The thing about Mitski that I don’t get anywhere else is that her music (often with Zia Anger’s videos) feels like a safe place to just…break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. The music feels like a shelter or recognition for places we barely speak about.
We imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power; as if we can’t feel depressed or anxious if we avoid talking about being depressed or anxious. We imagine this because we understand these things through relationships of power. Our culture understands everything primarily through relationships of power.
Depression and anxiety aren’t about a power struggle in ourselves, though. They’re not wresting for power, they can’t be overcome by will. They’re just there. They’re just present, like air or sunshine. Sometimes they’re present for a reason and there’s an identifiable cause. Sometimes they’re present because they’re component to how someone’s brain works and they don’t need a cause.
“Working for the Knife” feels like a scream of exhaustion, for an exhaustion it’s hard to see ever going away. Personally, culturally, globally, that’s the moment and we don’t see an end to it.
So many know that emotional explosion at the end of “Working for the Knife” – manic, joyous, angry, helpless, outsized and diminished, expansive and lonely, breathless, ragingly silent. We fruitlessly give everything we have to no audience because we’re terrified to have one: we imagine avoiding these places in ourselves denies them power, but we know existing with them and giving them some kind of space helps to manage it at all. How many express in silence, alone, and then act as if everything’s fine the minute eyes are on them?
There’s a helplessness to “Working for the Knife” because it’s hard to see each of our acts of emotional expression changing anything. There’s a helpfulness to it because that act of expression means something to us; that meaning is enough to know we might change something.
We live in a hopeless time. Part of our hopelessness is being convinced that it’s an individual shortcoming, a personal fallibility, a failure of imagination. Hopelessness is something we shouldn’t speak of, let alone share with others. Recognizing hopelessness runs directly counter to prosperity gospel, to “The Secret”, to economic materialism. Even when we identify those poisons, there are a thousand others ingrained into our media, our social media, our culture.
We’re taught to be successful, to be whole, we have to deny a major emotional state in ourselves. We’re made to believe that if someone is hopeless, it’s their fault. It must be a shortcoming, a toxin that might spread. We’re taught that someone else’s hopelessness must be disbelieved before we learn why it exists, lest it find a home in us and magically sabotage the success we’re sure we’ll have tomorrow out of…what, hope? We’re a nation and a culture feeling the last minute of this video in raging silence, and then projecting endless hope the minute we hear another voice in the room.
Hopelessness acknowledges that something is wrong in the first place, and if you’re made to avoid ever feeling hopeless, you’ve been made to avoid ever acknowledging that something is wrong.
Rebecca Solnit wrote in “Hope in the Dark” that “Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, climate activist Greta Thunberg chastised the gathered economists: “Adults keep saying, ‘we owe it to young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
These two ideas don’t disagree. They’re part of the very same whole. It’s the same definition. If hope is an axe and the motivation to use it, hopelessness is the recognition and understanding why. Why would you break down the door with an axe? Because our house is on fire. We’re complex enough to carry both halves of that reality within us, to realize that both are true and needed. Yet culturally, we treat hopelessness as the enemy of hope. Hope is to be spoken about, worshipped, gilded, awarded. Hopelessness is to be chased out by it, quieted, dismissed. So we have a surplus of hope we don’t know how to properly apply. We’re hopeful…and ineffective about it. We’re unguided, slapping hope on everything without the urgency of the work that supports it. How the hell are we supposed to know how to use our hope if we habitually avoid recognizing and feeling in our bones what we’re hopeless about?
We need those safe places where we can simply break. To not be OK. To be exhausted. We have to understand hopelessness is a part of ourselves that’s just as important to sit with as hope. We’re sitting in the house on fire hoping that someone will save us, but without the urgency to realize we’re the ones best situated to do the saving.
If you wonder why people gravitate to Mitski’s music, it’s because very little art in American culture allows a space to feel hopeless. Feeling that isn’t a weakness. Imagine being so afraid of an emotion that you do everything to run away from it – you’re going to tell yourself that’s a strength? If we can’t talk about hopelessness or despair, if we can’t allow a place to process anxiety safely, we become a culture that has zero training in urgency, zero real ability to communicate about it. How’s that going for us? How’s our addiction to hope at all costs working out?
The house is on fire. You’re sitting next to a pile of axes. You have a surplus of hope someone with an axe will show up. That’s the United States of America. Everyone projects hope. Very few are willing to be recognized for having the desperation to apply it. We can reject dozens of versions of prosperity gospel before this one invariably hooks us.
Find a place to accept your hopelessness, because that’s what guides your hope. Mitski and director Zia Anger or whomever it might be. This music is a way I find into it, but who it is or how is ultimately not the point. The point of the song, the music video, of the last several years of Mitski’s career is to recognize the cycles we’re convinced to participate in and that they’re untenable. The point is it’s about something bigger.
That exhaustion will only get worse. We hope it will be solved. We have so much hope. We just lack the desperation to be urgent about it. We culturally reject even feeling our hopelessness, let alone understanding it, or communicating it, and then wonder why we’re so culturally hesitant and ineffective in hopeless situations, why so many people refuse to understand hopeless situations and get angry at the idea of communicating about them. Personally, culturally, globally, who hasn’t spent their life so far working for the knife?
Every month has a few great music videos and June was no exception. This month also had a logjam when it came to the really good ones that sit just behind them. With summer starting, dance videos are ramping up. There were also a number of videos with LGBTQ+ themes.
This isn’t uncommon – musicians from Lil Nas X to Allison Ponthier could make arguments as the music video artist of the year so far, with wildly different videos and even whole artistic universes based on representation and acceptance. June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, and I think this played into seeing an even bigger wave of LGBTQ+ videos.
It’s also worth mentioning that artists like Bo Burnham and Wolf Alice each dropped a ton of videos this month. You probably would’ve seen Burnham’s “White Woman’s Instagram” or Wolf Alice’s “Lipstick on the Glass” if this were a top-25 countdown. Burnham released a number of comedic videos and Wolf Alice continues laying down chapters in what amounts to a larger film of connected music videos. A list like this isn’t necessarily built to group those larger, multi-month projects, but they can still be worth following. We’ll keep an eye on them; we’ve gone in-depth with similar projects in the past.
Let’s get into it. This month’s music videos were selected by Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez.
CW: Photosensitivity Warning; Strobing Effects
10. God Save This Queen – Bimini directed by Kassandra Powell
Bimini is a British drag queen and model who gained fame on “RuPaul’s Drag Race UK”. “God Save This Queen” marks their first single. I love how the punk editing and mentality are thrown together with high fashion concepts and a pointed sense of humor.
It’s a beautiful statement video that’s simultaneously fun and inviting. It’s brash and confrontational, while at the same time embarrassing anyone who might seek to confront it. That humor and inviting nature gives it a disarming charm. That’s certainly not a line Bimini should have to walk, but that they choose to and do it so well is what makes the video.
9. The King – Sarah Kinsley directed by Lux
This is a solid performance video anchored by a superb, 75-second opening one-take and those explosively stagey elements that introduce the chorus. It’s a great fusion of set, costume, performance, and editing.
Lux is Hannah Lux Davis, who’s directed videos for Doja Cat, Bebe Rexha, David Guetta, Kacey Musgraves, and has become Ariana Grande’s go-to director. Sometimes in filmmaking a director makes it big and you love what they do with all those expanded budgets…but you also miss some of what they can do on a smaller scale. “The King” is a return to that smaller scale and proof of just how much Lux can do regardless of budget or resources.
