By Marco den Ouden
“Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old.” – Marshall McLuhan
When Marshall McLuhan wrote that in his 1967 collaborative book, The Medium is the Massage, he was living in the age of television. He noted that critics of television “insist on regarding television as merely a degraded form of print technology”.
How does this apply to music? To song? Radio is an aural medium. For most people, music was something you heard on the radio, often in the background. For the most part, the rhythm, the beat, the melody, was the most important thing. The lyrics were often lost in the shuffle. And in many cases, the words were not always decipherable anyways.
Music was Muzak®. It was when I started playing the Readers Recommend game that I really got the importance of the lyrics, the wide variety of topics, the nuances, the ability of popular music to convey a message, or to entertain beyond just melody, beat and rhythm.
In 1981, three things happened to change the music industry. An all-music pay TV station, MTV, was launched, spawning the creation of many different music videos. Former Monkee Michael Nesmith, started a revolution in pop music with the release of Elephant Parts, “a collection of comedy skits and music videos”. And the Grammy Awards introduced a new category, Video of the Year, which Nesmith won. In 1984, the category was changed to Best Video, Short Form, which evolved into a variety of categories.
Melding music and video, of course, had long been popular, but these three events in 1981 gave the idea a renaissance.
Indeed, movies had blended video and music since music tracks were played live for the old silent movies. Often a live performance by a popular band in film was our first peek at what would become the music video. A powerful example is our first video, Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra performing Jungle Rhumba from the 1949 film, Neptune’s Daughter.
Walt Disney was a big fan of blending video with music, his Fantasia, perhaps, being the best example. But his early cartoons, indeed, most early cartoons, featured little dialogue, just action put to music. Our second music video has the outrageous Squirrel Nut Zippers spoofing the old B&W cartoons with the Ghost of Stephen Foster.
How does video enhance the impact of music? As our first example shows, it can give us the feel of a live performance of the band. And as in our second, it can tell a story, a story that can be poignant, adventurous, or just plain funny. But they add a dimension that increases the pleasure of listening to the music alone.
Our third pick is from a contemporary band, The Killers who tell us A Dustland Fairytale. It is the reminiscence of a man recently released from jail for killing someone in his youth in a fight. He remembers the woman he was in love with and regrets screwing his life up. It ends with him reconnecting with his old flame, both now much older. Tragic. Moving. Powerful. It’s all there in the lyrics, but although I had heard the song before, I never connected the dots. Did you?
Sometimes a music video just captures an ambience, a mood. Although high tech is often a feature of modern music videos, low tech can do the job as well, sometimes even better. Bob Dylan’s When the Deal Goes Down was shot as found video, old home movies, a bit shaky, a bit grainy, sometimes out of focus, but capturing memories of the love of his life. Directed by Academy Award-winning director Bennett Miller with Scarlett Johanssen playing Dylan’s woman, the combination of song and video is lush, nostalgic and absolutely romantic. “I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true and I'll be with you when the deal goes down.”
Sometimes videos are political or offer social commentary. I was particularly moved by Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train. As nominator barbryn notes, the 1993 single is “a powerful song about lost and runaway children – though that's not really there in the lyrics. Many of the children featured in the video were found as a result of its reach.” The video is interspersed with photos identifying missing children. Wikipedia notes three versions were released in America featuring 36 missing children. As result, 26 of them were found, though not all with happy endings. Some were found murdered and some had escaped abusive relationships. Still the results tell us something about the impact of the music video as a medium.
Sometimes the message isn’t political or social but deeply personal. Several in this category were suggested. The next music video on our list is a personal declaration of emancipation from the goody two-shoes image she cultivated as a Disney icon. Miley Cyrus’s Can’t Be Tamed shows her as a caged wild bird. Nominator EnglishOutlaw comments: “The visuals of a caged bird breaking free aren't exactly a subtle hint at not wanted to be controlled by the mouse-eared ones, are they?”
One of the things that struck me reviewing all the 500 videos nominated was the variety of techniques used. Puppets, Barbie dolls, etc. In animation alone, there were many styles and types, including claymation, old style cartoons, Monty Pythonesque cartoons, minimalist cartoons and some that combined live action with cartoons. Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight pays homage to Georges Méliès’ classic 1902 film, A Trip To The Moon. You know, the one with a rocket crashing into the eye of the man in the moon. Clever and entertaining.
The amount of money spent on producing music videos is staggering and our next offering is the one of the most expensive music videos ever produced at $1,500,000. And it is only number 26 on the list of most expensive music videos! November Rain by Guns N’ Roses is based on the short story Without You by Del James. It is a love story of sorts starting with a wedding of a rock star (played by Axl Rose and his then girlfriend Stephanie Seymour), and ending with the funeral of his bride who has committed suicide. It’s a song of love and anguish.
Another popular staple of music videos is dancing. And sometimes the dancing is so outstanding as to boggle the mind. Sia’s Chandelier is a song of desperation and despair about someone fighting the demon of alcoholism. Alcoholism, like all drug addictions, is an escape from pain, an escape from a life one finds meaningless.
There is such power in the lines: “And I'm holding on for dear life, won't look down won't open my eyes, Keep my glass full until morning light, 'cause I'm just holding on for tonight.”
When I first saw the music video for Chandelier, I was blown away by its brilliance. Eleven-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler captures the manic/depressive character that Sia sings about perfectly with her wild movements and eye-popping facial expressions. This video is absolutely stunning, and not surprisingly, has been viewed on YouTube over two billion times.
