Lil Nas X as lover and serpent in Montero

What Were March’s Best Music Videos?

This was the strongest month for music videos since we started doing this again. Many of them intersect with major social issues. The first is from an Israeli artist who’s spoken out against her country’s occupation of Palestine, and one of the last is from a Polish artist who’s been leading the fight there for women’s choice. There are a number of queer artists represented this month and yes, Lil Nas X appears below.

My intro ran long last month, so let’s skip the prattling and get straight in. This month, those scoring the videos were S.C. Himura, Eden O’Nuallain, Amanda Smith, Olivia Smith (no relation), Vanessa Tottle, and myself.

11. Story – Noga Erez ft. Rousso
directed by Indy Hait

Noga Erez is quickly becoming one of my favorite music video performers. She has an ability to let you in on the joke while also communicating distaste and resentment for the subject matter she covers. An Israeli musician, she’s grown increasingly critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and her current government. We mentioned her “End of the Road” in January – a music video that relies almost exclusively on a performance that veers from snark to anger to apathy.

I try to be very careful and transparent about respecting the guidelines of the BDS movement in regards to Israeli artists: stopping an ongoing genocide is a lot more important than whether a music video gets featured.

Contrary to popular perception, the BDS movement doesn’t call for boycotting all Israeli artists. PACBI highlights specific guidelines about whether artists sign contracts with the Israel Foreign Ministry. These contracts often include the artist agreeing to promote state interests.

It’s difficult to determine this for every artist, but Erez herself is signed to Berlin label City Slang. Insofar as I can research, I can’t find evidence of any such contract with the Israel Foreign Ministry, and many of her statements would never have been allowed by one. The most I can find is that she accepted a flight to the 2016 Rio Olympics as part of a musical showcase that was paid for by that department.

While she’s discussed unsure feelings on BDS, Erez has spoken regularly against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, autocratic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli nationalism, and recently about vaccine access inequality between Israel and Palestine. She’s been condemned by the Israel Ministry of Culture on multiple occasions for her music. Her recent single “Fire Kites” identifies with Palestinian girls who launched incendiary kites at Israel, contrasting the privileged childhood she had against what’s been taken away from them.

She was conscripted into the Israeli military at 18, and auditioned for a musician role to avoid a combat role – but conscription is not a choice. All adult Israeli citizens who are Jewish are conscripted. According to my understanding of PACBI guidelines, I can’t determine a reason that her work should be avoided.

All this may seem like a conversation that gets us away from Erez as an artist, but A) see the part about stopping an ongoing genocide being more important, and B) to talk about Erez invites having this conversation, since these are the very subjects she’s seeking out as an artist. Given how vocal she’s been on this front, it’s also hard not to read the video as critical of an unending cycle of violence. It wouldn’t be the first time.

10. Trophy – Crumb
directed by Haoyan of America

There’s so much to love and feel uncomfortable about here: the underlit grunge aesthetic, stagy acting, two seemingly disparate realities coming together, the animated twist. It seems to criticize our isolated pursuit of how we’re perceived, attempting to present ourselves as trophies to each other, tearing each other apart at any display of reality.

Haoyan of America is a mystery as a director. There isn’t accessible information about who they are, which is rare in this day and age. This is their fifth music video for Crumb, though they’ve also directed for Cautious Clay and Bachelor.

9. Sorry Kid – Ben Howard
directed by Thibaut Grevet

What I love about this video is the feeling of shock at just how much I missed on the first viewing. The first time I watched it, I became absorbed in this detail or that – when the woman hitting the wall is on-beat or going off it, for instance. I noticed most of what was happening, but not necessarily when it first appeared.

On subsequent viewings, I pick up on more – both in new details and the broader picture. It’s interesting to see which actors were superimposed and which were working together live. Some moments are simply repeated footage; others are variations of movements that were done multiple times. It makes for visuals that feel engaging without ever becoming too dense. You can always focus on what you want to without distraction, and that’s difficult when there’s this much going on. It’s an expertly directed and edited realization of a concept.