8. Hot N Heavy – Jessie Ware directed by I Could Never Be a Dancer
This is exquisitely done as a one-take. There could be hidden edits, but if so they’re not even slightly obvious. There’s a figure in movement at every moment, and rarely does something cover or swipe across the camera in a way that significantly interrupts it.
If there’s one thing that holds it back, we all thought there was a certain chemistry missing between the dancers. It’s hard to pin down what makes chemistry happen, but the video works on cleverness, effort, and skill. It’s missing just that heat and intensity that would put it over the top as one of the best dance videos of the year. That can obviously hold an MV for something called “Hot N Heavy” back.
It’s still a really good video, but sometimes those elements in dance that have more to do with acting get traded off just a bit to accomplish a tough goal like a one-take. I think it’s one reason why Jungle (who’s on the list further on) hide edits in their one-takes: it allows more focus on those extra aspects like acting that make a video become a singular monument to its song.
7. Butterflies – Skrillex, Starrah, Four Tet directed by Ben Strebel
There’s something about this that speaks very specifically to the pandemic. There can be a dissonance to how we’ve fractured and reconnected as things potentially get back to some kind of normal. Social interaction that would’ve once been ordinary can now feel highly charged, pressured, abnormal. It doesn’t help that we’re in such an unsure space, with countries shutting back down as the Delta variant of COVID spreads. Are we about to see widespread socializing and connection return, or are we at the prologue to another year of isolation and distance?
There’s a fraught edge between those two spaces that “Butterflies” explores, and I think it speaks to a larger anxiety that accompanies the pandemic and, in turn, much of the nationalistic, socially fracturing politics that enabled its spread. Certain social spaces that were once familiar can now seem celebratory, surreal, and stressful all at once.
6. Sofia – Askjell, iris, Aurora
I have a pretty cynical attitude toward music videos that are made up of clips from fans. They often come off as narcissistic because they use community as an excuse to reinforce a band’s brand. It’s difficult to avoid making them feel exploitative. It’s one reason you don’t see us include many of them in our monthly rundowns.
Here, that’s different. It’s not the musician being celebrated, it’s a young artist who didn’t get enough of a chance to explore her art. It’s not primarily the musician whose brand we’re spreading, it’s the art of a girl who wanted to share what she did. At least something of what she believed and how she saw the world survives and touches others. At least some part of the person she wanted to grow up to be is realized.
5. Dating is in China – Modeselektor ft. Catnapp directed by Maximilian Villwock
Modeselektor is a German group that took shape in the chaotic wake after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Featured artist Catnapp is an Argentinean artist based out of Berlin.
The video features Ukrainian gymnasts and was shot in Kiev. It’s strange and unexpected, reassuring throughout and unsettling in its last shot. It feels exceedingly directed, often iconic, but also something of a blank canvas we can begin to place our own emotional meanings upon.
One of my favorite aspects of it is an intentionally blurry quality to the images. This isn’t simply downsampled, it’s an included effect. It gives the video something of a discovered quality, like a decade-old video stuck in YouTube obscurity that’s suddenly been uncovered.
4. Rainin’ Fellas – Todrick directed by Todrick Hall, John Asher
This is one of the most charming and celebratory dance videos of the year. There are so many pieces from costuming to choreography that fuse together in a way that’s simply fun. I love it when elements like kitsch are used this earnestly.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as an easygoing, uncomplicated video. To a large extent, that’s the effect it’s seeking. There’s also an element of deconstructing and then reconstructing so much of what we see in dance videos. A lot of big dance videos with so many moving parts only seek to be more extravagant than what came before. That can leave a lot of substance out. Here, there are notes of Broadway, movie musicals, a choreographic thread that can be traced back to Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, and notes of contemporary art, kitsch, and pop art that have each been hugely important in LGBTQ+ acceptance.
3. Talk About It – Jungle directed by J Lloyd, Charlie Di Placido
Jungle continues making the best dance music videos on the planet. They often center on long takes, or faux one-takes. It would seem like this is all done in one shot, but there are hidden edits (a whirl past a wall, a shirt sweeping over the camera for a moment). The effect is no less powerful, and it’s important for the concept here to feel unbroken.
For dance to play out the emotional push-and-pull of a support group is a difficult idea to pull off. There are so many incredible decisions here, centered on alternating moments of conflict and synchronization in the choreography. The viewer is involved in a lot of these like a character, fed by the continuous, point-of-view nature of the take.
2. Purple – Retriever directed by Theo Le Sourd
“Retriever” is an exquisitely shot, well acted, lightly erotic montage that perfectly captures the sensation of heartache and rewinding memories. It has a gorgeous cinematic feel in front of a song that feels like a lost 80s pop ballad.
When a music video’s about exactly what the song’s about, it can feel a little too on-the-nose, but it’s that sensation of memory scrambled together that helps this work. Some things we have context for, some things become colored in new ways: an argument begins to influence a happy memory. There’s a desire to compartmentalize impressions we want to keep sacrosanct, so that some part of the relationship still feels as it was – even as the rest of our lives grow further from it. “Purple” finds what’s ultimately a very elusive sensation that often escapes description.
CW: Photosensitivity Warning; Strobing Effects
1. Null – eAeon ft. Jclef directed by Years
There’s no denying that this is visually stressful, but what that stress achieves is something that can only be found in this medium. “Null” is an evocation of trauma and crisis that feels especially pointed. It captures a profound and inescapable anxiety that also humanizes and contextualizes behaviors that are avoided and overlooked in daily life. The main character is someone who’s often relegated as someone else’s problem, or as a situation for police to (mis)handle.
What’s so successful here is that it’s not disturbing, but rather it makes the disturbing identifiable. It creates an empathy for someone who might be angry, unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous, but who genuinely needs support and understanding because none of us would be able to handle a reality so eroded any differently.
More music videos we liked in June:
“Cipi” by Noga Erezcontinues the artist’s line of biting socio-political commentaries, fused to her trademark wary performance style.
May gives March a challenge as the best month for music videos we’ve seen this year. Our top 10 goes to all the way up to 12 today. It’s a particularly strong month for Korean artists and directors both in and out of K-pop, and for Black artists in the UK. I think any of the top four videos could have potentially won certain other months outright.
There are a few videos with potential epilepsy triggers – these are numbers 12, 11, and 1, and I’ve attached a CW to each. I’m being overly careful with these, since channels still aren’t consistent about being aware of and posting this information themselves.
In addition, the #2 video and its write-up discuss suicide and suicidal ideation. A CW prefaces this as a reminder if you feel more comfortable skipping it.
This month’s music videos were selected by S.C. Himura, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez.
CW: potential epilepsy trigger
12. Mirror – Sigrid directed by Femke Huurdeman
This works so well because of its frame story. The entire video existing as a reassuring internal monologue hits pretty hard. I think most of us have had an experience where we needed to pull into an empty parking lot or the side of the road and assess some shit. The part that hits hardest is that it becomes evening as she does this – you can lose track of time when you really need to think about yourself. The moment where she sees herself wink in the rear-view mirror pins down a feeling and reassurance we’ve all needed from ourselves at some point.
The music video inside that frame story needs to be strong to make this work. It’s creative and feels very DIY-with-a-budget.
If you haven’t heard of Sigrid, she’s a major Norwegian pop star.
CW: potential epilepsy trigger
11. Advice – Taemin
“Advice” hits a lot of K-Pop dance video tropes, but the choreo here is on point as hell. Taemin is also a member of SHINee (whose “Don’t Call Me” placed in our February countdown). Taemin and SHINee share some of the best choreo and dancing in the industry.
