Posts Tagged ‘Video Dose’

MUSIC: Video Dose: Erykah Badu's Banal, Irrelevant Rip-off Video

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music

This week, soul and jazz singer Erykah Badu made headlines for her controversial new music video for the song “Window Seat.” The video depicts Badu walking around JFK’s assassination site, gradually removing her clothing. Eventually, she ends up completely naked (though censored on YouTube), and [spoiler alert] gets shot.

You can view the video here.

Though ten years ago Badu might have generated headlines simply for putting out a popular song, today the media’s attention has focused squarely on the video’s propriety, and whether it’s irreverent to JFK’s memory. You can read all about it in this MSNBC article, among other places.

What’s so funny about the debate, however, is that it overlooks a couple of vastly more important questions. First, who cares about any of the stuff Badu chose to include in her video (including, sadly, herself)? And, second, how has Badu been let off the hook for making what amounts to a bland rip-off of something much better?

It’s worth noting that Badu has long been a respected artist. She also made a fair amount of money and had several charting hits. On the other hand, and despite periodically putting out some new material, she hasn’t really done much lately worth noting. Of course, stripping in a video was sure to remedy that, but it doesn’t compellingly make the argument that her music is particularly relevant.

The attention being given to JFK’s unwitting role in the controversy is similarly baffling. Though many in the soon-to-be-retired set deify Kennedy, that attitude has always seemed odd to me. Sure, he died, but was he an otherwise exceptional president? His New Frontier is a joke compared to LBJ’s Great Society. (Though Kennedy doesn’t seem to get the recognition he deserves for pursuing American involvement in the glorious conflict known as Vietnam.) And in any case, who gets choked up about James Garfield or William McKinley, Kennedy’s assassinated presidential predecessors? Who questions the reverence artists give to their assassination sites?

The point here isn’t to knock JFK. Rather, it’s to point out that he matters less and less all the time. The Cold War is over. Few people under 40 put Kennedy on a pedestal any more, and few under 30 even think much about him. History matters, of course, but JFK’s relatively short moment in the sun doesn’t have the emotional weight it used to, and it even seems increasingly like just another page from a high school text book.

And now, so does Badu. “Window Seat” references a fading historical figure that’s out of touch with younger listeners, and to top it off Badu ends up nude. It feels like the kind of groping for fame that Toni Braxton tried at the 2001 Grammys when she stole a page from Jennifer Lopez’s 2000 playbook and wore next to nothing. It made headlines, sure, but it also smacked of plagiarism and desperation.

Which brings up the second point: Badu’s surprising — but ultimately fruitless — rip-off of the video for “Lessons Learned,” a song by Brooklyn-based band Matt and Kim.

Matt and Kim’s video came out last year, and was well-received. It appeared on Pitchfork’s best videos of 2009, won an MTV Video Music Award, and generally raised the band’s profile. And, in fairness to Badu, the “Window Seat” video begins with on-screen text citing its inspiration. (You can see Matt & Kim’s original video here.)

Yet somehow, Badu’s later work still comes off as a watered down, pretentious, and bloated mainstream version of what was an innovative work by an up-and-coming band. Like Badu’s video, Matt and Kim’s involves the musicians walking through the street, taking off clothes. In this case, however, the setting is New York City, a place with infinitely more relevance in a post-9/11 world than the hallowed ground of a cold warrior’s death.

As Matt and Kim’s video progresses, it also unfolds much like Badu’s, right up to the tragic ending. What makes it so much more appealing, however, is that the band isn’t trying to cram pocketbook philosophy down viewers’ throats. While Badu’s version gets caught up in the JFK references and indicts the idea of “groupthink,” Matt and Kim leave their video open for interpretation. It’s subtle, timely, and viscerally fun. “Window Seat,” on the other hand, saps all the pleasure out of normally exciting things like the ’60s and nudity.

Ultimately, it’s not surprising that a mainstream artist 10 years past her heyday feels less relevant than an occasionally naked New York indie band. What is disappointing, however, is that the video’s focus — as well as that of the surrounding debate — on baby boomer fetishes makes Badu seem less appealing. It conveys the sense that she needs (but doesn’t have) a comeback, as opposed to just another hit song, and distracts from the suddenly more-deserving-of-attention Matt and Kim.