The film referenced throughout is “Tango”, an avant-garde animated short about 36 characters from different times moving in loops throughout the same room.

8. Kathleen – Foxes
directed by Florence Kosky

This is a beautiful contemplation on loss and how our loved ones live on in how they’ve shaped us. It’s also great to see an older dancer featured – they rarely are in music videos, and there’s no good reason for that.

It might feel easy to dismiss this as ordinary pop, but one thing I appreciate is how the lead-in phrase starts repeating itself for a whole minute. It fits the contemplative nature of the song and video. Moreover, that rise and move into the song itself that finally hits at 75-seconds is cathartic because the opening minute is stuck in that same loop – it mirrors what it’s like to lose someone without knowing how to cope. The celebratory nature of the rest of the song wouldn’t hit nearly the same way without that patient, introspective introduction to it.

7. Till Forever Falls Apart (check title) – Ashe ft. Finneas
directed by Sam Bennett

This shouldn’t work as well as it does, but there are so many good decisions in it. It’s a single-take video that incorporates some light choreography for the camera as well – it allows us to be inside that moment, and it makes us feel more present in the setting. As viewers, we’re engaged in the choreography and view it at multiple distances.

The setting is gorgeous and it all happens in real-time, on location. Compare the quality of light from when the video starts to 3 minutes in. This is happening at last light – that gives you a half-hour window to film, if even that.

The contemporary dance Ashe does on her own gives way to a ballroom style when she’s with Finneas. I won’t say either is knocking it out as a dancer, but there’s a looser, freer approach here that fits the song and windblown setting. The video might not be groundbreaking, but every part of it proves to be a good decision.

6. Montero – Lil Nas X
directed by Tanu Muino, Lil Nas X

Since releasing this and opening up the gates of hellish homophobes clutching their pearls, Lil Nas X keeps trolling with new versions such as “Montero but ur in the bathroom of hell while lil nas is giving satan a lap dance in the other room” (here) and “Satan’s Extended Version” (here). Really, it’s par from the course for the genius who gave us “Seoul Town Road” with a BTS guest appearance.

Right now, this looks like it’ll be his most popular video since “Old Town Road”, and thank god, really. It’s an assertive normalization of queerness that’s in-built to resist religious criticism. Are they going to tell him he’s going to go to hell? Watch the video. Are they going to be upset he’s giving Satan a lap dance? He kills Satan in the end. What they’re upset about isn’t Satanic imagery; it’s a man giving another man a lap dance.

I think it bears the question on everybody’s mind – does this make Lil Nas X more or less likely to be invited back to perform in Roblox? To be serious, if Madonna did this today, we wouldn’t blink. What offends the homophobes pretending their religion is an excuse to cast stones is that this is a strong Black queer man giving young Black queer men a path toward admiring and loving themselves instead of feeling othered by bigotry. I don’t know what’s supposed to be more godly than helping others save themselves.

The video’s spurred a lot of incredible public conversations, including one between Lil Nas X and FKA twigs about how her video for “Cellophane” served as an influence, and how both were informed by the physical language of sex workers that otherwise goes unnoticed and uncredited in so much of the music video industry. Many are happy to draw from it while we applaud and normalize the creativity, without acknowledging or normalizing the existence and voices of the workers who formed that language in the first place.

I also want to highlight Cuban-Ukrainian director Tanu Muino, who directs with Lil Nas X. You’ve likely seen her work before. Muino’s helmed Cardi B’s “Up”, Monatik’s “Spinning”, Katy Perry’s “Small Talk”, and ROSALIA’s “Juro Que”, among many other music videos.

5. Cowboy – Allison Ponthier
directed by Jordan Bahat

In the marriage of kitsch, camp, regionalism, and self-reflection that often defines contemporary art, Allison Ponthier tells her own story of coming out as gay. The music video reflects on rejecting who she was while growing up in a conservative Dallas suburb. She imagined moving to New York would be an overnight fix, but the damage others do makes for a lifetime of work.