About five years ago, I hated K-pop’s overuse of motion-tracking within shots, but since then they’ve turned it into a science. “Advice” uses those sudden camera shifts and tilts that are added in editing to perfectly accentuate the hit on certain beats and moves. It adds to the choreography here.
“Advice” is also notable for K-pop fans because this is Taemin’s last music video before the 27 year-old’s enlistment in the South Korean military. South Korea has mandatory conscription for men between the ages of 18 and 28. They’re required to serve between 18 and 21 months depending on service branch. That means it might be a while before Taemin records again, on his own or with SHINee.
10. Woman – Little Simz ft. Cleo Sol directed by Little Simz
Little Simz repurposed colonialist imagery in “Introvert” (which we named best video of April). Here, she re-purposes images of British wealth and religious frescoes to celebrate Black women.
A lot of her rap has concerned how Black people – and particularly Black women – are defined in Britain. She often takes hold of those definitions to challenge and rewrite them. It’s amazing to see this stretch into the settings and visuals of her MVs as well.
Little Simz has delivered great music videos for years, but this is her first time taking a shot at directing one. It’s hard to do much better your first time out.
9. Daydreamer – John Park directed by Marey Krap
Normally, lyric videos don’t hold up to music videos. It’s not about being smaller or more limited in concept; it’s that they have a different function. They don’t want to overwhelm the lyrics, so a lot simply act like prettified read-alongs.
Occasionally, one completely breaks the mold and does something different – something that’s neither a straight-up music video nor lyric video. “Daydreamer” is unlike anything I’ve seen before. The techniques are familiar, sure, but Marey Krap’s animation makes them bold in such an exciting and calming way, without ever obscuring or backseating the lyrics.
I’ve watched this several times, and each time it lends me a sense of relaxation and slowing things down. It asks me to match its rhythm in a convincing way that doesn’t wear out.
8. Still Broke – Samm Henshaw ft. Keyon Harrold directed by Jim Pilling
“Still Broke” is a continuation of Henshaw’s 2018 lyric video for “Broke”. In “Broke”, he’s just gotten fired from his job at Five Guys and has no money – but he’s happy and constantly stimulated.
In “Still Broke”, he lives in a mansion with servants at his beck and call, yet he’s lost any and all connection and joy. It’s rare to match such a patient presentation with this much playfulness, but it works beautifully. It lets the visual gags ease in rather than calling them out obviously as they happen.
7. Time 2 – half-alive directed by JA Collective
Is “OK Go but with editing” too simple a description? What I love about “Time 2” is how well it uses a vast number of techniques. It’s reliant on match cuts that emulate composition from one shot to the next, but it doesn’t just do this with static shots. It repeats and mirrors camera movements themselves from sequence to sequence. This means that despite its constant movement, and shifts through CG and home video filters, we’re building visual cues for how the camera moves.
Something with this much movement and editing usually has a near-constant focal point – think of a dance video with a ton of edits like Taemin’s above. We usually have a central dancer to focus on, and the MV match cuts from setting to setting on specific dance movements. That helps ground us on the dancer, so we never lose our bearings from edit to edit.
This isn’t that kind of video, though. That swift movement and editing is often happening across visual spaces that lack a focal point. They’re either empty spaces or spaces filled with visual noise. By building our expectation of how the camera wants to move through these spaces, and then both repeating it and reversing it, we immediately have a familiarity with the visual language that grounds us. Without it, those match cuts on so much movement wouldn’t work. When we know what that movement’s going to be, when we already know how we’ll move through a space before we enter it, that gives us our bearings even across empty or noisy new spaces.
What is so impressive about “Time 2” is that it makes the viewer fluent in this visual language for how the camera interacts with those match edits inside of four minutes. That’s incredible. It is a brilliant job of cinematography and editing.
6. Me Without You – Ashe directed by Jason Lester
There’s such an effective layering of metaphors in this video – punching through the door, dancing in broken glass, the repeated metaphor of Ashe watching herself perform on-screen. It’s a beautiful meld with the song’s lyrics about escaping a toxic or abusive relationship.
That experience of going back over your memories and witnessing from a distance how they took place is a stunning one that’s hard to capture in something like a music video. You can see just how much work you did to justify the abuses of a former partner in a way that was closed to you in that moment – specifically because you were so set on doing that work.
I think Ashe, director Jason Lester, choreographer Monika Felice Smith – they capture that sensation as well as anyone could, and they do it in a way that’s so unique to the medium of music videos, where a sensation and experience like this can be communicated in an emotionally whole way in just three minutes.
5. Pick Up Your Burning Cross – Sons of Kemet ft. Moor Mother, Angel Bat Dawid directed by Ashleigh Jadee
Sons of Kemet’s anti-colonialist jazz is an astounding pairing to this story. Much of the world constantly tells Black women that they don’t measure up to white standards of beauty. The concept of ‘white is default’ is a poison to anyone who isn’t, and that poison is often something that’s implicitly agreed upon by those with privilege. It reinforces and protects that privilege, while giving those they marginalize that much more emotional work just to get to the same point where others start.
Finding an art you can do that lends affirmation, challenges those concepts, and builds community is crucial for anyone who’s marginalized. The video expresses each of those elements and why they’re so important. They provide a spiritual endurance amid elements of society that exist to wear that spirit down.
For potential tsk-tsk’ers in the audience, first off, pole dancing is legitimated as both performance art and as a fitness routine. It doesn’t strictly communicate exotic dancing any more than a variety of other normalized dances do.
Even where it does, welcome to music videos. There’s a connection between the art and its history of use in sex work, but let’s not pretend as if a huge element of dance in music videos hasn’t been based on the language of dance used in sex work. You can track it as far back as Madonna in the 80s, and that’s just within the inception of music videos as a popular medium. It’s just rarely acknowledged or credited that way when viewers can pretend the two are disconnected simply because one’s on TV or YouTube and the other’s taboo.
4. Motorbike – Leon Bridges directed by Anderson .Paak
Who knew Anderson .Paak could direct like this? This is one of those music videos where everything feels trapped in amber, turning an evocation into a still moment. The shot where Lexi Carter raises her hand in the wind and the flock of birds emerges is one of those immediately classic cinematic moments that just sticks.
Many story-based music videos don’t nail the landing because they have to act out the moment in detail. What’s brilliant here is that it’s edited around, felt but never really seen, interpreted but never expressed. That indirectness lets us take the first step of closure but never gives us the next, which is exactly what the character’s feeling. That gives us a timelessness in the narrative that’s also reflected in the cinematography and beautifully captured settings.
It’s a beautiful video that would win some months, but like I said – May is giving March a run for its money as the best month for MVs we’ve seen yet.
3. Life is a Bi… – BIBI directed by Kim Hyunsoo
If there’s one thing to know about South Korean singer BIBI, it’s that she gets weird fast in her videos. Take the 30-second drowning prologue of “Kazino”, or the two shorter music videos she released this month. Most artists don’t make MVs for those one-minute interludes on an album – BIBI released her severed head singing “Umm… Life” and a gutting performance as someone homeless and alone happening upon a birthday cake in “Birthday Cake” (we debated including that on the list and it would’ve joined “Life is a Bi…” in the top five if we had).
That’s the other thing to know about BIBI. She might be the best pure actor in the medium. “Life is a Bi…” is a good music video for most of its run, but it’s not exceptional until that turn in the middle where the music goes quiet and she just acts. That is a searing moment that makes everything around it resonate into a video that sneaks into your core and shakes it.
