I’ve been thinking about music videos recently, and how some of the best music videos are also some of the simplest.
The urge as a director is to try and use music videos to make grandiose statements or overindulgent visual feasts. The problem with this is that those sorts of videos tend to detract or distract or restrict the experience of actually listening to the music. They stop being music videos and become short films set to music. That’s okay, but they do a disservice to the source material. (I myself am guilty of this on two counts.)
Here, then, are some quick picks—five (or six) of my favorite “classy” music videos, in no particular order. These are videos that do not serve to limit the scope of a song, don’t get sucked into the yawning abyss of literalism or wrapped up in their own oh-so-clever concepts, and are just generally kick-ass.
Really any They Might Be Giants video from 1994 or earlier, actually. Now, these aren’t videos that you’d necessarily associate the word ‘classy’ with, but let me just give it a shot. They are some truly weird shows, and yet, somehow, they don’t distract from the music. The visuals are unusual but in perfect keeping with TMBG’s style, and the videos developed an aesthetic that stuck with TMBG for the next fifteen years. Most importantly, I think they work because they discarded the idea of dealing literally with the somewhat nonsensical lyrics of the song but rather chose to introduce new, equally-nonsensical visuals to accompany them.
Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al (1987); Gary Weis
I put this in here as proof that classy music videos don’t have to take themselves too seriously. Here is a video that pokes gentle fun at itself, as well as the entire “white room” genre of performance videos. Paul Simon delivers a perfect deadpan, and the minimalist staging is surprisingly complementary to the rich audio. A perfect video for a song that became so popular in part because nobody could agree on what the lyrics meant.
David Bowie, Life On Mars? (1973); Mick Rock
My favorite music video. Pure, unmitigated cool. And if you can’t understand why then I just don’t think we can go on being friends.
The Umbrella Sequence, Heads Explode (2007); Micah Dahl
I put this in here for a few different reasons. One is that yes, Micah Dahl graduated from MCAD a couple months ago and this was part of his senior thesis. But the other, more important reason is that the video demonstrates a simplicity of concept that is so incredibly rare in contemporary music videos. Clever, fun, and quietly insane.
Johnny Cash, God’s Gonna Cut You Down (2006); Tony Kaye
Yes, a posthumous music video. No, I don’t think it’s in bad taste because it’s so well-conceived and faithful to the song. We all know about the Hurt music video and how cool it is, but I think that it gets a little too specifically biographical, which limits the scope of the song. That’s an instance where the video is good and the song is good, but when the chips are down I’d rather just listen to the song. God’s Gonna Cut You Down, on the other hand, although in some ways a “concept” video, is beautifully poetic and, in my opinion, expands the horizons of the song rather than limiting them.
For an example of a not-classy music video, see this. It’s important to note that although I’d say that particular video is pretty damn horrible, there are a lot of not-so-classy music videos out there that I quite like. I usually put very narrative or “concept”-based videos in this category, and sometime I’ll do a list of my favorite non-performance videos (the preceding disclaimer was for the benefit of Greg, whom I’m sure was about to pounce on me for being too dogmatic about my taste in music videos).
What are your favorite music videos? Is there something I missed here? Something I should be ashamed at having not seen? Or an easier question: What are some really good songs with really horrible music videos? Let’s hear it!