It’s a joy to see such a studied and artful presentation of camp. Camp is often dismissed as a goofy way of telling a story, not to be analyzed or taken seriously. This obscures who’s telling those stories within the genre and why. Camp’s undercutting of convention is often a more precise undercutting of whose stories are considered serious and who’s stories are barred from inclusion.

Camp can’t take serious stories seriously when only certain people are even allowed to tell them safely. To see Ponthier translate a short history of camp in four minutes as a way of finally being able to tell her own story comfortably is a gorgeous metaphor that communicates at a personal level why camp is so important and enduring in the first place.

4. Game Change – Brodka
directed by Monika Brodka, Przemek Dzienis

The story of “Game Change” is that of a woman who takes over her husband’s role after his death. Outside of male/female binaries, others who do this codify their own language of dance and tics to communicate. It’s not a commentary on trans experiences as we’re familiar with them in the U.S. The concept’s based on Albanian sworn virgins. These were people who took vows of chastity and wore male clothing, being granted the privileges of men and being recognized as men – but only so long as they remained celibate.

The practice was often a way to avoid arranged marriage, child marriage, or being sold into marriage, to retain property that they otherwise would have lost, to be able to continue living with a husband’s family after his death, or to fight in his stead and be counted as a full person when calculating blood money to settle feuds (since women only counted as half a person in this historical accounting practice).

This is why I say it’s contextually different from our understanding of trans experiences. Trans people are simply becoming more fully who they already are. In the case of Albanian sworn virgins, the practice of switching genders was informed by a wide range of contextual cultural factors and dependent on remaining celibate.

Brodka is one of many women artists who’s spoken out against Poland’s theocratic government. Democracy has withered in Poland as the country becomes a Catholic theocracy. The country called a tribunal to pass a near-total ban on women’s choice. It penalizes medical personnel for ordering or carrying out an abortion. This has led to widespread protest. Sex education has also been criminalized, and animosity toward LGBTQ people has grown – in 2019, many Polish municipalities declared LGBT exclusion zones. This has contributed to Poland being rated as one of the worst countries for LGBTQ people to live according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. It’s this reality that informs Brodka’s “Game Change”.

3. Keep Moving – Jungle
directed by J Lloyd, Charlie Di Placido

If you don’t know Jungle, you’re missing out on consistently great dance videos. They don’t tend to repeat the same approach, either. Each one’s had a very different setting and mood. The directors they’ve worked with have matched theme to presentation well over the years.

There’s a smoothness that’s remarkable for just how often elements shift around within it. Groups of dancers split and build back together again constantly. The presentation is that this is all done in one continuous shot. It’s not a true single-take – there are hidden digital edits to it that make the filming easier. The choreography around it keep those transitions from being too apparent or from losing your attention, though. This is a genuinely great dance video that only doesn’t score higher because it was such a ridiculously good month for music videos.

By the way, if you want to see more Jungle videos, “Busy Earnin’”, “Julia”, and “Cherry” join this one as personal favorites.

2. Lovers in the Night – Seori
directed by Lee Young Hoon

This is cinematic. I had to check to ensure it wasn’t compiling scenes from a movie or series (it isn’t). I’m stunned by a few things here. The visuals are saturated in the kind of atmosphere that a lot of MVs attempt, but almost none achieve. Every moment somehow has weight and presence. You can practically breathe the thick air of the city at night. This is achieved through a dynamic range of approaches. In one shot, it’s a lighting filter. In another the edges of the shot are vignetted with a vaseline effect. Shallow focus blurs the background lights in some shots, whereas video effects accomplish this in others.

The inclusiveness of the MV is also beautiful, with a mix of couples across multiple orientations. I sat here and fist pumped the air in celebration at the moment with the cop that they tease you might not happen. And while yes, that particular concept (a cop kissing someone detained) is problematic on the whole, within the context of what this video’s doing, I think it works. Some of the street lighting is haloed out so much that you can see the rainbow color spectrum. Whether that was done as part of the overall visual approach or specifically as part of the MV’s inclusiveness, I don’t know, but it works beautifully.