MUSIC: Video Dose: Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)"

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music

In honor of the Winter Olympics currently going down in Vancouver, this week’s Video Dose features Canadian native sons (and daughter) Arcade Fire. Admittedly, Arcade Fire is from Montreal, which is a long way from Vancouver. Still, they’re one of the most talented and successful bands in their genre to emerge recently from the Great White North.

Deciding which Arcade Fire video would be most appropriate for this Video Dose was no easy task. For me, it came down to the respective videos for “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” and “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” both from the band’s debut album Funeral. (The band doesn’t have a lot of videos, but I did consider highlighting something more recent and/or fan-produced.) Ultimately, however, I decided to go with the latter choice for two reasons: it’s animated, which seemed appropriate given this year’s nomination of an animated film for Best Picture, and it’s really snowy, which fit well with the Olympics theme (and is slightly ironic in light of the shortage of snow in Vancouver right now).

It’s probably worth mentioning that despite a personal love of animation generally, I’ve frequently been disappointed by animated music videos. They often seem to miss fact that a good video is neither a short film nor a filmed concert, but rather a blending of narrative and performance. In other words, I don’t necessarily want to see a three-minute cartoon set to cool music, I want to watch a genuine music video.

In some ways, “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” suffers from that common problem but, for what it’s worth, the editing is more responsive to the music than many other animated videos. The CGI visuals also tie in surprisingly well with some of the band’s other videos. Together, these factors mitigate potential detachment between sound and imagery, and the result is a video that doesn’t feel lacking, even if the band itself never shows up onscreen. MTV also apparently liked the video, as it nominated “Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)” for video of the year in 2006.

Besides standing a head above other animated videos and jiving well with today’s headlines, “Neighborhood #3″ is just visually striking. It was team-directed by Plates Animation and represents a world that is historic, dystopian, and sleekly modern. Though somewhat less rooted in silent film aesthetics than “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” the warped cityscape is still highly evocative of early German expressionist filmmaking. Brilliantly, however, the computer animation also lends it a contemporary, phantasmagoric quality reminiscent of anime. It’s Murnau meets Miyazaki — and with that combination it can’t go wrong.

Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.

MUSIC: Video Dose: Neon Trees, "Animal"

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music

Neon Trees

Though I don’t exactly remember the first time I saw Neon Trees, I’ll never forget how I felt. It was a few years ago when Provo seemed to have more rock bands, but I still hadn’t seen anything quite like the them (with the important exception of Midwives Crisis, who were also amazing). Though I’m typically too shy to be much more than a wallflower at concerts, Neon Trees made me want to dance. A lot. In fact, the impulse wasn’t so much a desire as it was a need. It was spectacle on the rocks, and I was completely intoxicated.

Since then the band has evolved, undergone at least one lineup change, and signed to Mercury Records. Though I love the music of Joshua James and Isaac Russell, I make no apologies for my belief that Neon Trees are currently Provo’s best nationally recognizable rising stars. Compared to other, newer acts in the area, they are also proof local music can be successful by being garish, over-the-top and deliciously dark.

But of course, this is “Video Dose” and not a discussion on how Utah County needs less wimpy, acoustic-boy “folk” music. (Sorry, everyone else at Rhombus.)

Indeed, as part of Neon Trees’ ascent in the world, they recently released a video for their first single, “Animal.” As music videos go, it’s firmly in the “band-playing-out-in-the-desert” genre; they’re surrounded by scrubby brush, they’ve got their tour van, they goof around a bit. It’s the kind of video that, if not earth-shatteringly original, is designed to capture the ethos of an up-and-coming rock band that aims to entertain.

The video was directed by Zach Rogers and was shot on a shoe-string budget over two days. The band got up early to capture the sunrise and, according to lead singer Tyler Glenn, it wasn’t as easy as it looks.

