While I was writing my 2009 albums post, I realised that a lot of the music that really stuck with me wasn’t on any album at all (well, these obviously are, but barring Fever Ray I wasn’t remotely interested in getting the respective albums). Since my PhD I’ve been fascinated by music video (for those interested Carol Vernallis’ Experiencing Music Video is an incredible book btw – it goes into all sorts detail on how music videos work, and is incredibly inspiring). For me music has always been as much a visual medium as an aural one, and I tend to see music video as the highest form of the medium. I can’t stand it when bands/artists don’t understand this, and hearing ‘it’s all about the music’ (subtext: it’s all about sounding and looking like some shit band who split up before you were born, conforming to some bizarre notion of authenticity. Authenticity kills art) makes me want to torch your house – I hear that as a statement of total artistic and intellectual cowardice.
Anyway, here’s a wee list of the videos that moved me this year, together with an attempt to try and explain why.
Beyonce: Single Ladies
As per usual, Beyonce marries some pretty nasty lyrics to some stunning music (see also Ring the Alarm – Bomb Squad gone R&B with whiny lyrics about how her man doesn’t want her. It should have been so much more…). The sheer minimalism of the music is fantastic – it’s literally a beat and her voice, with the odd splash of synth – and it’s the kind of thing you only seem to ever hear in R&B.
There’s something deeply strange (and new?) about the video – it feels to me like the point where music video abandons any interest in manufacturing sex appeal and instead pushes through to something else. Beyonce’s movements don’t really have any relation to the usual motions you’d see in a video like this (all exaggerated strutting (look how independent I am) and pouting come ons). Instead they’re more like visual music, an entirely abstract visual language, separated from all the usual signifiers.
I’m not sure I’ve really explained myself here, but there is clearly something happening in this video. Here’s hoping someone follows it up.
Lady GaGa: Paparazzi
Her only good song (I thought Pokerface might be going somewhere until it got to that horrible chorus). Having said that, she’s currently light years ahead of anyone else when it comes to pop music’s (vital) visual side. This video is a perfect demonstration of that – everything is hyper hyper stylised and executed with such authority. If Beyonce’s video felt like the establishment of a new visual language, this feels like a restatement of pop music’s best qualities – the longing that’s key to so much great pop music, coupled with a complete dedication to the visual.
I think this came after Single Ladies, but it kind of feels like Single Ladies was the logical successor to it. There’s a similar focus on distinctly odd movements and body shapes, but Shakira definitely plays up the sex. It’s also nowhere near as assured as Beyonce’s video – the bit at the end where she’s dancing on a rooftop feels awkward and clumsy, like the real world’s intruding into pop’s fantasy, like Shakira’s an actual person as opposed to a Pop Star (okay, so this sounds kind of cool…). Anyway, when I rewrite the world’s history according to my own whim, there’s going to be a line from She-Wolf to Single Ladies to… something incredible, that marries Lady GaGa’s visual flair with the language glimpsed in Single Ladies, with a serious critical understanding of the world we live in (because let’s face it, we haven’t had that in years and years in the charts, and we desperately need it).
Also, any song that gets to number 1 with lyrics that include a word like lycanthropy is an instant win.
Florence & the Machine: Dog Days
Easily the weakest video here, and compared to the others the visuals are largely uninspired and don’t really take any risks. Presumably it was done on a smaller budget than the other videos, but a lack of money isn’t any excuse for a lack of imagination. It’s a great optimistic pop song, but you’ve got to wonder what she means – surely if anything, the dog days are only just beginning?
Fever Ray: When I Grow Up
See my albums post. Everything about this video is perfect – the lighting, the setting, the shaman girl, the man watching her. It all just works so well together. It’s as if Tarkovsky was reborn in an American(?) suburb and took to making music videos instead of films.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Zero
Not sure this belongs here, but Karen O’s dancing in the video is fantastic. It’s the way it feels like she’s trying to be cool, but her idea of cool is a scene from Fame. There’s a wonderful sense of unselfconscious joy to it, it makes me happy…
There’s maybe a trend here that they’re all female artists (slightly excepting the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and all my albums were made by female artists/bands with female singers. But then, women have always made the best art.
Um, I hope this doesn’t come across as me just perving over female pop stars…