I guess this guy was off making movies or whatever this year. Pssh.
Everybody’s coming out with these things today, so I guess it’s time to rip everyone off and put up my own. This has been a really interesting year for the entire culture of music videos. They’ve receded further and further from their previous status as cultural events; I seriously can’t imagine any artist in the world creating a moment like the one Michael Jackson did when he debuted the “Black or White” video in prime time on Fox and everyone in my sixth-grade classroom was talking about it the next day. For one thing, CDs are selling less, which means it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for record labels to pour millions into videos. For another, the music video channels have moved further and further away from actually showing videos, so there’s less and less reason for companies to make videos that actually look good on TV.
I’m pretty sure both of those things have led to the inevitable decline of the conspicuous-consumption rap video. It’s been a good long way since a video like “Bling Bling” or “Big Pimpin'” came along, inhabiting the cliches of the form and elevating them to glittering, eternal monuments to commerce. Those cliched videos are still coming out, but there’s no energy left in the cliches. If Fat Joe or Lloyd Banks look bored with the cars and money and girls around them, how are the people watching at home supposed to feel? There are signs of life: Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” is all absurd James Bond money-porn, but the ridiculous opulence and nimble split-screen editing keep it light and breezy; it reminds me of the Hawaii Five-O opening credits, and that’s high praise. And Young Dro’s “Rubberband Banks” actually makes it look fun to have money and diamonds and girls, which for some reason is harder than it should be lately. But that’s about it. I’ve been recording Rap City every day since I got DVR in the fall, and I usually fast forward through almost the entire thing while I eat my cereal in the morning. The flashy rap video has been pretty much my favorite subgenre of music video for years now, and its decline is a sad thing. But my top two videos of the year are both rap videos, and both of them find powerful ways to sidestep the girls-and-cars conveyor belt and give new contexts for their artists.
The biggest story of the year, of course, is YouTube. All of a sudden a band can make a well-conceived, eye-grabbing low-budget video and people will actually watch it. So there’s been a shift in aesthetics: directors seem to be actively looking for ways to make clips that’ll look good on tiny computer screens rather than flat-screen TVs. The classic example is OK Go’s goofy-dancing treadmill video for “Here It Goes Again,” which just missed this list and which managed to cross over from YouTube to MTV and probably extended OK Go’s career another couple of years. The story behind that video gets told often enough that it’s managed to overwhelm the video itself, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch these chumps dance. All of my top five videos, though, do something more important: they create contexts and iconographies for their artists and songs so dramatic that it’s hard to imagine the song without the video, even if you heard the song first. Before and after YouTube, that’s the major challenge for a video.
Anyway, here are my ten favorite videos of the year.
1. Juvenile: “Get Ya Hustle On.” There’s a long tradition of rap videos that take burned-out, desiccated urban neighborhoods and make their squalor weirdly beautiful; Juvenile’s own “Ha” is my favorite example. But this video, filmed in the devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina came through, is downright apocalyptic: tangles of metal and wire, bikes stuck in fences, collapsed houses. It’s sad and haunting; people actually lived in these houses not long ago, after all. But it’s also irresistibly creepy. The little kids walking around in Bush and Cheney and Ray Nagin masks look like ghouls stalking through the wreckage, and Juvenile looks a little too at home in the rubble. There’s no anger or grief on his face, just a fierce defiance, like he’s already taken the worst that God and the government can dish out and he’s still there. The song itself is totally confused and confusing; he talks about drugs as recovery, which is wrong on virtually every level. Because of that confusion, the video’s images cling to my brain a lot harder than the simple sepia-toned protest Juvenile could’ve done; a flawed hero is always more compelling than an infallible one.
2. Prodigy: “Mac 10 Handle.” I already wrote a post about this one, but it’s worth noting that the grimy, paranoid desolation of this video does its job completely. Right now, I’m way more amped about Return of the Mac than I ever was about Blood Money, and I’ll buy a copy as soon as it comes out, if it ever does. Everyone involved in the making of this video must’ve known that it would never, ever get played on TV, and that sort of viral internet-marketing savvy can’t be taught. There’s a story here, but we only get a quick little glimpse of it. The mystery and darkness that’ve been missing from mainstream rap videos for a few years now come roaring back when Prodigy stabs his chair and it bleeds. (This is the second video in a row with a shot of someone wearing a George W. Bush mask; maybe that shot is a nod to “Get Ya Hustle On”?)
3. The Rapture: “Whoo! Alright-Yeah… Uh-Huh.” This one is really a toss-up between the “WAYUH” video and the nearly-as-great “Get Myself Into It” video, but I put this song on the list because it doesn’t rely as heavily on forced-nostalgia gimmickery, though that’s still there in the Schoolhouse Rock graphics. But the flying cartoon whizjets are just the icing. The video situates the song and the band in a completely specific place: a Brooklyn rooftop party that must’ve been a whole lot of fun to shoot even though video sets are generally really boring places.
4. Band of Horses: “The Great Salt Lake.” Another fun video: people playing softball and nothing else. But everything’s shot through a warm, hazy light and edited into a kind of slow-motion reverie that beautifully matches the song’s slow, raggedly swells. The end result feels iconic in a small way. You never find out who wins the game because it doesn’t matter.
5. Jason Aldean: “Hicktown.” This one looks exactly the way a video for a redneck pride anthem called “Hicktown” should look: monster trucks kicking up mud, dudes throwing coolers off pickup trucks, girls in denim boots and cowboy hats. In its way, its as faithful and affectionate to its own sense of place as something like “Nuthin’ But a G Thang.”
6. Celtic Frost: “A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh.” Some real evil shit. Don’t watch this one while you’re eating; maggots are involved.
7. My Chemical Romance: “Welcome to the Black Parade.” The grand return of overblown, histrionic rock opera nonsense. I love this stuff.
8. Trae feat. HAWK: “Swang.” This one is pretty much a standard rap video, but it’s done with a slow, elegiac grace that matches the song. HAWK floats through it like a ghost.
9. Muse: “Knights of Cydonia.” I can’t stand the band and I don’t much like the song, but this mess is pretty much impossible to resist if you give a fuck about spaghetti westerns and kung-fu and ray guns.
10. Pussycat Dolls feat. Snoop Dogg: “Buttons.” Obvious reasons and all, but this is also a big, glossy pop video done right: flashy editing, decent choreography, a distinct look. If those are easy things to do, why isn’t every pop video this good?