“It was so cold, so cold,” Glenn told me. “It looks sunny and warm in the video, but all of those desert scenes were ridiculously cold.” He also said one of the other big challenges was getting approval to shoot on land owned by the Navajo Nation, which apparently turned out to be relatively expensive.

The video’s concept evolved out of collaborations between Glenn and Rogers. The band wanted to create something that could go viral and, as Glenn recounts, “Zach’s idea was to make it almost a documentary, where he’d film a lot and the vibe would be following the band around their first video shoot.”

What surprises me most about the video is just how charming it is. Typically at Neon Trees shows, I see a band invested in hyperreal swagger and larger-than-life bravado, but in “Animal” the band is deeply humanized. Sure, they’re playing and looking cool, but then suddenly they’re moving gear around (without roadies) and throwing feathers in the van. Guitarist Chris Allen shares an intimate moment on the side of the road and nearly gets left behind.

Overall, everyone just smiles a lot. All of these things really surprised me, but also make the band feel much more approachable. They give the sense the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously and that they actually enjoy what they’re doing. It’s a refreshing approach to rock music and probably an expedient one for the band if they’re going to continue to grow a non-local fan base.

Though it should be apparent I’m partial to Neon Trees, the video is also significant for what it represents for local music. Most obviously, simply having a talented band with a quality music video out in the world raises the scene’s profile and lends it legitimacy. Though there are a few other musicians from the area getting national recognition, most of them are the creme de la creme of the acoustic and folk scenes. The prominence of Neon Trees, as exemplified by their “Animal” video, proves that not everyone in Provo is a folkie, cowboy or indie. (Though the Neon Trees may be indie in temperament, their aesthetics are more glam-punk.)

More significantly however, the video for “Animal” also represents a rock band taking ownership of their home turf. Though seemingly innumerable other bands have gone out to the salt flats or some anonymous ex-urban California desert for their videos, few of them actually originated in those locales. Neon Trees, on the other hand, are from Utah and “Animal” displays that in full force. It’s a distinction that many viewers — especially those not from Utah — may miss, but it is nonetheless significant that they have appropriated a setting more commonly associated with alt-country. In other words, the band isn’t just playing in the desert because it’s cool, they’re playing there because it’s a representation of real-life experience.

Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.

MUSIC: Video Dose: Bat For Lashes, "Daniel"

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music

Bat for Lashes

In my last Video Dose, I argued that most modern videos are indebted to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in one way or another. About the same time that article was being posted I also realized that every video I had highlighted had been from the 80s. So, in order to change things up and simultaneously point out an example of MJ’s influence, this week’s Video Dose is Bat For Lashes’ “Daniel.”

In the first half of 2009 Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Khan, was one of those artists I kept hearing about but hadn’t seriously gotten around listening to. When I finally did, I was impressed. She has a rich but wispy voice and an eclectic array of influences for her sometimes pulsing, sometimes silky songs. Reviewing her 2009 album Two Suns, Rolling Stone said she might feel “comfortable at some Renaissance fair, playing only for unicorns,” but that “somehow, the music melts away the potential for hokeyness.”

“Daniel” was the first single from Two Suns and a top 40 hit. The video came out last March and was directed by Johan Renck. Basically, it’s a take on the common “singer-standing-room” genre. Khan starts off singing, some people in black come out and rub up against her, she drives away, and finally meets some guy, presumably Daniel.

(View the video for Bat for Lashes’ “Daniel” here.)

The “Daniel” video has been met with a fair amount of critical praise. It was nominated for an MTV VMA for best breakout video and, much more prestigiously, appears on Pitchfork’s “Best Music Videos of 2009” list. It’s entertaining and engaging, if not wholly groundbreaking.

What makes the video most interesting, however, is how it adapts traditional music video conventions that were popularized by videos like “Thriller.” For example, there’s a lot of choreography, group dancing, and high production values. Of course, it’s unlikely that Renck and Kahn were thinking about Michael Jackson as they conceptualized the video, but the final result demonstrates how standardized those conventions have become; today audiences simply accept “cinematic” videos as the norm. If it doesn’t immediately seem like “Daniel” is indebted to any particular video, it’s because the imagery has become so ubiquitous it feels natural.

