December 27, 2010


More Than A Video

Two of the most impressive music videos of 2010 directly attack the idea of the "music video"—one by abusing the music, another by arranging for every viewer to see a different set of images. The video for LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls," co-directed by Spike Jonze and bandleader James Murphy, is directly related to the basic formula of a singer lip-synching a recording while visually interesting things happen. But what we're hearing in the video isn't quite LCD's recording, as such: that's playing in the background while Murphy and keyboardist Nancy Whang (who doesn't sing on the original recording) are being forced to sing along with it, and in the meantime panda-masked quasi-Juggalos are doing everything within their power to interfere with Murphy and Whang's concentration. Yes, we could've just let you hear the song, Jonze and Murphy effectively declare, but what fun is that?

The other conceptual knockout of the year is "The Wilderness Downtown," Chris Milk's video for Arcade Fire's "We Used to Wait," which will never be shown on TV, because it only makes sense to one person at a time. It's built by a Web site that asks at the outset for the street address where you grew up; then it generates its visuals around the Google Street View imagery of your neighborhood. Milk's multi-window extravaganza can be kind of a mess, especially on a small screen, but it's a powerful experience anyway—Arcade Fire's generalized anthem made personal and specific.

The suggestion that a music video should be something more than its form isn't at all new, though. One strategy for broadening the scope of a video is simply making it go on longer than the song, sometimes much longer. Another Arcade Fire video from this year, the Jonze-directed "The Suburbs," is supposedly an extract from a short film called "Scenes from the Suburbs." Kanye West made "Runaway" the centerpiece of a 35-minute mini-feature.

Even in the '80s, ambitious music videos occasionally sprawled out to more than double the song's length—David Bowie's 20-minute "Jazzin' for Blue Jean," a satire of his own rock-star persona that built up to a performance of "Blue Jean," was one of the more ambitious ones, and the most famous example is Michael Jackson's 14-minute "Thriller" in 1983. Jackson didn't invent the extended music clip by a long shot, though: in 1929, at the dawn of sound film, Bessie Smith made a 16-minute movie built around "St. Louis Blues," following up on a 1925 hit songwriter/producer W.C. Handy was still milking.

Inventive directors have been messing with the parameters of the music video since before there was such a category, or even, really, such a thing as video. In the '60s, hit and would-be-hit songs were sometimes promoted via Scopitones: short films designed to be played by special jukeboxes installed in bars. They were made on the cheap—there are more than a few Scopitones that appear to have been filmed in the same park and possibly on the same day—but some of them are weird and delightful.

The Scopitone for Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's 1966 tune "Bittersweet Samba," starring Robert Fortier as a guest at an over-the-top party, was apparently directed by a young Robert Altman. And one of the most magnificently campy Scopitone clips, for Sonny King's "I Cried For You," pushes the form about as far into eyebrow-raising territory as anyone could get away with at the time without risking arrest. Think of it as the 1966 equivalent of Die Antwoord's "Evil Boy."

Before Scopitones, there were Soundies, three-minute black-and-white clips that were created in the '40s to be shown on a similar coin-operated jukebox, the Panoram; before Spike Jonze, there was Spike Jones (and his City Slickers), a fantastically gifted band that devoted themselves to making the silliest records possible. Their "Clink! Clink! Another Drink," filmed two years into the Soundie era, is already playing self-referential games with its form. About halfway through it, a sozzled gentleman with a moustache hiccups his way through a verse (if you recognize his voice, that's because he's Mel Blanc, the voice actor behind virtually every character in the classic Warner Bros. cartoons). And then the camera swings around to... a Panoram machine within the bar where the Soundie is set, playing a Soundie with the lyrics to "Clink! Clink! Another Drink." It's not quite "The Wilderness Downtown," but by 1942 standards, it was practically "Drunk Girls."