There is something crucial about attaching the visual to music. By its very nature, music insists upon an influx of images into one’s mind, whether because of its lyrics, its sound, or its association with past experience. Menomena’s “INTIL” is so profoundly effective in drawing out past solemnity that my attachment to the song has become somewhat masochistic; Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” epitomises my two Roses experiences; Parts and Labor’s “Nowhere’s Nigh”, my becoming editor of this humble magazine. I fundamentally believe that music strips us to our barest bones, and in doing so makes us significantly more susceptible to every other aspect of culture: the aesthetic that is art, the visual that is film, the intellectual that is politics, the imaginative that is literature. There is no greater relationship than between that which one sees and that which one hears – as Dan Cave, too, has recognised in this issue.
If this is the case, therefore, then music videos are significantly more important than people give them credit for. They are an under-appreciated art form, often assuming the appearance of a legitimate short films in their own right, as opposed to simply a music video – a term that inspires thoughts of Ke$ha’s “Tic Toc” or Nelly’s “Tip-Drill”. They display another facet of the artists’ creative mindsets, and give us another insight into what the song means, despite an often seemingly unconnected subject matter. In turn, they further an emotional connection with the music due to a visual sincerity, an ability to articulate the music in a way that we cannot. This is a brief exploration – too brief, for such a massive topic – into some of the best music videos in each area.
More and more credible comedians and actors are becoming involved in these films. In some cases, it acts to imbue the pieces with a very genuine emotion: Kristen Bell of Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame, for example, depicts a woman broken-hearted over the death of a deformed creature in Yeasayer’s “Madder Red“, keen to do so because of her association with PETA. You’ll have to go far to top The New Pornographers’ most recent video, however, which has a list of cameos as long as my arm. An accompaniment to the track “Moves”, it is a mock film trailer, overspilling with comedic actors, such as Paul Rudd, Bill Hader and Kevin Corrigan, and musicians such as The Mountain Goats’ Jon Wurster and Ted Leo of Ted Leo and The Pharmacists. Recognisable individuals are not necessary for a film – indeed, in many cases unknown actors are much more effective – but their roles often possess an underlying tongue-in-cheek prod at themselves. And it’s just really cool.
There are limitless music videos that conceptualise the music in a unique way, often treading on the heels of the bizarre and seemingly unconnected. Yet one cannot help but be drawn to the simplicity of such concepts as The Morning Benders’ “Promises”. Its lyric “I can’t help thinking we grow up too fast / I know, I know, I know that this won’t last / A second longer than it has to” is the foundation upon which the video is based. As the story of two kids in an adult, Bonny-and-Clyde-like relationship, the video ends on a pretty dark note – though I shan’t go into the details of the film. The concept is solid because of the idea of tapping into emotions that children don’t have. Everything addressed within the video is a symptom of adulthood – alcoholism, murder, sex – and yet this is depicted with a disturbing sincerity which accords with the theme of the lyrics. It is an accessible concept, easy to understand, and all the more potent for it.
Spike Jonze directed The Arcade Fire’s music video for the eponymous track of their third studio album, The Suburbs. He’s known for having directed Being John Malkovich and Where The Wild Things Are, the latter being the first time he worked with the band. Jonze co-wrote this film, the dystopian story of a group of kids caught in a military-run suburban area, with lead singer Win Butler, using kids who hadn’t acted before from the local area to portray a grittier, more believable atmosphere. Theories have been bandied about no end regarding the video, which is somewhat ambiguous in its presentation of these kids. If anything can be classed as a short film, this is it. It has, fittingly, since been released as a half-hour short, and while I’m keen to see it, there is a lot to be said for the ambiguity and the questions that the music video alone raises. It’s moving stuff, enhanced by the plausibility of the change in group dynamic that we see them undergo, something which must owe to Jonze’ s favour for semi-improvisation. In few other cases has a music video altered my experience so strongly of listening to a song, so it is worth coming to understand it from your own perspective, before Jonze warps your view with his chilling vision.
Liars produced an incredibly haunting track in the form of “Scissor“, and it is a sentiment paralleled in the discomfort of its video. The ending, a denouement after the track itself has ended, falls into the uncomfortable realm of being simultaneously laughable and agonisingly poignant. Again, to go into exactly what happens would cheapen it for you – I want nothing more than for you to be as stunned as I was. Needless to say, rocks are involved. Lots of rocks. The significance of the conclusion is not precisely in what happens, but in its dramatic impact. It is a display of the grotesque: an example of the blurring of the line between humour and suffering. As Blaise Pascal once said, “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees”. One may laugh at the absurdity of the conclusion, but the brutality of the events up to that point and the haunting accompaniment of the song render it all the more resonant long after having watched it.
To say that the best music videos are simply those that employ a cast and conceptualise the music in an obscure way would be incorrect. There is something marvellously simple about watching a band simply play music. The Gaslight Anthem’s “Great Expectations“ does exactly that, in an environment that pays testament to the novel from which it got its name. There is a lot to be said for watching a band invest themselves in a song without the distraction of other elements. Sometimes the band simply has to go back to basics, and this can be impressive enough.