CW: references to suicide
2. Top Again – Audrey Nuna ft. Saba directed by Trey Lyons
“Top Again” fuses so much of that 90s and early 00s style of indie R&B video. There’s an effortlessness here, but one that doesn’t make anything seem easy. That effortlessness also reflects the feelings of aimlessness, being overwhelmed, introversion, complacency, and self-harm that Nuna sings about.
In so doing, that effortlessness becomes a kind of cover, an outward appearance that deflects just how rough things are. It becomes a generational anthem for the moment, and one that reflects early Gen Z’s growing feelings of isolation and often pessimistic outlook for the world and their own future, complete with that profound sense of gallows humor that helps them cope with it.
The video becomes a code-switch for anxiety and suicidal ideation. The ease and smoothness with which Nuna performs and the video delivers these ideas belie the complexity and impact of what she’s really telling you.
I know this video can hit hard and trigger some shit. If you cope with thoughts about suicide, please reach out. Others want to hear and help. If you’re not sure where to turn, remember that you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. I don’t want to sound trite, but there really is always a way forward. There’s no magic wand that makes everything better, but there are steps that make things a little bit better piece by piece. Those steps build up and help form community, and that community becomes a part of your resilience. Please reach out to someone, even if you’re at that step of wondering whether you should.
CW: potential epilepsy trigger
1. Silo – Phondupe directed by Alexander Leeway
You can take “Silo” by Phondupe a few different ways. I think the most apparent is as a metaphor for an abusive relationship. The male dancer, Thuba Ndibali, keeps coming back for those brief moments of respite, for those hits of relief that everything’s OK, before having his reality pulled out from under him by dancer Allie Graham and existing in constant anxiety.
The other way to interpret it looks at it along racial lines. Those same metaphors still apply, but that trust and reality are now pulled out from under entire communities. Of course, it can also convey both, and how racism and privilege inform uneven and abusive power dynamics in relationships.
In a strange way, it reminds me of Moses Sumney’s music video for “Quarrel”, which addressed many of those same questions. There’s a lyric there that speaks to the MV for “Silo”: “With you, half the battle is proving that we’re at war, I would give my life just for the privilege to ignore”.
Other music videos we liked in May:
“Harshest Critic” by Allison Ponthier expands upon the midnight drive-in, B-movie, yesteryear kitsch, and comforting vibe of the Allison Ponthier Music Video Universe.
“good 4 u” by Olivia Rodrigo has a late 90s/early 00s punk-pop vibe paired with a slyly funny grunge-inspired video.
“Build a Bitch” by Bella Poarch is a funny and stylized criticism of the male gaze. The Filipina-American singer built up a huge Tik Tok following last year that she’s converted into a record deal with Warner Records. “Build a Bitch” is her first single, and the music video features other major internet personalities like Valkyrae, Mia Khalifa, and Bretman Rock.
“A-O-K” by Tai Verdes is a cute video about an airline pilot who’s just too chill: he wants to read his paper and take a nap even as the plane is plummeting.
“Sun Goes Down” by Lil Nas X is a look back at the anxiety and isolation Lil Nas X has struggled with, and translates his persona as a being who cares for and looks out for him as a person.
“First” by Everglow might be the most massively produced music video of the year thus far. It exemplifies how thoroughly K-pop has evolved the concept of the big-budget dance video.
It takes a lot of research every month to narrow down a list like this. If you read this far, you must have enjoyed what that work creates. Consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue researching and writing articles that are interesting enough to read the whole way through.
One thing that’s hard not to notice as we put this together is that male artists are nowhere to be seen this month. Our top ten is entirely women artists or groups fronted by women. Extending to the honorable mentions at the end, only one of 18 groups this month is fronted by men (Major Lazer). It’s not something we intended, but it’s cool to see.
The rest of the year’s top tens counted 16-and-a-half music videos by women out of 31 entries (the half is a collab, and we cheated with a top 11 once), so that’s not been a particular focus. It’s not a statement, we just didn’t like what male artists put out this month as much as the women below.
One thing I will say is that women directors still aren’t heavily featured – they aren’t given as many opportunities as men to direct. That’s a shame and still feels like we’re missing a big chunk of the talent pool out there that’s not getting the same opportunity or resources to create art.
This month’s music videos were selected by S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, and Gabriel Valdez.
10. I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You) – dodie directed by Hazel Hayes
“I Kissed Someone (It Wasn’t You)” continues dodie’s strong run of music videos that reflect on extremely personal stories of trauma, anxiety, and struggling with depression. Here, it’s a cycle of new partners in an attempt to feel like herself and make a connection in the depth of numbness.
It’s fair to say dodie has a reputation for cute, lighter fare because she’s delivered it reliably, but so much of her work also centers on notions of dissociation and impostor syndrome. What’s been remarkable is how transparently she’s able to communicate what we’re taught to hide and guard.
9. BNR – Crumb directed by Joe Mischo
Crumb’s always been into making videos that take the everyday and make it weird, but they seem to be driving it to even more Lynchian realms this year. Their unsettling “Trophy” made our list last month.
Even when you get the energy of what Lila Ramani and company are doing, they still deliver endings that make you sit there in a bit of shock. It feels too weighted to just be random, but it also makes so little sense given the framework of what you’ve just seen. That expectation of yourself to design the connection that isn’t there is something that’s hard to evoke. A lot needs to be built beforehand, and Crumb have a habit of building it.
8. love u lately – Laica directed by Cooper Leith
This is the epitome of a great DIY video. Everything is homemade, and something most of us have the resources to film. Of course, it still takes the idea and execution, which is spot-on here.
One of the things I love about doing this is happening upon MVs that only have a few thousand views. Inexpensive music videos can often be superior to copy-and-paste videos that cost millions and churn out views.
Laica is a Filipina artist who’s had a few breakthroughs, but isn’t exactly mainstream either.
7. Fire Kites – Noga Erez directed by Omri Rozi
If there’s been a music video artist of the year so far, it’s been Noga Erez. We mentioned her “End of the Road” in January for her singular performance, and listed “Story” just last month as a tremendously fun video with an underlying message about mutual destruction.
“Fire Kites” follows a consistent theme, and Erez has spoken about the differences in growing up between Israeli children with privilege and Palestinean children without it. “Fire Kites” compares the hypocrisy of Israel firing missiles as a regular occurrence with the perceived horror of Palestine launching incendiary kites – as if missiles are acceptable or less horrific simply because they cost more.
(When sharing Israeli artists on this site, I do my best to follow BDS guidelines. Contrary to popular belief, they do not suggest a blanket boycott of Israeli artists, but a selective one based on contracts signed with the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Erez appears to have no such contract and has been very critical of her government and its treatment of Palestine.)
6. Cha-Cha-Cha – Bonnie Banane directed by Raphael Stora
There’s something so bluntly suggestive in this, and it comes together to undermine our expectations beautifully. Saido Lehlouh’s pent-up energy communicates an impending violence in response to Bonnie Banane’s sultry dancing. What we get instead, what he could barely restrain, is his own performance for her.
The humid interior contrasts to the cold blue, gray, and white of the city outside. Their isolation contrasts to the empty office building. It all seems so simply put together, but it’s beautifully shot and there’s such restraint in focusing on the performance to build the tension and its release.
CW: the following contains quickly flashing images
5. He Said She Said – CHVRCHES directed by Scott Kiernan
I think this is my favorite music video by CHVRCHES, and they’ve had some strong ones over the years. The thing is, this uses a lot of concepts that usually aren’t done well. Utilizing 80s music video effects can go off the rails pretty fast. So can the tumblr aesthetic employed to present them. The revolving door metaphor is simple, but they plumb pretty deep into it. Fusing all of it together is brave, to say the least, and it achieves an MV that’s impressionistic and emotive.
