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Behind the Music Videos 

There are some pretty cool videos out there, but you won't see them on MTV

Wednesday, Oct 1 2003
Remember the scandal surrounding nasty lyrics and the 2 Live Crew album cover and Tipper Gore's crusade against obscenities in music? Didn't those things seem ridiculous to you when you were a kid? They did to me, and the thought of echoing the protests of, or even sympathizing with, reactionary people like Gore gives me the willies. But a recent afternoon spent in front of the idiot box watching MTV's after-school programming lineup has got me, to use the PTA's verbiage, morally outraged -- not so much at the music, which I've come to expect is going to suck, but at the videos themselves. Have you seen these things lately?

The first video on this particular afternoon's episode of Direct Effect really says it all. The song is "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" by State Property, featuring the Young Gunz. The premise for the video is that rappers Jay Z, Beanie Sigel, and others (including a charmingly named Peedi Crakk) get to be the first males admitted to an all-girls' reform school. Neat! And so, as an alarmingly simple Casio keyboard line diddles in the background, the rappers take to touting their skills while half-naked girls -- who, by the logic of the video, are in high school -- dance and wriggle. Cool!

"Can't Stop, Won't Stop" is followed by R. Kelly's charming "Thoia Thong" video, directed by Kelly himself. Aside from being instantly amused by the irony of a man facing 21 counts of child pornography having a hit single about ladies' underwear, I'm struck by the fluid nature in which the idea espoused by the song -- Thongs are awesome! -- informs the imagery of the video, i.e., all things feudal-Japan, including a samurai warrior, nunchucks, rice-paper walls, and, of course, Japanese women pole-dancing half-naked (a popular, but little-known, tradition in ancient Japanese cultures typically skipped over in history class).

After Kelly's piece comes a string of other videos, each more wholesome than the one before. There's Youngbloodz's "Damn!" featuring girls sucking on lollipops and dancing half-naked in the street, as well as Lil' Jon & the Eastside Boys' visionary tale "Get Low," about the trials and tribulations of half-naked girls giving lap dances to people in barbershops, half-naked girls boxing one another in kiddie pools, and half-naked girls dancing in -- why not? -- a strip club before half-naked police officers (also girls) arrive to shoot the strippers with water pistols.

My favorite, though, is the latest from Beyoncé, "Baby Boy," in which the singer lasciviously writhes and winces on a bearskin rug wearing nothing but a dishrag-size piece of chain mail. This one is so obviously suggestive that I figure it's going to cut to close-ups of anal penetration at any second (it doesn't; I think those must be on the director's cut). And, wait a second, isn't Beyoncé starring in a new movie playing a gospel singer? Is the Beyoncé camp sending a mixed message or did someone find a lost chapter of the Bible where God says, "In addition to singing my praises, thou shalt shake that ass. It's all about the drachma, my hizzos."

To be fair, the videos on MTV2 Rocks, while decidedly less misogynistic, are no more creative. Alien Ant Farm has one in which the band performs in a living room, and the music is apparently so good that nearby appliances can't help dancing. There's also A Perfect Circle's morbid vignette about an anorexic girl with (literally) a hole in her stomach, who traipses through a forest catching reptiles and throwing them down a hole, only to finally fall into the hole herself (the meaning of this video is about as clear to me as Kelly's fascination with Japan). The only thing I see all afternoon that is at all cool is Andrew W.K.'s "Never Let Down" video, in which nothing at all happens save for W.K. sitting down at a grand piano like Randy Newman at the Academy Awards and playing his song. While the action, or lack thereof, is understated, the song is an explosion of arena-rock guitars and thunderous drumming. It's the kind of tune that screams for an epic music video, so W.K. just sitting there at a piano is funny. It's called being ironic, and those exploitative fuckheads responsible for making the previously mentioned crap would do well to take a page out of W.K.'s book.

