and attention. The more publicity the better.

Unfortunately, this appears to have translated into a shallow competition within mainstream pop music, to concoct the most shocking, outrageous music video without the foundation of an intelligent message to underline it. Some music videos have even dared to take the form of miniature movies as artists have recruited talented directors to add a dash of Hollywood glamour and adrenaline. Some have produced more worthwhile results than others – Iggy Azalea’s ‘Black Widow’ effort, far too obviously inspired by Tarantino’s Kill Bill, is an ignominious example. Other artists simply use the visuals as a means of amplifying the message of the song, or create an evocative narrative to ensnare the emotions of the viewer.

Nearly every single released is guaranteed to have an anticipated music video, meaning their numbers are vast, even on Youtube alone. So with such an array of choice, is there anything truly memorable and meaningful amongst what is arguably lot of formulaic, generic noise? What are some of the most truly influential and spectacular, music videos of all time? Here are some of my favourites…

1. Break the Ice – Britney Spears

Release date: 12 March 2008

Directed by Robert Hales, the stylistic inspiration taken from Japanese anime is immediately evident. Britney’s secret agent persona in the Toxic music video was supposed to be the inspiration for the animated ass-kicking cartoon version of Brit in Break the Ice, with Britney allegedly coming up with the concept for the video herself. The lingering, seductive eye contact and fluid movements really make for an intoxicating watch, perfectly matching the lilting tone of Spears’ vocals – I can imagine myself getting hooked on a series based around the video. The story doesn’t scrimp on action either, with explosions, suspicious clones immersed in tanks and robots disguised as humans crammed into just over three minutes.

2. Afrika Shox – Leftfield

Release date: 1999

The depth to this Leftfield music video consistently blows me away. Director Chris Cunningham is renowned for his thoughtful, and often bizarre, work (he also directed Madonna’s ‘Frozen’ and Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’), and with this effort he has really excelled himself. Room for interpretation is liberally distributed to the viewer – we see the plight of a literally fragile individual as he navigates the cold, insular lines and pavements of a city. The cinematography is also subtly very stylish, with the sudden cuts, captured movements and angles matching both the beat of the song and the emotions being triggered in the audience.

3. Bad Romance – Lady Gaga

Release date: 10 November 2009

If you know me well personally, then you will have seen this one coming. But with over 600 million hits on Youtube, this one’s pretty hard to ignore. I still get chills when I hear that first “Ra-ra-ah ah AH!” and the camera cuts to those ominous ‘Monster’ coffins. Latex-clad creatures jerkily dancing in the ‘Bath Haus of Gaga’… the Lady herself as a futuristic sex slave kidnapped by supermodels, gyrating in front of a sadistic-looking Russian Mafia boss with a chinstrap… and a ‘death-by-flaming-bra’ as the conclusion? Love her or hate her, Gaga’s music videos are always a wild ride, with interesting concepts and unique visuals.

What a lot of people tend to misunderstand about Lady Gaga is that all of her outlandish outfits actually do have a meaning. They aren’t just for ‘shock-value’. Gaga’s razor-blade sunglasses, seen at the very start of the music video, are one such example. According to Gaga, the blades were appropriate for a portrayal of the strength that she sees in many women: “I wanted to design a pair for some of the toughest chicks and some of my girlfriends … they used to keep razor blades in the side of their mouths … That tough female spirit is something that I want to project. It’s meant to be, ‘This is my shield, this is my weapon, this is my inner sense of fame, this is my monster.”  Of the video’s message Gaga also explained that it attempts to depict “how the entertainment industry can, in a metaphorical way, simulate human trafficking – products being sold, the woman perceived as a commodity.” And who says Gaga isn’t a feminist?

4. Just – Radiohead 

Release date: 1995

Just what does the gentleman lying down on the pavement say at the end of the music video? This has been debated at length between fans. There is a considerable consensus that he’s simply pointing out to passers-by that by lying down, he can see the band Radiohead from this angle in a nearby apartment window. I would personally be a little disappointed if it was really that simple, but I guess anything spiritual or too intellectual would seem pretentious. Directed by Jamie Thraves, the video sparingly captures the band, instead focusing on the public’s interrogation of this individual gentleman.

5. All is Full of Love – Bjork  

Release date: 1997

Indeed, this isn’t just a music video or a song, it’s an experience. I still can’t believe this was released in 1997, it looks as though it could comfortably be released today and still have the same ground-breaking effect. The degree of detailed delicacy and well-paced build-up combine to culminate in a spine-chilling climax. The machines whirring and interacting, with sparks flaring and scattering, create such a startling atmosphere of purity and intimacy. These aren’t just the ‘lesbian love-robots’ that they appear to be on the surface – the message is one of over-whelming self-love and self-exploration. Notice how the robots look exactly the same, down to their facial expressions and movements? It’s no wonder that the video has won an impressive array of praise and awards.

