Too often, music video exegesis gets left to the agrammatical hordes of the comments section on YouTube. Does a vid only merit critical analysis if the director is Michel Gondry or Spike Lee? We say no! Below you’ll find our take on some of 2008’s most uncanny videos.
Watch at your peril and, if we’ve missed a big one, let us know in the comments.
Best Use of Post-Soviet Propaganda: ANJ, “Gorbachev”
Tracing the plight of busty Russian broads from agro-industrial serfdom through an ambuscade of Stalinist zombies, this video—part political allegory, part snuff flick—is the clearest expression of class and gender dynamics under the Soviets since Doctor Zhivago. It’s also a fitting panegyric to its namesake (herein portrayed, birthmark and all, by a ca. nine foot-tall bodybuilder). Since Tom Stern—the visionary director behind the video—cut his teeth directing arthouse luminosities for folks like Marilyn Manson and Butthole Surfers, it’s little surprise that “Gorbachev” is such a masterstroke.
What sold us: The zeppelins that airlift various symbols of capitalism—Twinkies, popsicles, and a generic bottle of Cola—to Gorbachev and his harem on the beach.
Best moment: A tie between (a) Gorbachev flexing his pecs and (b) Gorbachev shooting death rays from his eyes.
Hat Tip: Brandon Wu
Best Use of Hologram Technology: Radiohead “House of Cards”
VIDEO: “House of Cards”
Leave it to Radiohead, a band that managed to profit off a free album, to make a music video that rivals (and predates) CNN’s election-night hologram stunt. “House of Cards,” from 2007’s In Rainbows, uses “3D plotting technologies” to render Thom Yorke and friends as featureless, staticky ghosts. Having a hard time seeing that in your mind’s eye? Imagine a photo image of Thom Yorke’s face pressed into one of those PinPressions nail sculptures; now imagine a painted adaptation of that photograph in the style of Louis Wain’s schizophrenic cats; now imagine a photographic negative of that painting. With trippy-ass music.
What sold us: The ever-creeping possibility of seeing Yorke but not seeing his droopy eye
Best Moment: Moment of realization that Yorke’s lazy eye is more powerful than 3D technology
Best Use of the Numa Numa Guy: Weezer, “Pork & Beans”
VIDEO: “Pork & Beans”
In the context of Rivers Cuomo’s ambivalent views on mass taste, “Pork & Beans” is like the middle finger that scratches the public’s back in the hope that the public will return the favor. Nominated for “Best Editing” at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, this intricately layered tribute to viral video VIPs—Miss South Carolina, the Numa Numa guy, the kid behind “Chocolate Rain,” and Britney Spears’ creepiest fan, among many others—gleefully synthesizes its pop obsessions into a treatise on the very meaning of stardom. “Timbaland knows the way to reach the top of the charts / Maybe if I work for him I can perfect the art,” Cuomo muses, before declaring “I’mma do the things that I wanna do / I ain’t got a thing to prove to you.” Here, pandering is a mode of self-expression, the viral vid a mode of artistic emancipation. And rather than railing, it accepts the possiblity: in the era of free downloads, has the pop star been relegated to the sphere of the YouTube phenom?
What sold us: “Dramatic Prairie Dog”
Best moment: Eating cereal with the Numa Numa guy
Best Satire on Juvenile Suburbia: Detox Retox, “Evil Disco”
VIDEO: “Evil Disco”
This vid’s all white bling and rock-star bombast. (The band’s MySpace page, after all, advises that “Detox Retox and its subsidiaries take no responsibility for any spontaneous pregnancies incurred during live performances.”) None of which would be much to write home about if it didn’t veil such a touching and deep-seated insecurity that undercuts swaggering lines like “Now I know you only want me cuz I sing and I’m sexy/And if you wanna get me, don’t call me—just text me.” They’re just unrepentant boys from the ‘burbs who quote Dr. Dre (see if you can spot it) and take pride in the fact that those gold skulls taped to their rims are fake.
What sold us: “I gotta wave like a magic wand/Now I know she’s a natural blonde.”
Best moment: When guitarist Nate Frey switches the effects pedal from “Crunk” to “Extra Crunk.”
Most Euphemistic Bukkake Reference: “Hot Country Girl Has Message for Troops”
VIDEO: “Hot Country Girl Has Message for Troops”
Sandra Bauleo, the vocalist and star of “Hot Country Girl Has Message for the Troops” wants her men to come from Iraq and “shoot me on my breasts, shoot me in my mouth.” The clear plural suggests Sandra isn’t looking for just one participant but several (according to Urban Dictionary, she wants “at least eight dudez.”) Sung as a Top 40 country tune, Bauleo’s ballad is more than mere satire; it’s a post-feminist pacifism fest. Whereas other references to bukakke signal misogyny and commodification of the female body, Bauleo’s bawdy crooning speaks sexual truths to patriarchal powerholders.
What sold us: “We’ll be gettin’ on like Abu Ghraib.”
Best Moment: Any one of the really bad green screen shots.