To the credit of the video’s producers, “Daniel” also upends its genre by making the star a victim. The dark figures — which sort of look like Fruit of the Loom’s grape character as interpreted by Swedish band The Knife — don’t dance with Kahn, they symbolically molester her. Whereas a video like “Thriller” was all about macabre spectacle and portrayed MJ as the architect of his own world, “Daniel” is an image of alienation. And with evaporation of heady, consumerist optimism, “Daniel” seems like a particularly appropriate re-rendering of a traditional idea.

All this isn’t to say that Bat For Lashes is the next Michael Jackson. She isn’t. But her video is a strong entry that takes music video conventions and adapts them well to her brand of art. It deserves the accolades it has received and hopefully paves the way for more.

Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.

MUSIC: Video Dose: Michael Jackson, "Thriller"

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music

2010 is the year the music video grows up. In case you haven’t heard, in December the National Film Registry (NFR) decided to include Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video in the Library of Congress. It’s the first time a music video has ever received such a distinction and signifies the dawning of an age of respect for the art form.

Typically, the NFR is devoted to preserving historic and culturally significant movies. For example, since its creation in 1988 it has inducted Gone with the Wind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Casablanca. Though films aren’t required to have a minimum running time to get into the Library of Congress, most modern inductees have been feature-length films. (Fargo, for example, is the youngest film in the registry.)

So it’s especially significant that “Thriller” has been included, because it means the music video genre is maturing. What was initially little more than a song-length commercial has grown into an independent art form that expresses something unique from the song it represents. In other words, videos have become respectable.

It’s fitting that “Thriller” is the first video included in the NFR. Though music videos had existed long before it, everything changed in its wake. Instead of simply depicting a musician performing or doing something idiosyncratic, the video combined complex storytelling and filmmaking. There was a retro zombie story, and Michael Jackson acted as much as he sang. At over 13 minutes long, it also demonstrated that videos could include extra material that wasn’t a part of the song. (Ed. — Unfortunately, the video embedded above is not the full 13-minute version. Apparently even the power of the Internet is not enough to harness MJ’s greatness — or at least not in an embeddable form.)

As is the case with most revolutionary artworks, the innovations apparent in “Thriller” have become commonplace. Videos typically tell some sort of story today and have big budgets to do so. (“Thriller” was shot on a then-colossal budget of $500,000.) In addition to the innumerable direct imitations, parodies and tributes, most music videos out there are eternally indebted to “Thriller” in one way or another — through dancing, cinematography, production design, etc. In short, “Thriller” was a game-changer when it was released because it proved that music videos could be exciting and expressive. It continues to be a game-changer today because proves that music videos continue to be an important mode of expression in contemporary America.

Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.

MUSIC: Video Dose: Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music

Christmas calls for kitsch. Whether it’s cheap tinsel, plastic yard snowmen, or fake trees, the holidays are never quite complete without piles of normally tacky ephemera. Surprisingly, perhaps, this aspect of the holiday season also has a lot in common with ’80s music videos. At that time, the music video format was in its infancy and artists were still figuring out how to translate their music into a short-form film.

It’s fitting, then, that this week’s Video Dose is Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” which combines the look and attitude of early hip-hop with the silly jankiness of the holiday season. The video begins in “Santa’s Workshop 1987,” which is depicted as fake little house in the snow. Inside, Santa is using the classic game Simon to designate children as either naughty or nice. After a few minutes an elf shows up and Santa leaves to go on his rounds.

Once Santa leaves, the cliché Christmas music that had been playing stops and Run DMC’s actual song begins. The elf, left alone at Santa’s controls, begins designating everyone as naughty and soon the video cuts to a fictional version of the group’s home neighborhood Hollis, in Queens, N.Y. From here on out the video mostly features Run DMC rapping about how they celebrate and what they hope to get for Christmas.

