1. Kanye West – Runaway [dir. Kanye West]
Other music videos might claim it unfair that they had to compete with “Runaway,” as it could very well be considered a short film set to a Kanye West soundtrack as opposed to a music video proper. But it is not like the other videos could not have also been as long as they wanted to be and included multiple songs. With “Runaway,” Kanye West could have earned the honor of best music video of the year through sheer ambition alone, but the execution isn’t too bad, either. The phoenix that Kanye’s character, Griffin, discovers is supposed to be a pure and unblemished creature, and the implication is that the world she comes from is pure and unblemished as well. But when the phoenix explains that what she hates most about Griffin’s world is how sculptures are phoenixes turned to stone by society, one wonders if she is really the authority on perfection. Griffin insists that this is not true. Surely this is hardly the worst deed committed by the people of this world. But is Griffin too naïve to be arguing with her? When a guest at the dinner party asks him if he realizes that his girlfriend is a bird, he admits that he does not. What is absolutely going on is the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of natives of two different worlds coming to a complete understanding of each other. The phoenix’s protests sound so wrong to Griffin’s ears because she does not (cannot?) explain it in his terms, nor can he explain what he has to say in her terms.
2. The Black Keys – Tighten Up [dir. Chris Marrs Piliero]
It is the relatively rare video that is not a collection of images to accompany the music, but also a story with a clearly traceable narrative. And it is the rare video within that category that keeps that story contained to the length of the song. Usually, you have something like “Thriller” that adds a few minutes before, in between, and sometimes after the song. True, “Tighten Up” includes an approximately 20-second opening before the music kicks in, but after that, the song does not stop (save for about a second in the middle). There is quite a bit of whimsy to the storytelling of the Black Keys: e.g., who keep donuts in their pockets? (What if you get clothing fibers on the donut? Or flour in your pockets?) The fact that Dan and Patrick are just as bad as their sons illustrates that stories about love are as old as time and stories about guys fighting over the same girl are one second short of being as old as time. Of course this little blues rock number is the perfect soundtrack for such a story. You can hardly blame the boys – that little girl is quite the seductress.
3. M.I.A. – Born Free [dir. Romain Gavras]
Apparently the “Born Free” video was banned from YouTube (although I had no trouble finding it). I guess some people were a little too disturbed by it. Unfortunately, I have the sense that those people missed the point, as I heard that it was banned due to its violent content, as opposed to its political views. As it is, M.I.A. is about the only musician today brave enough – nay, she’s about the only musician who cares enough – to make political allegory out of her videos. (Were there ever any other musicians making videos like this?) Like the best allegories, it is a fully realized, unironic fantasy world that looks like our own world. Of course it is ridiculous that redheads would be taken from their homes, shot, beaten, and blown up, but how is it any more ridiculous than America’s treatment of blacks and Native Americans or the Tamil genocide in M.I.A.’s native Sri Lanka?
4. St. Vincent – Laughing with a Mouth of Blood [dir. Patrick Stanton and Doug Lussenhop]
The music video for “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” is also part of a series of sketches by thunderAnt. thunderAnt is Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and SNL’s Fred Armisen (who have brought the Women and Women First Bookstore to their IFC sketch series Portlandia). This video would work if it was just a one-off, but it is always nice when an up-and-coming artist is in the hands of a group of people that have already got a thing going. It is all about the indignities of being a struggling musician, with the embarrassment of nobody showing up to an under-promoted gig amplified by the cluelessness of the hipster owners of a feminist bookstore.
5. Lady GaGa ft. Beyoncé – Telephone [dir. Jonas Åkerlund]
Before “Telephone,” Lady GaGa’s videos were mostly a mishmash of images, and nothing else (with the exception of the sophisticated “Paparazzi”). They were basically excuses for the dancing set pieces, although they did have the eye obscuring and the other Illuminati symbols. Then with “Telephone,” GaGa decided that she was no longer just going to make silly conspiracy hand gestures, she was going to make a full-blown conspiracy-laden video. The fact that the assassins of “Telephone” are of the brainwashed variety may be oblique to some, and GaGa’s conspiratorial leanings certainly aren’t reported much on the MTV. But you got to know that something is up when the Japanese TV style graphics clutter the screen as GaGa prepares the poison. And let’s not miss Beyoncé’s Mickey Mouse sunglasses.