“Lovers in the Night” is also in rarefied air when it comes to editing. The editing here is utterly sublime. There are moments in “Lovers in the Night” where movement in a shot is echoed in the next, connecting scene to scene by the way our eyes track across it. Where the editing’s become rapid and “Lovers in the Night” wants to stay on a longer shot, lighting cues are used to emulate the impact of an edit without actually cutting. The approach maintains the rhythm of the editing while staying on shot.

The technical work here is so mind-bogglingly precise that it comes across as smooth, effortless, laid back. I can’t say enough good things about how this is made.

1. Ride or Die – Boys Noize & Kelsey Lu ft. Chilly Gonzalez
directed by Art Camp, Danae Gosset, Danica Tan

I’ve watched this five times now and I just break every time. It feels like it’s doing so many things with identity, the pieces of ourselves we want to be vs. how we perceive ourselves. That we can’t put our finger on what everything means, that it’s intentional without being easily accessible – it makes the video emotive in a space that feels oddly safe. It’s rare for a music video to make you feel vulnerable – not just touched, or sad, but genuinely vulnerable.

It’s hard not to draw parallels to Kelsey Lu’s own story. Lu was raised Jehovah’s Witness, and left her religion as she grew up. As a queer woman, it was untenable, and she’s suggested she wouldn’t be alive if she hadn’t made that choice to leave. It isolated her from her family, though she’s spoken since about understanding what strict religion offered a Black family living in constant existential threat in the South. Considerations of religion and family form the backbone of a lot of Lu’s music – her first EP was called “Church” and her first album was “Blood”, so she’s not exactly hiding that.

It’s not the first time Art Camp and Danae Gosset have collaborated on an animation this transcendent, either. Mitski’s “A Pearl” was directed by Art Camp and Saad Moosajee, with Gosset co-directing. Art Camp is filmmakers Santiago Carrasquilla and Jos Diaz Contreras. For “Ride or Die”, Art Camp and Gosset were joined by Singaporean animator Danica Tan, based in L.A.

Carrasquilla, Contreras, Gosset, Tan…it feels good to write a best-of list like this month’s. It has artists from Germany, Israel, Poland, South Korea, the U.K., and the U.S. It has directors from Colombia, France, Israel, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, the U.K., Ukraine, and those are just the ones I can find info for. It’s been a stunning month for queer, gay, and bi representation. Eight of the 11 music videos are fronted by women artists.

I just feel immensely proud we can put this together. Not every month looks like this because many of these artists don’t get the same platforms, or funding, or opportunities. It feels good when they break through anyway.

Other music videos we liked this month:

“Feeling So Down” by Flora Cash is a heartfelt, animated MV that tells the story of two lovers across apocalypses.

“hypnotized” by tUnE-yArDs is a single-take video riding on a model train through a marvel of engineering and choreography.

“Story” by NF continues an incredible year of music videos for the rapper. Here, he tells the story of a woman caught in the middle of a hold-up at a convenience store.

“Leave the Door Open” by Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, and Silk Sonic is an exquisitely shot performance video with a really unfortunate line to open an otherwise great song.

“Knives” by Ya Tseen ft. Portugal. The Man is a bleak and beautiful stop-motion animation.

“Black Myself” by Amythyst Kiah reckons with how Black girls are taught to see themselves in the U.S.

“Show U Off” by Brent Faiyaz engages Black beauty and accomplishment that doesn’t get legitimized often enough.

“Hematome” by L’Imperatrice makes the second time in three months we’ve mentioned the French pop band. Here, an animation deals with beauty, humanization, and acceptance.

“Selfish Love” by DJ Snake & Selena Gomez finds Gomez running a hair salon that fries the brains of its customers. Combined with Spanish work that feels a lot less pre-packaged than her past English work, Gomez has delivered three really strong videos in 3 months.

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