New York

Music Videos: Epic Once Again

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Searing pretension is the new punk rock, thank God

Lately we’re seeing a little mini-trend toward huge, epic, expensive music videos, and I’m not entirely sure why. That sort of blustery escapist entertainment is usually a summer thing, but this summer didn’t see any big albums or big videos; the closest things were probably Beyonce’s “Deja Vu,” which everyone except me hated, and Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie,” which was notable mostly because Wyclef does a backflip. The only people really blowing a lot of money on flashy quick-cut videos are uber-pop groups like the Pussycat Dolls, and they sort of have to make big, glitzy videos since flash is their thing. But one of the summer’s biggest songs, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” had a video that was pretty much just a moving ink blot, and we were supposed to stare at it for three and a half minutes and be impressed. I can’t imagine any other summer when people would’ve been willing to accept that shit.

There are plenty of good reasons for scaling back on video budgets. People aren’t really buying albums in huge numbers anymore, and so there just isn’t as much money to go around. Also, MTV only really shows videos between like two and six in the morning, and people are mostly watching music videos on YouTube now. YouTube is great and all, but it sort of makes everything look all crappy and muddy and pixelated, and so we can’t even see the hood ornament on whatever rapper’s fancy car. And Hype Williams isn’t really making videos like that anymore.

All of a sudden, though, we’re seeing everything swing back the other way: blockbuster albums get blockbuster videos that would probably look amazing on a big TV if any TV stations other than CMT actually showed videos. Even Xzibit, who’s on Koch because nobody’s buying his records anymore, convinced someone to hire Little X and made “Concentrate,” a video that looks like a slow-motion kung-fu car commercial. “Concentrate” is a boring video, but not all of them are. Let’s have a look at a few of the recent standouts.

Jay-Z: “Show Me What You Got.” The song leaked last week, and the internet’s been hating it since then, mostly because Jay’s lyrics are undeniably lazy, the sort of stuff he probably comes up with on the toilet. But it totally works with the video. Just Blaze’s beat sounds lush and expensive, with that “Rump Shaker” horn riff languidly snaking over all those hectic drum-fills and organ-blurts. The video doesn’t have much of a plot: Jay rides around in cars with famous racecar drivers and drives a boat in circles and raps at a casino on the beach where people are dancing with torches or whatever. But F. Gary Gray edits everything really quickly and uses all kinds of split-screen pyrotechnics. The whole thing reminds me of the opening credits to Hawaii Five-O, and that’s my favorite shit ever. Jay Smooth calls it “yet another episode of ‘Hooray! I’m rich! Watch me do rich people things!’,” and that’s true enough, but it’s all done with such breathless verve that I’m really looking forward to seeing it on an actual TV instead of a smudgy-ass YouTube scan.

Justin Timberlake feat. T.I.: “My Love.” No exotic locations here; the money is all in the cinematography and the little flourishes of special effects, like when Timberlake sings about if he wrote you a symphony and a bunch of computer-generated violins fly out at you. More than anything else, this video is about Timberlake’s goofy-ass dancing, and so it presents it in the most flattering context possible: flat white background, expensive film stock, lots of dazzling little camera tricks that highlight the whole bodies-in-motion thing. T.I. has all the best moments: the computer-generated rubber bands, the quick shots of him and Timberlake dancing. And it should be noted that the girl who dances with Timberlake throughout is just mind-bendingly hot. But, really, the song is such a dizzying piece of work that the video really just needs to keep the images coming and stay out of the way. It does its job beautifully.

Beyonce: “Irreplaceable.” I’m not sure this one should really be on this list, since it probably cost less than the high-concept mindfucks of “Deja Vu” and “Ring the Alarm,” but this is the first time in a while she’s used a video to engage in any sort of crowd-pleasing narrative shit, the sort of thing that’ll placate all the people who petitioned to get her to remake the “Deja Vu” video. The song is a big WB-style cathartic fuck-you ballad, and so she just acts out the song with a sort of icy hauteur, which is the sort of thing she does really well. Things get a big fuzzy when a bunch of dreadlocked coffeehouse folksingers show up and she starts headbanging at the end, but up until then it’s pretty great.

My Chemical Romance: “The Black Parade.” This one comes from the band’s ridiculous leap into concept-album pomposity; their new one is supposedly an epic song-cycle about cancer, and it’s weirdly gratifying to see an emo band striving for transcendently theatrical despair instead of just whining about being dumped or whatever. The video makes a better case for it than the band’s wack-ass VMA pre-show performance did, certainly. It starts out with the sort of fake silent-movie film-stock the Smashing Pumpkins used to use: someone is surrounded by doctors and nurses, dying in a hospital bed why he watches the My Chemical Romance guy on TV. And then I guess he dies because the TV explodes and the hospital room’s walls blow away and the song gets all fast, and all of a sudden he’s wearing black eyeliner and standing in the middle of a burned-out cityscape while My Chemical Romance, dressed in marching-band costumes that sort of look like skeleton costumes, lead a parade of people dressed like they’re dead. The whole thing is absurd and self-important and really, really entertaining. And the song is good, so I am completely on board for this mess.

Evanescence: “Call Me When You’re Sober.” This one basically has the same plotline as the Beyonce song, but it’s Evanescence, so it has to be all cheesed-out and gothy and florid. So instead of just kicking the guy out of the house and rocking out with some Lilith Fair rejects, Amy Lee sits under a tree with wolves and levitates and telekinetically throws all the dishes off of a long table. Somehow, all this is still pretty boring. I can’t believe rock bands are still using those Nine Inch Nails sickly-green filters.