4. Posing in Bondage – Japanese Breakfast directed by Michelle Zauner
This one hits hard a year into quarantine. I’m not sure Zauner’s singing about the same thing, but the song and video undeniably reflect isolation and connection. The meet-cute of a woman who’s feasted on blood rolling around an abandoned grocery store until she meets a clerk who shares ramen with her is also better than 99% of romances.
That line “When the world divides into two people/those who have felt pain and those who have yet to” is a sort of lyrical monument that resonates across…well, the past year, the past four years. It may be about one thing, but Zauner communicates it in a way that speaks to so much more. Between this and “Be Sweet”, her upcoming album Jubilee (out June 4) sounds exquisite.
3. Your Power – Billie Eilish directed by Billie Eilish
The MV works with ideas of camouflage, and how slow we can be to pick up visual changes. Eilish is camouflaged sitting on the cliff, her story imperceptible in a larger landscape. The introduction of the snake is barely on-screen and when it is fully on-screen, it moves slowly and takes a second to register.
Our slowness in picking up these details works as a metaphor for our own slow reactions to recognize abuse. What Eilish does in her direction is building that metaphor in our reaction, rather than as one solely presented on-screen.
The first and last things we see are those cliffs, the suggestion of a landslide, Eilish lost in the geological strata. It suggests the larger history of how common that abuse is, and also reflects the personal – that the trauma of that abuse now forms a layer of who she is as a person.
2. Sorry – Deb Never directed by Justin Tyler Close
There’s so much going on in a video that never feels overly busy. Deb Never in front of stripped paint that suggests a flag. The bruise and black eye. The slam poet, the dancer interlude picking her up, the mixed acceptance and disappointment of parent to child. It conveys a character and her story more like a film, complete with journey, ending, and a fully developed character with whom we can identify.
1. Introvert – Little Simz directed by Salomon Ligthelm
If you haven’t followed Little Simz, I’d argue she’s been the best rapper going for a few years now. Her “Stillness in Wonderland” was a mind-blowing 23-song concept album, and her following “GREY Area” was an intense, streamlined entry that existed as a polar opposite in form.
“Introvert” sounds like something new yet again, and the video delivers a surging contemplation of British colonial history largely carried by Little Simz, dancer Stefano A Addae, and choreographer Kloe Dean.
Other music videos we liked in April:
“I Pazzi” by MILLE is a warm and reassuring performance music video that transports you to a courtyard in Italy.
“Lost in the Weekend” by Vok is a beautiful release of a music video. It celebrates the self-assurance of getting to be who you are, even if it’s not who society expects or approves.
“Link” by Tierra Whack celebrates communities and connection through the idea of building Lego-ish rocket ships with aliens. It’s super cute.
“I Eat Boys” sees Chloe Moriondo track down, murder, and gleefully eat street harassers.
“Titans” by Major Lazer sees giant monsters, spaceships, alien starfish, muppet-style versions of Sia and Labrinth, and an animated interlude that helps Lazer learn to defeat kaiju through the power of dance.
“Calle” by Lola Indigo, featuring Guaynaa and Cauty, depicts a terrifying future where roving street gangs have dance-offs against ninjas (this is the future liberals want, btw).
“Space” by Audrey Nuna is a hazy slow-burn that builds on inventive visuals.
“Exception” by renforshort depicts heartbreak and loss as a time loop. By evolving our understanding of who the heartbreak centers on, the repetition challenges the ingrained social assumptions we make.
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.
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.
This month saw the end of a legendary pairing, and a music video that got both our lowest and highest rating. Neither made the list, but that’s why the intro gets to cheat and talk about them anyway.
Daft Punk said goodbye in “Epilogue”, which doesn’t even count as a music video because it’s a scene from their 2006 movie “Electroma”. It’s pretty final, though – it’s hard to reform your band when one of you blows the other up. I mean, I haven’t been in a band since high school, but I assume that hasn’t changed.
The house and electronic duo formed in 1993. I liked them well enough, but I was never a huge fan – until their score for “Tron: Legacy” in 2010, which I thought deserved the Oscar that year. It was the year Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won for “The Social Network”, so hard to argue, but a nomination for something as creative and encompassing as “Tron: Legacy” would’ve been nice.
Personally, I’m hoping this is all a guerilla marketing campaign for “Tron 3” and it’ll be revealed they have to dive back in to rescue the Daft Punk characters for reasons, but um…not holding my breath.
This is the second month we’re doing this incarnation of a music video countdown, but we’ve done variations of it in the past. We do it by scouring music videos – this month, that job fell to Cleopatra Parnell and me. We whittled upwards of 200 music videos down to about 70. Those 70 then go to six voters who rate each on a scale of one through 10. We each have a single 12 to give to the video we think is the best of the month. Then we argue a lot, and the tiebreaker system we have is done away with because the Chelsea Wolfe fans and the Bryson Tiller fans go at each other for the last spot. Who wins that? K-pop. K-pop always wins.
I’m telling you this because we’ve used this system in the past and we use it now. Never before has a music video scored both a one and a 10. We’ve never seen something so divisive. Yet never before has Rebecca Black remixed “Friday” in a video that’s a giant troll. Is it really a giant troll, though? It’s sung in an Alvin and the Chipmunks hyperpop style and she’s literally driving in the car with trollface memes. I mean, not literally literally. It’s just CGI. I think. I hope. Bear witness:
Vanessa Tottle gave it a one. Cleopatra gave it a 10. The rest of us: somewhere in the middle, confused, alone, reaching out and wondering if this was collapse or singularity. Personally, I think they’re both right right, and few people have earned the right to troll the internet as much as she has. How do we factor that into deciding the best videos of the month? We don’t. There are some things humanity was never meant to measure. Rebecca Black has broken math.
Math historian Morris Kline tells us that complex mathematics was first recorded around 3,000 B.C. in Babylon and Egypt, so this month, we say goodbye to both Daft Punk, blown up by Daft Punk, and math, run over by Rebecca Black. They both had a good run.
In all seriousness, Black’s been putting out good music when she’s not trolling; “Girlfriend” is some quality synthpop.
S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, and Vanessa Tottle joined me in figuring out the chaos that is the top 10 music videos of the month:
10. Don’t Call Me – SHINee
It’s been a banner month for K-Pop music videos, with “Bicycle” by CHUNG HA, “Wings” by PIXY, and “Breaking Dawn” by The Boyz all landing. These dance videos each have unique strengths, but K-pop MVs usually incorporate specific core elements.
“Don’t Call Me” excels at each of these. The hip-hop choreography is absolutely tight, with hard hits and smooth lyrical bridges. The sets are a blend of lavish and surreal, centered on a theme of what’s been abandoned and broken down. The costume design is full of character. The constantly moving camera never loses its focal point.
It helps that the song has hooks in each section and packs a ridiculous amount into just four minutes. There’s a reason American listeners are so drawn to K-pop – don’t underestimate its complexity or the sheer range of genres it draws on from around the world.
9. Tell Me You Love Me – Sufjan Stevens directed by Luca Guadagnino
Ask me to describe how this video does what it does and…I really can’t tell you. It feels cleansing, connective, whole. I just don’t know how or why. Four of us found it that way, two others thought it was threatening and carried an undercurrent of violence.