I’m not entirely sure what Lady GaGa’s stance on mind control by the media is, or if she even wants her fans to notice that element of her artistry, but go ahead and watch The Manchurian Candidate and realize that she is part of a tradition of great brainwashing-related art.
6. Jay-Z ft. Swizz Beatz – On to the Next One [dir. Sam Brown]
All right, more fun from the Illuminati! Jay-Z’s black and white video is actually filled with a whole host of occult images: Jay-Z making devil horns while surrounded by a halo-esque set of lights, liquid being poured on an encrusted skull, crows, skull face paint, horned skulls representing the pagan deity Baphomet. The bareness of the set design and the b&w palette are reminiscent of Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” video, but the occult references make for a creepier end product. The fact that these symbols have been associated with groups like the Knights Templar and the freemasons that supposedly secretly run society makes it clear that Jay is the one pulling the strings in the rap world.
7. Rihanna – Rude Boy [dir. Melina Matsoukas]
If you are going to subscribe to the theory that the music video should not strive for narrative but should only be a collection of images, then make sure you are working with people who know how to put together a nice artistically minded color palette. References to iconic art helps as well: Andy Warhol (the silhouetted Rihanna), Keith Haring (the lion figure), and Jean-Michael Basquiat (the crown). There is also what is to my eyes a visual reference to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (check out RiRi’s hair during the zebra-print portion). And then Rihanna’s physical wit (curled lips, winks, finger pointing, smiles) ensures that her personality is firmly planted within the images.
8. Janelle Monáe ft. Big Boi – Tightrope [dir. Wendy Morgan]
Epigraphs are often so extraneous. So when you get a good one, you gotta love it. This is what Janelle Monáe has to tell us in her doozy of an epigraph: “Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.” If you are going to make a dance music video, make sure of these three things: everyone can dance really well, the routine is creative and intricate, and there is a style to the video all its own. “Tightrope” has the first two down with no problems (the dancing does not stop as it makes its way through the asylum), and then the third element is wild: a woman who looks sexy in a tuxedo. And Janelle adds a little extra, delivering on the promise of the epigraph, as the dancing apparently gives her the ability to walk through walls. So it is, then, that if we can dance, then we too can walk through the walls of our lives.
9. Drake – Find Your Love [dir. Anthony Mandler]
Drake has been such a sensation in the rap world because he plainly makes rap music and videos that are unlike anything any other MC’s are producing. What other rapper makes the focus of his video a (realistic-looking) kidnapping and casts a girl with a huge ass as the love interest? A lot of guys rap about the badonkadonk, but who besides Drake has put a true badonkadonk (and one that isn’t very flattering proportion-wise) in a video? The girl is not shot particularly glamorously, except insofar as a kiss on the beach is glamorous. But the image of Drake and the girl is striking nonetheless. One might think that the kidnapping element would mean that Drake is at his lowest and most frightened, but instead his is a state of melancholy, as he deeply ponders how his situation has come to this. He is looking for a real, meaningful love when everything around him is telling him that it does not exist.
10. Yeasayer – Madder Red [dir. Andreas Nilsson]
Kristen Bell plays an aspiring actress in a relationship (mother/son? girlfriend/boyfriend? owner/pet? friends?) with a short, stocky creature with stumpy (if any) feet, one oddly shaped arm, and bloody pus drooling out of its mouth. Her mother looks like she might disapprove, or it could be that she is just worried because she knows how sick this poor little fellow is. They rush to the hospital, but it turns out to be the creature’s time. Could this be a statement on racial tolerance? Animal rights? Based on the look of the creature, it could very well be a truly graphic and fearless depiction of a pro-life viewpoint. Ultimately, its most essential theme is love. Kristen’s love for the creature is the strongest portrayal of unconditional love I have ever seen in a music video.