6. Bad Girls – M.I.A

Release date: 2 February 2012

Shot in Morocco – apparently to avoid being arrested – and directed by Romain Gavras, Bad Girls sees the English rapper uniquely comment on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Women are shown driving (and taking part in drag races) while wearing the niqab, which is strictly forbidden, while men wearing kaffiyeh look on. M.I.A once again showcases her fearlessness for social commentary and stylish, swaggering visuals – the slow motion footage of a horse pounding desert sands, with sedans following suite is a particular personal favourite, along with a shot of M.I.A effortlessly filing her nails as she rides a car that’s coasting daringly on its side.

7. Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve 

Release date: 1997

Striding purposefully down a bustling London pavement is no picnic. But The Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft seems to manage it. The video is meant to be an homage to a Massive Attack music video famously containing one continuous shot, but Bittersweet Symphony is a piece of art in its own right. Ashcroft seems to be trying to tell us something directly, with his endless eye contact, the choice to sing straight towards the camera and his constant, unswerving tangent in the viewer’s direction. The end of the video is also meant to flow continuously into its ‘sequel’ – ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’.

8. What Goes Around …Comes Around – Justin Timberlake 

Release date: 9 February 2007

In a bid to use the talents of ‘real actors’ to his advantage, director Samuel Bayer (who also worked on Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) recruited actress Scarlett Johansson to play the mysterious, seductive love interest of ‘What Goes Around…”. Justin Timberlake doesn’t quite match up to ScarJo, but he proves that he’s got considerable acting chops in this nearly ten-minute mini-epic of an ill-fated romance. Dripping in bitterness and betrayal, despite Timberlake’s soft vocals, this track really strikes with venom. I don’t think J-T has topped this effort yet. And it’s a little melodramatic, but the fiery ending still breaks my heart a little bit.

9. Cold War – Janelle Monae 

Release date: 5 August 2010

‘Less is more’ is a grossly overused phrase, but ultimately it rings true for this Janelle Monae music video that stuns in its simplicity. Directed by Wendy Morgan, the whole video is a just close-up of her beautifully expressive features as she sings ‘Cold War’. According to an interview in Rap Up magazine, the tears that she eventually sheds towards the video’s conclusion were totally “spontaneous.” On another note, I’m still irritated that Monae is so slept on as an artist, when she’s so fantastically talented and unique, with a heart of gold to boot.

10. Take on Me – a-Ha 

Release date: 1985

You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t recognise this song or music video. It’s undeniably a classic, with the monochromatic, roughly animated sequences serving as a neat plot device – a miniature universe that our singing hero escapes from to pursue the wide-eyed female love interest. With its dramatic, emotive narrative, Take On Me has long since been a regularly exploited 80s pop culture reference.

11. Virtual Insanity – Jamiroquai  

Release date: 1996

If someone mentions the band Jamiroquai then this music video is more than likely to spring to mind. Frontman Jay Kay smoothly slides and glides around the set, in a fabulous oversized hat no less, as though the soles of his feat are made of liquid. The trick? Apparently it’s not the floor moving, as it appears to be, but the walls, according to director Jonathan Glazer.

12. Weapon of Choice  – Fatboy Slim 

Release date: 2000

Revered actor Christopher Walken, dancing like a lithe-limbed loon to shamelessly funky Fatboy Slim beats in a barren hotel lobby. What more could you want?

13. Single Ladies – Beyonce 

Release date: 13 October 2008

Kanye West was right (sorry Taylor). And this video, directed by Jake Nava and choreographed by Frank Gaston, is also a dazzling testament to the notion that Bey is always on beat. The concept is simple, three women, filtered in black and white, dancing to a repetitive but infectious Yonce hit, and a plain white studio background… but it works – the superstar’s confidence and energy really shines through, and the result is classy and timeless. “Mexican Breakfast”, a 1969 Bob Fosse routine, closely inspired Gaston’s choreography, along with chain-reaction ‘J-Setting’ dance moves that add a modern, urban twist. Nava was deliberate in his filming and editing choices, using a minimal amount of varying shots, thus creating the illusion of one continuous take.

15. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson 

There are so many MJ music videos that I could have easily included on this list – his dancing, and the stories created to compliment them are always enjoyable and awe-inspiring to watch, but Billie Jean is probably my favourite. I used to literally watch it over and over as a child, totally fascinated. The devil is in the detail; the way the pavement lights up with both chord and dance-step; the selective freezing of certain shots; Jackson’s apparently ‘charmed’ abilities; that leather outfit and bow-tie combo… Only Michael Jackson could get away with something so self-serving and unapologetically dramatic. And he seems to just vanish into the ether at the end.. Truly timeless.

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