Read the comments and some are reading despair into the video, some are haunted by it, some are calling it healing. It’s almost like it’s a Rohrshach inkblot for what you place onto it. When I watch it now, I get the sense of threat that I didn’t see the first few times, but it’s still healing. Who the hell knows what that says?
If you’re someone who stopped listening to Sufjan Stevens for a few years, he’s worth revisiting. He never finished his 50 states project. He only got through Michigan and Illinois, which is about when I’d stop, too. He did release two superb albums last year – The Ascension as a solo project, and Aporia with his stepfather, electronic musician Lowell Brams.
If you recognize Luca Guadagnino’s name as director, he’s the one who remade “Suspiria”. Take from that what you will.
8. Bed Head – Manchester Orchestra directed by Andrew Donoho
If you ask me the best music video director who’s ever graced the medium, it’s Emily Kai Bock. She only directed about 15 music videos over five years – barely a drop in the bucket compared to those who’ve directed hundreds. But in a handful of videos for Grimes, Grizzly Bear, Solange, and Lorde, she completely changed the approach to what shots and parts of a story are desirable. Her magnum opus was Arcade Fire’s first video for “Afterlife”, a contemplation on dreams and mortality that reflected its song by just taking one or two ideas from it and running with those into the dreams of a family.
“Bed Head” gets so close to that territory. The style is different; Andrew Donoho came into the medium about when Bock was leaving it to pursue narrative filmmaking. He’s had his own persuasive hand in the new directions music videos are taking. But the sentiment, the identification with someone who may as well be halfway around the world, the yearning for things to work out for someone you’ve known for four minutes, it gets so close to that same need. No other medium does that the way music videos do.
7. We’re Good – Dua Lipa directed by Vania Heymann, Gal Muggia
Obviously, we’re playing with the term lobster now – the notion of a soulmate you’re supposed to belong with. It’s a romantic idea, but becoming convinced of it can also allow someone to abuse you. Seeing one lobster after the other plucked out and devoured – if you’ve been in a relationship like that, I think the video carries added significance.
I love the shallow depth-of-field the video plays with. Combined with the MV’s muted color palette, it makes it feel like it was filmed in the 70s. It’s hard to take something understated and make it feel so compelling, but when you do it feels utterly unique.
6. Sucker – Ellie Dixon directed by Ellie Dixon
As I noted with Number One Pop Star and Noga Erez last month, a music video can become an immediate classic on the strength of a single performance. It’s a risky route to take, and one that sees a lot of MVs fall flat on their faces. Very few strike with the wit and commitment of Ellie Dixon’s “Sucker”.
As she notes, it was entirely filmed late at night in her back garden with a minimal set. They could only shoot 90 minutes at a time before camera operator Sophie Winter’s hands got too cold to shoot any more. It is a superb example of zero-budget filmmaking.
Dixon also directed and edited – and the editing here is about as good as you’ll see. There are people who make a lot of money who don’t know when to stay on performance and when to cut on movement this well, and I can tell you from experience it’s even more difficult when you’re editing yourself. If you asked me to pick the best editing on this list, it’d be a tough choice between this and SHINee’s “Don’t Call Me”, which easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – and I’d probably choose this.
5. Wish You the Best – Jay Oladokun ft. Jensen McRae directed by Noah Tidmore
I love MVs that suggest a story without letting you know what it is. The usual pitfall is that the video gets too into the story it’s withholding from you, without connecting you to the characters. When you’re guarding a suggested story, it’s not the story that’s important. It’s the characters who are guarding it so well. That’s the part of it all that invests you, that makes you want to come back and watch again.
“Wish You the Best” is a beautiful and haunting duet, paired with a guarded story that we only get hints about. What makes it work is how deeply felt that story is by Jay Oladokun and Jensen McRae. If I connect with the story and you won’t tell me what the story is, that can make me bounce off an MV. If you connect me with the characters and how their story feels, the details of it are a mystery that can be appreciated. That creates an MV where you sense the shape of what’s missing but can’t fill it in, and I think that builds on the haunting quality of the music itself.
4. Grace. – breathe. Directed by breathe.
I usually hate music videos that are done entirely in slow-motion. If you’re not giving me a reason to be at that speed every moment, then it feels like you’re wasting my time. “Grace.” by breathe. gives us a reason for three-and-a-half minutes. It teaches us who a person is, and it lets us glimpse and share their joy for that brief moment in time.
There are beautifully choreographed technical elements here – performer, camera, lighting. The slow-motion helps us learn who Tommy is, see their tattoos, the look on their face. And then sometimes what’s already beautiful is lifted by moments of capturing lightning in a bottle.
I always think of that first shooting star in “Jaws”, when the terror is building, the boat is taking on water, and Roy Scheider loads the flare gun. A shooting star passes behind and that one, little moment of beauty burrowed in everything else lifts the film into the territory of a fable, into unreal and ultra-real all at the same time.
It might seem weird to bring up “Jaws”; lightning in a bottle doesn’t need to be those specific emotions or genres, but it does need to be a moment of chance in a scene that’s already as good as it can be. When Tommy turns and their cross earring flashes in the light at 1:51 in, that’s lightning in a bottle. That’s a moment already being so perfect that a chance of unexpected beauty on top of it elevates what we’re watching into the magical. I’m not religious; that’s not what I’m talking about. What matters is that it’s something important to who we’re watching, something that they value and like for whatever reason, something that describes them, that they chose to wear, a detail of who they are shared for just a second before we lose that opportunity to know it.
And yes, the shine might be enhanced – hell, Spielberg added a second meteor in post-production. That it was there to begin with, that there was already such a high plateau for it to stand on – that’s what makes it.
As Sean Walker of breathe. describes the reason for the video, “In Dec. 2018, my twin Tommy was found unconscious on the side of the road after a horrific motorcycle accident. As I sat in the intensive care unit that night, I was told that they might not wake up, and I had to contemplate the devastating possibility of losing my other half. This film is a celebration of Tommy’s survival and strength, their queerness and their community who loves and cares deeply for them.
The clip features Tommy dancing inside Sydney’s Red Rattler Theatre — a space where, growing up, Tommy felt safe and comfortable to be wholeheartedly and completely themselves, a place where they found their family, and their identity. After spending months in a wheelchair with a broken back, ribs and pelvis, nerve damage and brain injury, Tommy can once again move and express themselves freely, an incredible thing to watch as their brother. Forever my tomboy, Sean from breathe.”
CW: graphic violence, implied child trafficking
3. All About Love – Sierra directed by Parker Gayan
The best way to describe this is David Fincher-esque. Not just in style or presentation either – it’s difficult to tell what’s a literal story and what’s metaphor. Is it a video about a woman out to stop child traffickers? Is it about a woman literally killing the man who raised her? Is it a metaphor about closing a connection to your past, and gaining a level of control over abuse and trauma suffered in childhood?
All of those are potential reads, and they don’t necessarily disagree. It could be all of them, and that’s what elevates something that might otherwise come across as just a stylistic experiment. There’s a complexity in how we read this and what details we draw from to fill in the narrative.
2. Mate – Mobley directed by Mobley
There have been a lot of MVs about two people connecting but unable to meet or touch. The theme reflects people’s experiences during a pandemic that’s entered its second year. Many have centered around people being able to be together in virtual worlds like MMOs, paired with a mix of both joy and added frustration that this brings. Yet this can also backseat a focus on characters themselves.
What I love about “Mate” by Mobley is that it’s most focused on what connects these characters, what they teach each other, what they find in each other that’s beautiful and shared. A lot of these videos focus on longing, but few focus on what makes their characters such a good match, few speak to the audience that what they’re teaching each other includes things that we should be learning as well.