The internet age brought a whole new impetus behind music videos. Now amateurs could produce their own videos and upload them to YouTube. Justin Bieber got his start with YouTube videos. And sometimes YouTube videos promote songs that don’t stand on their own nearly as well as they do with the video. In fact, the video outshines the music.
One group that was moderately successful in their own right, accelerated their career with elaborate staged videos. Videos that didn’t really have much to do with the song, but which were so intricately designed and conceived that they dazzled with their wizardry. OK Go has won awards for their videos and several were nominated. But the one I found most impressive is The One Moment. The video was shot in 4.2 seconds, one shot panning from set to set with exploding paintballs, bullets piercing paint canisters and on two occasions, riffling through a series of still photographs like you used to do with stick figures in the margin of a notebook. The actual music video slows this down to a perfectly timed piece that includes the riffled pages showing the singer in lip sync with the music. It blew me away when I first saw it and still blows me away today. Mind-boggling.
That’s 10 songs and I’ll round out the baker’s dozen with three extras from the 13 additional videos I considered for this list. Not an easy task as all are brilliant in their own way.
Number 11 on my list is Beth Hart with Bang Bang Boom Boom. I just love the stylish way it is filmed and I love her voice. Has a 30s or 40s gangster style but shot in very clean high definition video.
The last two are from further afield – one from Mongolia – The Hu Band with Wolf Totem. The song starts with a Mongol horde driving up on Harleys. And they sing in a fabulous basso chant accompanied by traditional instruments. Riveting.
And for a closer, something light and quirky. I love J-pop but it is usually associated with girl groups. This video features a group of men in business suits doing some sort of odd duck walk through the streets of Tokyo. They pick up stragglers along the way and cute Japanese girls in short skirts as well. They end up singing with a huge crowd behind them. World Order singing Have a Nice Day. Light. Fun. Quirky.
The Awe-Inspiring, Eye-Popping A-List Playlist:
Jungle Rhumba – Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra
The Ghost of Stephen Foster – Squirrel Nut Zippers
A Dustland Fairytale – The Killers
When the Deal Goes Down – Bob Dylan
Runaway Train – Soul Asylum
Can’t Be Tamed – Miley Cyrus
Tonight, Tonight – Smashing Pumpkins
November Rain – Guns N’ Roses
Chandelier – Sia
The One Moment – OK Go
Bang Bang Boom Boom – Beth Hart
Wolf Totem – The Hu Band
Have a Nice Day – World Order
The Mind-Boggling, B-List Playlist:
Somebody That I Used to Know - Gotye with Kimbra – great song and an intriguing video of the singers blending in with the wallpaper.
Dance Me to the End of Love - Leonard Cohen – romantic and charming.
Mustang Ranch - Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears – hilarious cartoon with a band dropping by Nevada’s notorious house of ill repute looking for someone to “glaze my ham”.
The Road to Hell - Chris Rea – nice closeups of Chris singing and playing guitar interspersed with fast motion speeded-up video of highway traffic.
Crazy - Aerosmith – two gals skip school to live on the wild side while listening to Aerosmith on their car radio.
The Big Moon - Silent Movie Susie – a tale of a veterinarian whose boyfriend cheats on her leaving her lonely. Done with Barbie and similar dolls, including her bf cheating on her, and spending time with her vibrator. Most amusing.
Hold Up - Beyoncé – she is ticked with her boyfriend and goes on a destructive rampage with a baseball bat.
Cloudbusting - Kate Bush – a short movie to music tells the sort-of story of Wilhelm Reich and his rain-making machine. Stars Donald Sutherland as Reich.
Welcome Home - Anderson .Paak – directed by Spike Jonze as an ad for Apple Homepad. The video features FKA Twigs as the girl who comes home and is entertained by Siri – letting her imagination run wild.
Nikita - Elton John – it’s about him falling for an East German border guard before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who knew?
In the Air Tonight - Phil Collins – just an excerpt done as an ad for Cadbury Chocolate. This will make you laugh, guaranteed.
All the Things She Said - t.A.T.u. – Russian girl group sings about lesbianism to video of two girls caught on the other side of a fence and watched by a curious and disapproving crowd.
It’s Oh So Quiet - Bjork – there is a certain charm about Bjork and about this song in particular which the video captures well.
Sleep Alone - Two Door Cinema Club – about half-way through the video the guy’s bed becomes a magic carpet and takes him on a wild ride.
Free As A Bird - The Beatles – a bird’s eye view flight around Liverpool captures the Beatles career in random images. There are references to dozens of Beatles songs throughout.
Singing in the Rain - Gene Kelly – the famous clip from the famous movie. Marvellous.
The Story of O.J. - Jay-Z - 30s style cartoon style illuminates the many faces of racism.
Lazarus - David Bowie – this ethereal video was produced not long before Bowie’s death and seems to be a premonition of his passing. His cancer may have inspired the video.
It’s Not My Time - 3 Doors Down – singer becomes a hero, running to save the life of a woman.
Eighties - Killing Joke – singer at a podium portraying a politician as he rants about the 1980s.
Guru’s Wildcard Picks:
I was surprised nothing from Michael Nesmith's Elephant Parts was nominated so let's have Cruisin' as my first choice:
And here’s Jumpin' Jive by Cab Calloway with dancers The Nicholas Brothers. I love Calloway and the dancers are amazing.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: The gift of sound and vision: songs enhanced by impressive videos. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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