If “Christmas in Hollis” isn’t Run DMC’s best or most famous song ever, the video is a remarkable example of holiday irony and hip-hop deconstruction. Generally speaking, Run DMC was a pioneer group that not only changed the way rap sounds, but are also largely responsible for how it looks. They rejected the glam aesthetic of earlier groups and opted instead for a rougher, “street” image. In “Christmas in Hollis” that image is cleverly juxtaposed with the kitschy accoutrements of Christmas, which pokes holes in the seriousness of both. The fake fireplace, for example, looks all the more absurd with an ’80s rapper standing next to it, and the group seems to be telling us that they don’t take themselves too seriously. By the end of the video, the constant barrage of Christmas imagery in the company of typical hip-hop bravado comes off as a more ’80s-esque version of the kind of irony that made the beginning of Elf so charming.

While placing hip-hop and Christmas images side-by-side makes the video endearing, it also turns a critical eye on rap’s ever-present obsession with wealth. Even today (or perhaps especially today), hip-hop has fixated on and fetishized an opulent fantasy that vaunts money, male virility, and power. It’s precisely the kind of thing that Saturday Night Live satirized in “I’m on a Boat” and Kanye West and Spike Jonze explored in “We Were Once a FairyTale.”

What’s so amazing about the “Christmas in Hollis” video, however, is that it includes the same type of critique, but twenty years earlier. How, it asks, might a few poor youths acquire a boat? Where are their bags of money going to come from? In essence, how can they break the cycle of urban poverty? The answer is simple: Santa will do it. It’s an altogether brilliant idea and still quite a bit fresher than most songs and music videos manage today.

Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus. His Video Dose feature, highlighting the best of the artform, appears on a weekly basis.

MUSIC: Video Dose: A Weekly Music Video Spotlight

Written by Jim Dalrymple on . Posted in Music

Sometime in the distant past music videos played all day on MTV. Unfortunately, however, reality TV was invented and put an end to that. Still, before various music stations completely gave up on videos, they helped a fledgling genre mature from a quaint novelty to a full-blown art form. Though artists had long added visuals to their work, it wasn’t until the early ’80s that the music video became an integral — and then essential — part of a hit song.

Surprisingly, as MTV has spiraled toward irrelevance the music video has survived, largely thanks to the Internet. On the other hand, with billions of videos out there (on trillions of websites), it can be a pain to find anything new or worth watching. In that spirit, I bring you “Video Dose,” which I hope will be a remedy for our growing music video deficiency.

This column won’t purport to highlight only the best or most obscure music videos out there, but will look at new and classic material that deserves watching or re-watching. It will also focus specifically on a song’s video, as opposed to the music itself. I’m sure we’ve all seen videos that made or broke a song, and I hope to highlight videos that make mediocre songs good and good songs great.

With Christmas coming up, I’d like to use the first few weeks of Video Dose to look at holiday-themed music videos. Christmas songs are something of a double-edged sword: they’re fun and people are pretty forgiving when it comes to quality, but since they only get played once a year musicians sometimes rush production and skimp on effort. Christmas videos have an even harder time. If a band actually chooses to make a Christmas video, it often has a low budget, simple concept, and becomes immediately hard to find.

In that light, it’s especially refreshing to see a high quality Christmas video and this week’s Video Dose is the The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York.” The Pogues are an Irish folk-punk band that sounds kind of like The Clash playing traditional Celtic songs in a bar while slightly drunk. “Fairytale of New York” is an angsty duet between front man Shane MacGowan and English singer-songwriter Kristy MacColl. MacGowan’s vocals are rough and angry, while MacColl’s are sweet and bright — and together they make the song feel both nostalgic and ironic.

The video for “Fairytale of New York” capitalizes on the song’s subject matter and casts the two vocalists as a down-on-their luck couple in New York City. Shot entirely in black and white, it also features images of the band, a cameo by Matt Dillion (playing a cop), and the NYPD’s Pipe and Drums unit. Overall, the visuals are cinematic in their orientation, but appropriately understated and tap into New York’s iconic association with immigration, romance and, of course, Christmas. They also make the point that for all the glamour of the city, the season is also remarkable for its simple, bittersweet pleasures.

Jim Dalrymple is a regular popular culture correspondent for Rhombus.