1. Fireworks – Purple Disco Machine ft. Moss Kena & The Knocks directed by Greg Barth
Nobody could have predicted the most perfect music video ever made would be a documentary beamed to us from the future.
Other videos we liked this month:
“Anhedonia” sees two of gothic rock’s most creative artists come together: Chelsea Wolfe & Emma Ruth Rundle. It’s a beautiful stop-motion video that creates a safe harbor for those in the midst of depression, that offers a space for patience that can sometimes seem very distant.
“Where the Time Went” is a return for Ex: Re, the solo project by Daughter frontwoman Elena Tonra. There are a lot of music videos documenting eerily empty spaces in the middle of a pandemic, but this one goes a little further by echoing the automation of a city still running, and of apartments that aren’t empty but that may as well be a thousand miles away to the passerby.
“Sorrows” by Bryson Tiller is a beautifully shot metaphor for coping badly with heartbreak. One of the most interesting discussions in this month’s email thread is whether or not it’s based on 1998 sci-fi noir “Dark City” – the billboard for a beach that doesn’t exist and the preponderance of clocks and figures using human faces is hard to overlook.
“The Princess and the Clock” is a painterly animation of a fairy tale, either hopeful or tragic depending on how you read it. Kero Kero Bonito have a habit for hiding thematic knives within bright, happy, synth-tickling dream pop.
“Client” by Waveshaper is a narrative about loss and the choices we make told with superb retro flourish.
“Man in Me” by Madi Diaz is an effective metaphor shot in a single take, but it’s impossible to describe without ruining the message it conveys.
“Blijven Slapen” by Snelle & Maan is a story about two people who – through the power of editing – keep falling into new places where more and more people dance with them. I don’t remember it all that well, but this is what life was like before the pandemic, right?
“Sunny in the Making” by Steady Holiday is a great single take video about anxiety, impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and that moment when you’re able to realize something artistic as passionately as you want.
I mentioned CHUNG HA’s “Bicycle” earlier when talking about K-pop, but the Korean-English-Spanish song and its superb dance video is absolutely worth highlighting on its own.
I started writing on this platform again a year ago. I got a lot of initial requests to bring this feature back and it’s been tempting me ever since. Music videos are my favorite form of storytelling. They’re condensed and only have a certain amount of time to connect. They span every genre. They offer opportunity to many forms of visual and performance art that audiences don’t have the patience for in full-length movies.
I ran the Awkward Playlist feature to talk about themed music video playlists. That will still continue now and then, but I wanted to get back to the monthly rundown. This site used to cover music videos in depth, but that was when we had a number of different writers to contribute. I didn’t want to bring it back without them.
For whatever reason, it feels important to watch and discuss music videos with a group. I’m still doing the writing here, but I wanted to build it on more than just what I thought. Five others are helping me with the ratings – S.C. Himura, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Olivia Smith (no relation), and Vanessa Tottle. That group might shift from month to month depending on time.
The way we do this is that one or two of us runs through a bunch of music videos to filter out what’s probably not going to be rated highly. Whittling down this initial selection makes it easier for everyone to watch. It can reduce 200+ videos down to around 80. Amanda did that job every month when we did this years back, and I’ll be eternally grateful to her for it. This month it was Olivia and myself. We might rotate it or split it up – who knows? All I know is it’s not easy; I had to watch Weezer.
How do we rate them? We all give the remaining videos a rating one through 10. Each of us also has a single 12 to give only to what we think is the very best video of that month. Then math happens. Is this a good system? I’m not a scientist. It is an interesting one, though. Across six people, the top videos tend to separate themselves from the rest pretty decisively.
Inevitably, everyone gets angry that one or another video didn’t make the cut, but we do all feel that the 10 videos that did all deserve to be here. To avoid friendships dissolving due to music videos, however, there is a follow-up section with descriptions and links to additional MVs that also scored highly.
Let’s dive in:
10. “I Hate Running” by Number One Pop Star directed by Kate Jean Hollowell
Sometimes a music video is elevated by a singular performance. Don’t get me wrong, the staging of this is on point, from the cigarette tiara to the book launch from hell at a…I’m going to guess a mission somewhere on the West Coast.
Kate Hollowell is singer, director, actor, producer, stylist, and probably some other things on the video. Neither is this a one-off. On her previous MV for “Psycho”, her performance is just as skillfully ridiculous. In an interview for PAPER Magazine, Hollowell described Number One Pop Star as if “Ariel Pink and Dua Lipa had a child who also wanted to be a comedian when they grow up”.
Hollowell also directs outside of her bands Number One Pop Star and, er, Slut Island. She directed the MV for Katy Perry’s “Champagne Problems” and co-directed “Jealousy” for SASAMI.
CW: dismemberment (in a fake, comedic style)
9. “Peur des Filles” by L’Imperatrice directed by Aube Perrie
A woman (from space?) murders all the men so she can dance with them and serve their heads at a picnic. Few things decide to bridge giallo horror to the visual style of 60s sitcoms, and this makes me upset it hasn’t been done more often.
Part of what gives “Peur des Filles” its unique look is that it’s shot on film. There’s a visual softness to it that’s still difficult to emulate on video. Video can get to that soft look, but it’s usually not deep through the whole picture – it’s applied more like a surface filter, which still feels less natural.
Watching the video multiple times, not only do you see some extra sight gags in the choreography, but you can also see how specifically the lighting takes advantage of film’s qualities and directs your eye. It’s an easygoing video that’s already enjoyable on the first go, but that has a lot of craft hiding under the surface.
8. “Solstice” by The Antlers directed by Derrick Belcham, Emily Terndrup
Tangent time: Andrew Wyeth painted masterpieces that often centered on the absence of their central figures. His paintings gave huge amounts of information through what was missing from the image we saw. His most famous painting, or at least his most lasting today, is Christina’s World.
Groundhog Day may’ve been the one that tested his audience the most. Its most important feature was the figure missing from the painting. We had to infer a life from the sparse details that were present, and from the suggestions the painter had made: a wintry yard whose color mirrored the loneliness and threat of the slanted light indoors and the knife on the table.
Why am I going on about Andrew Wyeth? “Solstice” is hardly foreboding or threatening, but it does craft a picture by the absence of a figure – or at least an absence that runs against convention. There’s an evolution in the choreography of dancer Bobbi-Jene Smith and the barest elements of narrative that describes an emotional journey. That expands the video far beyond a dance and a woman with a baby. It creates a character who’s dealing with that absence. To describe that through dance and the lightest touch in editing, without ever mentioning or suggesting that in any other way, does in a music video what Wyeth could do in painting. It gives us a story by refusing us the story, by holding us out of it even as we gaze straight into it.
That absence of a figure describes either a woman deciding to have a child on her own, or someone else deciding for her by leaving. The lyrics suggest very gently someone passing or about to pass. The result tells us a story and relies on our assumptions, biases, and inferences to fill in the details. That is so much of what describes American Regionalism as a style throughout mediums. I’m not sure I can recall a music video that accomplishes this so well through substance and presentation and not just through outright visual style.
7. “Hardline” by Julien Baker directed by Joe Baughman
This is a stunning accomplishment in stop-motion animation. Underpinning it all is the story of a friend who’s loyal, who enables, endures, and is harmed by their own friend’s pursuit of self-destruction.
There’s a technical mastery here that feels hidden underneath the DIY set construction. Cinematic elements like a rack focus and tracking shots are done to perfection without being obvious, and they’re a big part of what legitimizes the emotional experience of this poor dog we’re following. The look on their face before they have to light the fuse is a brilliant moment of performance, and matches an emotion a lot of us have felt watching someone destroy themselves.