Best Protest Song Since 1968: Flobots, “Handlebars”
There’s a theory floating around the critical ether that the big bang
resulted in a finite amount of protest-music themes; the subsequent
theory is that the well ran dry in 1968. Protest songs since then have
tended toward the lame, the pretentious, and the too-un-subtle.
“Handlebar,” then, is either a product of theft by time travel or
sheer brilliance. The video depicts two childhood friends, one of whom
follows the road sign marked “C” (for corporatism), and the other the
sign marked with a dove. The former turns into a world leader who “can
lead the nation with a microphone,” the latter turns into the
anti-statist who can lead the poor, the distressed, and the abused
against his childhood friend. The video features beautifully drawn
graphics and an ending that will make your heart sink and your arms
swell with goosebumps.
What sold us: We’d almost forgotten that subtlety was possible in a music video.
Best moment: Visual-audio synchronicity during the crescendo.
Best Use of [redacted]: The BPA feat. David Byrne & Dizzee Rascal, “Toe Jam”
VIDEO: Toe Jam!
“Toe Jam,” the debut effort by Norman Cook (previously Fatboy Slim) in his new incarnation as the Brighton Port Authority, brings together Calypso samplings, a salacious Dizzee Rascal cameo, and a slew of classic David Byrne inscrutabilities to provide the soundtrack for a naked party. If you’ve never been to one of these, uh, happenings, the accompanying video will give you a pretty good sense for what they’re like: blithe, bouncy twenty-somethings dancing aimlessly on a carpeted floor. The implicit foot fetish shouldn’t deter the squeamish—nor should the rampant nudity (if that’s not your bag), since an artful series of redactive black bars cover all the naughty bits. In fact, they do so much more: watch in awe as the synchronized black boxes create the illusion of a game of Pong, a dancing man, and an all-seeing eye! No return to Eden, perhaps; but, as BrakBoy observes in the YouTube comments section, “This is the only time censorship has been useful.”
What sold us: The girl who ever so subtly slips off her David Byrne T-shirt.
Best moment: When she “dances like a pony.”
Best Cover of a Mainstream Hiphop Song: Barely Political, “Whatever I Like”
Originally recorded by T.I. as “Whatever You Like”
VIDEO: “Whatever I Like”
Set My Friends on Fire covered Soulja Boy, Framing Hanley covered Lil Wayne, and Brokencyde covered Flo Rida, but Barely Political (the Web site responsible for Obama Girl) managed to turn a song about buying attractive women into a song about buying the affections of the American populace. Using a Barack Obama look-alike from the depths of Area 51—close your eyes and wait for the “uh,” you’ll hardly know the difference—Barely Political’s version of T.I.’s patrimony fest is all about the New New Deal: “Long as ya’ll got me/you won’t need nobody!/You want it? I got it!/Propose it, I’ll sign it!” Despite Obama’s ability to woo racists and red-staters (and quite a few people in between) this video will feel significantly less funny in a few weeks when 4th quarter financial reports come in.
What sold us: The actor’s uncanny resemblance to the president-elect
Best moment: The one scene that doesn’t occur on presidential grounds depicts Obama dressed as one of the members of Boyz II Men, reclining on a white bed with a glass of Chardonnay.
Best Tom Waits Impression: Tom Waits, “Glitter & Doom Press Conference”
VIDEO: Glitter & Doom Press Conference
Less music video than baffling piece of performance art, this anti-publicity stunt by Waits’ Anti-Records label skewers pop mysticism, the press, and the singer in one weird-ass swoop. We’ve always known Waits had a sense of humor, and that his acting chops (Coffee & Cigarettes aside) were decent. What we didn’t know was his prodigious acumen as astrologer and, er, acronymist. Rarely has a recording artist so effectively parsed the relation between the life of stars and the life of man. Now if only someone could parse the lyrics to “Pale Rider.”
What sold us: The noirish drawl; the constellation Hydra; echoes of Gary Busey.
Best moment: “Say it with me: PEHDTSCKJMBA!”
Least Offensive Homophobic Slur: Brokencyde, “Freaxxx”
The folks at Eat Cake Films have produced one of the most ridiculed videos of the year, in which Albuquerque’s chosen sons of screamo dance around (poorly) with a man in a pig costume while singing lyrics that would make Lil’ Kim blush. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren thinks that Brokencyde is a new sign of the apocalypse, but skeptical listeners will likely realize that the dudez are just doing their best to facilitate a shotgun wedding between crunk and screamo. Alas, not even the rosiest- tinted glasses can redeem “Freaxxx.” Brokencyde traffics in rap’s beats and blatant misogyny: “I got these bitches all tipsy trying to sex me/ I know they want it, alcoholics are some sex freaks/This ex and chronic gots me wanting to get messy/So let’s get messy girls, come on let’s go get messy girls.” Lesbians, on the other hand, need not worry about unsolicited invites to hang with these crunkstars: “If you want me baby feel me in/’cause I don’t waste my time with lesbians.”
What sold us: The terrible, un-ironic dancing.
Best moment: Hott Extra #11 trying not to laugh while lead screamer Se7en chokes her.