The Offbeat Marquee #3: Music Videos

The Offbeat Marquee is the theater that will show just about anything. Columnist Jacob Calta unearths everything from forgotten Hollywood dramas to underground animation to the many oddball genre films from around the world.

In this third installment, he takes a look at a medium of incredible reach and creativity: the music video!

Introduction

“In my opinion, it has to be completely entertaining. And have a linear sense of continuity. I like having a beginning, a middle, and an ending, so you can follow a story, and not just be a collage of images. And sometimes that’s great too, it depends on what the director, as a visionary, what he sees.”

These were the words of one of America’s great musical icons. This interview with Michael Jackson was recorded in 1999 for Music Television. MTV. Fitting as Jackson was one of the pioneering artists who capitalized on the power of the music video with three videos for his world-conquering 1982 album, Thriller. Since then, music videos have become a near-essential part of how artists promote and explore their music.

Now with an introduction like that, I could:

  1. Explore the history of music videos
  2. Explore music video’s influence on film and television, and vice versa.
  3. See where music videos stand today

What I’ve decided on is a blend of 1 and 3 with a certain approach. Whether it’s a mini motion picture or a stylish mood piece, music videos captivate the mind through their blend of music and imagery. What I’ll do is take a look at a handful of music videos, and just explore what works about each one. I won’t do this in any sort of chronology, so be prepared to be whipped around a hell of a timeline.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (1987)

Here’s a video that was etched in my memory for quite some time. Directed by James Herbert for the alt rock band R.E.M., this video is, on paper, insanely simple. Noah Ray is a young skateboarder who is shown exploring a derelict barn with a dog. He messes around with the trash in the barn, and ultimately ends up doing tricks with his board while still inside.

But then you get to images like an old portrait with a rose (both looking like leftovers from a funeral), Ray drumming on a globe, and the concept of literally a boy and his dog (Ellison fans rejoice). Herbert has a firm hand on the apocalyptic, frantic nature of the song, and ensures it manifests itself in every facet of the short. On top of that, the pure desolation in the washed-out color scheme of the video amplifies the emotions of the song. And appropriately, amidst the destruction, we leave Ray doing what he does best; skateboarding. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and he feels fine. Hell, I’m starting to feel fine about the whole ordeal myself.

Blood on the Dance Floor (1997)

Now it’s time for the man, the myth, the Michael Jackson. It is no secret the artist has worked with veteran filmmakers like John Landis, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and David Fincher, as well as prolific music video directors like Mark Romanek, Steve Barron, and Bob Giraldi. However, I wanted to pick a video he had a hand in directing himself, and good God was this a gem. 

Co-directed with choreographer Vincent Paterson, Jackson brings to life the eponymous song off of his remix album in what may be one of the most seductive music videos of his career. The song is a tale of a predatory woman, “Susie” (played by Sybil Azur), not too dissimilar to MJ’s own “Billie Jean.” The difference being the intense New Jack Swing style that Teddy Riley brought to the song and Jackson’s work from Dangerous and onwards. In fact, there is a tremendously sensual aura about the whole video here that really hasn’t been seen since Herb Ritt’s video for “In the Closet”

The components that make the video work are as follows: the editing and the choreography. The whole scene is set in a salsa dance hall, and the choreography and costuming play off of that theme. Jackson and Paterson have everyone moving in a blend of sharp moves and all-out grinding. The incorporation of maracas and shakers into the soundscape & video add to the Latin atmosphere of the video. Funnily enough,  Jackson spends a fair amount of his time grooving in a chair. Caressing the dancer on the table in front of him and singing to the camera with suave gestures that suggest a stylized mob boss more than anything to me.

The editing is the icing on the cake. Fred Salkind’s match cuts are switchblade sharp, bouncing Jackson around from place to place in the video, all to the rhythm of the song. It is something that has stayed with me from the video as something so simple, yet so precise and effective. I believe it is the blend of the song’s infectious groove, and Salkind’s editing that make this video really come together. It’s a song to dance to, and by God will this video have you grooving right along.

Hurt (2003)

Now for something slightly less fun, but tremendously rewarding. Mark Romanek’s music videos are the stuff that dreams are made of. Be it “Scream” or “Closer,” his work has informed how powerful the medium of the music video can be. “Hurt” is the greatest testament to that drive to push the envelope.

Blending archival footage of Cash from the 20th century, and the frail Man in Black of the 21st, Romanek provides the most perfect elegy for one of the most iconic figures in music history. The Nine Inch Nails song, one of Reznor’s darkest pieces of songwriting, mutates from possible yarns of self-harm, depression, and addiction to waxing upon a legacy that is not so much lost, but in decay, much like the House of Cash museum in the video.

The video, in Romanek’s tradition, is phenomenally crafted on an aesthetic level. Combining images of Cash’s life on film and in person (with wife June Carter Cash and the aforementioned  museum appearing with Johnny in the video) with painterly shots of decaying fruits and flowers in tableaus that are stunningly reminiscent of Romantic-era art. Lit and graded with a warm color palette in mind. If there was ever a song (and a video that matched) to encapsulate the brutal honesty of the Man in Black in his final years, “Hurt” is it.

This is America (2018)

The prospect of music videos making socio-political statements is something anyone with two brain cells to rub together could have foreseen. From the lauded David Bowie videos for “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” (both directed by regular Bowie collaborator David Mallet) to the provocative pair of videos for Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (both directed by modern moviemaking maverick Spike Lee), the music video was born with the power to amplify the socially conscious messages contained in the songs they are made for. 

When Childish Gambino (one Donald Glover) hit the scene with his regular collaborator Hiro Murai to make a video for “This is America,” no one could quite see coming the now beloved video made. Blending potent uses of violence, historic iconography, and flawless choreography and camerawork to match the tonal whiplash of the song, the video for “This is America” is rightly praised for the well-oiled machine it is.

If one can set aside the brilliant way it tackles the black experience in modern America, I find the video fascinating for the way it depicts the modern populace moving on from horrific tragedy to horrific tragedy, absorbed in brands and partying in a carefree dance between the violent interludes. The way social media has expedited this sudden shift in the public consciousness, where atrocities on one’s Twitter timeline can be scrolled up on, is something that I feel we think about, but never have seen in the shocking way “This is America” delivers it to us.

Conclusion

I chose to pluck videos from across the decades and explore them individually as an attempt to see what’s changed and what remains the same as far as the medium is concerned. And honestly, what’s changed the most is the music. Setting the genre-hopping done in this article aside, the music video has always been meant to embody the energy and character of the music they supplement. Whether it is the absurdity of Talking Heads’s “Once in a Lifetime” or the sexiness of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” the music video is made in service of the song and is always at its best when reflecting the song. This holds true for the four videos here and should for the many, MANY more out there being made and that already exist. I also just kind of wanted an excuse to talk about music videos as I’ve always thought they were kind of cool, be they MJ’s mini-motion pictures (which I’ve been hooked on like crack) or the slew of creative synthpop videos for groups like Eurythmics and Art of Noise.

I’ll leave you with a question: what is your favorite music video? Comment down below.

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