Now, some of you are probably thinking that dissing MTV videos -- or, for that matter, pop music in general -- is like shooting fish in a barrel; we all know it's poo so there's no sense in talking about it. But I think that attitude is the problem: It's like inviting your pedophile uncle (or, for that matter, R. Kelly) to your daughter's 13th birthday party and then telling the adults in attendance not to point out his "little problem." It'd be one thing if pop music were just innocuous treacle -- it sucks if people want to spend their hard-earned cash on treacle, but as long as Kelly Clarkson isn't teaching preteens about sex in the back of a Jeep, I'm cool. But when the top five requested videos in the 4 o'clock time slot feature hundreds of barely clothed girls clawing at one another for the opportunity to star-fuck some rapper, well, shouldn't we be talking about that? Isn't that fundamentally wrong? Or am I just turning into my grandfather faster than I could have ever imagined?

The thing that got me curious about all this in the first place was a trip two weeks ago to the San Francisco installment of ResFest, which celebrates technologically and ideologically progressive works of film, video, and animation. A chunk of ResFest is devoted to music videos -- and good goddamn were there some mind-blowing pieces on display.

Floria Sigismondi's video for Sigur Rós' "Untitled #1" is a gorgeous, lyrical depiction of doe-eyed children frolicking after school -- in an ash-covered post-apocalyptic world in which they are required to wear gas masks just to go outside. Roman Coppola's piece for Phoenix's "Funky Squaredance" is nine minutes of Coppola self-consciously pursuing his most whacked-out music video fantasies, including a segment that asks the viewer to blink on either the up or the down beat; the video is then edited so that depending on when you have your eyes open you'll experience one of two image sequences. (Coppola, who has directed videos for the Strokes and Daft Punk, among others, told me, "It's just a total given that they would never, ever even consider playing [the Phoenix video] on MTV. You just don't expect that 'cause it just won't happen.") Then there was the crowd favorite, Ruben Fleischer's video for DJ Format's "We Know Something You Don't," in which Fleischer replaces the hip hop tropes of gold chain­wearing rappers, their obnoxious posses, and scantily clad dance troupes with rappers and break dancers dressed in giant shark, bear, and alligator costumes. You don't know funny until you've seen a big green fuzzy alligator gettin' jiggy with it.

So the thing I'm wondering is why I have to go to a special film festival, which takes place just once a year, to see intelligent, humorous, entertaining music videos. I know it sounds whiny and codgerly and all that, but are this many people really so dumb and tasteless that half-naked girls and gold chains and animated dishwashers are the only things they feel like watching? (Such collective stupidity would, perhaps, explain the U.S. Army's decision to advertise nonstop during these time slots.)

Worst of all is that it's so clichéd to complain about this sort of thing that the people who would ordinarily be in a position to do so avoid it, opting instead to shutter themselves up -- "I've got my college radio and a long list of books to read, thank you" -- as millions of kids are inundated daily with this shit (including, for what it's worth, my 14-year-old sister). This ever-widening chasm between high and low culture is what's really scary, because the more people distance themselves from the mob in the pit, the easier it is for the "Ministers of Culture," for that's the de facto identity of Big Media, to tell/sell them whatever they want (as, meanwhile, some of us continue to wonder how 70 percent of Americans could believe Saddam had a hand in 9/11).

But hey, maybe it's not such a big deal. After all, in the '80s we had hair metal, and that was eerily similar to today's commercial hip hop, with its flashy clothes and busty chicks and projected reality that all those rock stars ever do is get fuckin' laaaaaid, bro. Now, follow that thread to a semicomforting thought: What waits for R. Kelly and Lil' Jon and all the rest is the same thing that greeted Vince Neil and Axl Rose and C.C. DeVille in their middle ages: obscurity, rehab, and Behind the Music. I guess that wishing such a fate on these fatuous demigods makes me somewhat of a player-hater. But, if it's any consolation, I hate the game just as much.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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