Music Videos Get Small


It doesn’t hurt that she looks a lot like Jane Birkin

I’ll probably have a lot more to say about Saul Austerlitz’s new book Money for Nothing, an exhaustively researched and totally absorbing history of music videos that I finally just finished reading this weekend. But one thing in particular I really liked about Austerlitz’s book is how it doesn’t actually bother too much with history as it’s usually understood. There’s a quick chapter about the pre-MTV history of music videos and all their Beatles/Bowie/Queen/Suicide great leaps forward, but Austerlitz never really digs too deeply into the different forms of impact that videos have had on musicians’ careers or the financial forces at work behind them. Instead, he spends most of the book analyzing music videos themselves, getting into all the artistic impulses and mini-trends that run through the form’s history. Austerlitz also includes his list of the top 100 videos ever. I certainly don’t agree with everything on the list: No rap videos until #40, and then it’s “Hey Ya”? No rap videos with actual rapping until #53, and then it’s “The Message”? But the list has sent me on a few nostalgic YouTube benders over the last couple of weeks, rewatching all these videos that I remember being really big deals when they came out. Plenty of random tiny revelations in there, like Sawyer from Lost, with a bowl cut, stealing Alicia Silverstone’s purse in the “Cryin'” video. But the overwhelming impression I get from watching these videos is that the form itself has sort of given up on itself in recent years. When recent videos do show up on the list, they’re either boringly smeared with prestige-ambition, like Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” or small and concept-driven, like Basement Jaxx’s “Cish Cash.” Cable channels’ wholesale elimination of actual videos from their scheduling blocks and nosediving album sales have really done a number on the music video itself. Big-budget videos are still coming out, but it’s tough to imagine a video turning a smaller artist into a bigger one or revealing a new stage of a major artist’s evolving persona (at least outside occasional flukes like My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade”).

So, in a lot of ways, Money for Nothing feels like something of an epitaph for an art form. An interesting little wrinkle in the book, though, is that Austerlitz wrote most of it before the emergence of YouTube, which has made the entire history of the music video available for casual perusal. Still, even before YouTube, you could find most of the videos Austerlitz writes about on the internet somewhere if you looked hard enough. In his Afterword, Austerlitz compares the ongoing project of music videos’ online archival to the impact that VCRs had on old movies: suddenly everything old was accessible again. He also talks about how smaller, younger bands have been able to get their low-budget videos seen on sites like YouTube. A perfect example, and one I’ve already written a ton about, didn’t actually come from a younger artist at all. Instead, it was an older artist, one who realized that he could reconnect with everything that once made him great if he scaled back budgets and readjusted commercial expectations. Prodigy’s “Mac 10 Handle” video is the one that got me really excited about the prospect of YouTube-only videos; it made an aesthetic virtue out of a shoestring budget by honing a hard, claustrophobic B-movie sensibility. In the past few months, plenty of smaller artists have been finding wildly different ways to do similar ways. Feist and DJ Mehdi and Dizzee Rascal are all either major-label artists or indie artists with major distribution, so they aren’t exactly guerrilla mavericks, and all of their videos seem to have bigger budgets than Prodigy’s. But all of them seem to have made their videos with YouTube in mind, since I can’t imagine any of them are getting heavy TV play even in their home countries. They’re all doing exciting things, things that make it worthwhile to trawl YouTube.

Feist is a sort of textbook example of an artist who perfectly understands the power of a good video. By itself, her indie-Starbucks-pop feels a little pale and bloodless to me; she’s like a slightly less schmaltzy Norah Jones. But she’s built a creative partnership with Patrick Daughters, one of the best young directors working, and made three videos that make her songs sound a lot better. “Mushaboom,” the first video she made with Daughters, was a sort of meditation on the transformative power of music; it had the same basic concept as Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” and, for that matter, pretty much every musical ever made. Feist gets out of bed, sings one of her songs to herself while she makes herself breakfast, and then suddenly floats (literally) off into a dreamland where the entire world dances to her song with her. The two new videos she’s done with Daughters are variations on the same theme. “My Moon, My Man,” which hit YouTube this weekend, has Feist walking down a moving airport sidewalk and dropping her suitcase so she can gawkily dance to the song. When the chorus comes in, everyone in the airport is more or less doing the same thing, interrupting their own personal drudgery to join in and become parts of an ecstatic whole. It’s fun, but it’s not really anywhere near as great as the video for “1 2 3 4,” another collaboration between Feist and daughters, which came out on Friday. The video is all one long, graceful unbroken camera shot. Feist, singing her song and wearing a ridiculous spangly pantsuit thing, is walking out on a big airplane-hangar soundstage when a group of backup dancers in bright colors emerge out of nowhere and join into a huge dance routine with her. The camera swoops up and around them, elegantly and lazily hitting all the old Busby Berkeley marks and making sure to take in all the euphoric movement without getting in its own way. At the end of the song, the dancers vanish as quickly and unexpectedly as they appeared, almost like they were figments of Feist’s imagination. When I was in high school, I knew this raver chick who would always walk around between classes listening to her Walkman (she usually listened to Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” over and over). She once told me how she’d imagine that everyone in the school could her the song, that everyone would stop what they were doing and just dance to it, that the whole oppressively boring veneer of the school would drop away and reveal something beautiful. That image, which I always liked, is pretty much the same idea that Feist and Daughters explore in all three videos. They also manage the impressive feat of making me enjoy Feist’s songs, which is basically what videos are supposed to do. They’re home runs. (I’d probably like all three better if they were actually set to “Groove Is in the Heart,” but never mind.)

The video for the Thomas Bangalter edit of DJ Mehdi’s “Signatune” accomplishes similar things in very different ways. Like the Feist videos, it has fun with the different ways that music can make boring everyday life feel epic and vital. Unlike the Feist videos, it doesn’t much concern itself with creating or developing a persona for its artist. Mehdi is a Parisian producer and a part of the whole Ed Banger blog-house mafia, but that’s pretty much all I know about him, and the video doesn’t offer anything more than that. As far as I know, he’s completely absent from the video itself, although he could pull one of those Fatboy Slim Hitchcockian cameos and I wouldn’t have any idea. In any case, the video’s not about Mehdi. Instead, it follows the day of a young working-class French dude, making us endure some unsightly shots of his body-hair before slowly building up to its central story, which is a rousing Rocky narrative that I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen it. The video tells its story and makes us care, all without the benefit of dialogue, and it does it with the song rumbling underneath the entire time. The track becomes the pulse of the story, and its rhythm provides the framework for every cut. It’s a whole lot of fun, and its immaculate craftsmanship impresses me more every time I watch it.

But my favorite video of the year thus far doesn’t have anything to do with the transformative power of music. In fact, it’s almost a rebuke to that idea; it’s about futility and frustration rather than triumph. Dizzee Rascal’s video for “Sirens” explicitly links Britain’s recent demonization of its young black urban population with an older British tradition: foxhunting. It’s a scary spectacle: Dizzee running through an empty blue-and-gray nighttime streetscape, pursued by a group of white people on horseback in traditional foxhunting garb chase him. The even-more-disturbing ending also gets into some serious psychosexual fetishization shit. In its own way, the “Sirens” video is just as thrilling as the megabudget clip for DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over,” and the song, which uses some serious mid-80s Run-DMC supercharged guitar samples, is absolutely fierce. (I seriously can’t wait for the next Dizzee album.) But the video also taps into something dark and raw and topical, bringing a symbolic rage more explicit than anything I’ve seen in a music video in a long time. Too bad we’ll probably never get to see this thing on an actual TV.