6. “We All Have” by Julia Stone ft. Matt Berninger directed by Gabriel Gasparinatos
This beautifully reflects the need to still feel the presence of someone who’s passed, to echo in your mind a moment when they were beside you. It’s an easing that makes the impossible barely manageable.
Removing it to a specific and realistic story – even with moments of metaphor, makes it feel distinct. It reminds me a bit of Arcade Fire’s dreamlike MV for “Afterlife”. Pretending that person still exists, is still present in the world – it’s not a place you want to get trapped, but it is a place that can remind you that part of them lives in you, can still be evoked by you, can still be felt.
It doesn’t matter that it’s a lonely stand against entropy, it matters that you make it now and then, it matters that we still care to. It matters to understand just how universal that loneliness is.
5. “Alive After Death” by John Carpenter directed by Liam Brazier
Is this John Carpenter’s best film since “The Thing”? OK, that’s comparing apples to oranges, but what’s captured here has such a Carpenter-esque vibe. If you’re confused, 70s and 80s horror director John Carpenter often composed the music for his films, including the famous theme from “Halloween”.
He’s more recently taken up creating albums of music as lost themes from movies that never were. “Alive After Death” arises from “Lost Themes III: Alive After Death”. The result so far is engrossing, and the music video genuinely feels like a Carpenter mini-film. What recalls his style most are those personal moments of quiet and decision in otherwise strange, outlandish, and terrifying cinematic moments.
4. “Hate Myself” by dodie directed by Sammy Paul
It’s utterly wild to think that dodie hasn’t actually released a full-length album yet. Off the strength of 3 EPs, she’s already become one of the most important musicians of Gen Z, and one who tackles mental health in an extremely forthright way through her music videos. Whenever she releases an MV, I know there’s a good chance I’m going to end up crying, because she creates stories around mental health issues that we barely even talked about 10 years ago.
What gets me about “Hate Myself” is that it’s so succinct. That might seem an artless description for something with so much style, but dodie’s become exceptional at communicating the experience of emotional struggles like anxiety. She puts something on-screen that’s removed from reality, but that feels emotionally real. The impression of what she’s doing is familiar even if what’s taking place is fantastical. It’s easy to identify, it’s easy to know exactly what’s being felt no matter the moment.
3. “Delicate Limbs” by Virgil Abloh ft. serpentwithfeet directed by Kordae Jatafa Henry
I’m much more familiar with the work of serpentwithfeet than Virgil Abloh, who is primarily known as a fashion designer. The result here is genuinely impressive, and the video feels absolutely in line with serpentwithfeet’s astounding and overlooked oeuvre.
The video builds itself around singular visual moments. The slow motion aesthetic lends itself to appreciating the images more like tableaus than as a music video. There’s a sense of leading from one perfect picture to the next.
2. “Howler” by Martin Gore directed by NYSU
Martin Gore is better known as one of the members of 80s band Depeche Mode. As for “Howler”, at first it tests some patience. It’s a slow build, but it leaves a trail of bread crumbs in its iterative visuals. New information gets introduced in every repeat, changing the context of what you saw before so that it communicates something different each time. While it’s threatening from the start, the iterations of its visuals increasingly suggest versions of the threat’s nature – who it’s aimed at, how it’s experienced. There’s enough there to be thinking about it constantly, and enough missing to feel like that thought process needs to be urgent.
The experience of watching it reminds me of Gesaffelstein’s “Pursuit”. It constantly introduces new information about the nature of what we’re watching without giving us enough time to process it. We’re still figuring out what we’ve seen as even more new information is introduced. Both MVs evoke the sensation of perceiving a threat without having the knowledge to regain control in the experience.
1. “Don’t Judge Me” by FKA Twigs ft. Headie One, Fred Again directed by Emmanuel Adjei, FKA Twigs
Every time FKA Twigs releases a video, it’s probably going to end up on a list like this. There’s no artist who’s so relentlessly pushed the medium in the last few years.
The sculpture, the choreography, the lighting, the floor under the dancers echoing that dappled water pattern, the frozen figures in front of statues, the suggestion of movement in that terrifying fucking shark, that brief moment of hyperventilation in the music and performance suddenly ceased, the mime-ing of police brutality, everything here is so detailed toward a whole while still being viscerally felt.
Selena Gomez and Rauw Alejandro’s exceptionally filmed “Baila Conmigo”. Wait, Selena Gomez? Really? Yes, her Spanish-language stuff is leagues ahead of her English-language material.
Israeli artist Noga Erez delivered in a simple video for “End of the Road” that leans almost entirely on the strength of her performance.
UK duo Leyya have a beautifully animated video in “I’m Not Sure” that speaks volumes if you deal with anxiety.
Somehow, all six of us are angry at each other that “Saku” by Bicep didn’t make the list. The Irish duo feature Clara La San on the track.
Lana del Rey’s been working hard to burn bridges following what many thought was the album of our times in 2019’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell!” If you were hoping the video for “Chemtrails Over the Country Club” would clear anything up, you must be new here.
I thought “Talk About Love” should’ve made the top 10. The song by Zara Larsson and featuring Young Thug boasts a superbly choreographed dance video. It remembers that rare feat of choreographing the camera as well, creating a dance piece that’s bursting with energy.
“I’m Not Cool” by HyunA follows a lot of the conventions of K-Pop videos, but those elements are rarely this well done. The reliance on extreme shaky-cam during hip-hop choreo is a trend that’s often bothered me in K-Pop videos, but there’s some really clever use of motion tracking that creates that sense of movement in the viewer without being as visually frustrating.
One thing that’s difficult to wrap our heads around is the sheer amount of information bombarding us on a daily basis. We can barely understand new pieces of shocking corruption, racist tragedies, and systemic violence before the next new piece comes along. We feel helpless because even if we can figure out how to help one situation, dozens more that we’re too overwhelmed to help in the same way have just piled on.
That makes it so easy to lose track of the things we are helping and changing. We try our hardest, and lose track of even what we’re doing, of the change that we might be making.
One reason I put these songs together is that artists who are tackling particular elements can help to clarify them. We have a lot of the information about what’s happening around us in our heads, but when we get overwhelmed our emotions mix across the bunch of them and we lose sight of any in particular. We don’t process the information, and we just let others make narratives of it for us – often in a harmful way – just to feel a little less overwhelmed.
Art can get shoved to the side in moments like this, but that art can be an incredibly useful way to anchor emotions, to compartmentalize and clarify. A lot of this music contrasts in culture, tone, approach, perspective. The music videos below do share a focus, though. They’re each protest songs, protest videos, and they help me feel clearer because they all look to give a space for getting back to those emotional anchors about the things that rightly anger us.
“Vipers Follow You”
“The Seduction of Kansas”
Hurray for the Riff Raff
“They Keep Silence”
El Perro Del Mar
Buke & Gase
“Blood of the Fang”
“When the Fires Come”
Kero Kero Bonito
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One of the major ways that I cope is by making lists. It’s funny because list articles generally aren’t my favorite to write. Sometimes I’ll make a quick list of art that evokes an emotion, or connects things in a way I hadn’t thought of before.
One of the ways this takes more solid form is creating playlists of music videos and performances. It’s not just the song, it’s about what the video and performer evoke, the way all of it together flows into the next or contrasts with it.
Sometimes I’ll go through dozens of music videos putting 10 in the right order. I always feel like what I come up with is imperfect, that there’s something missing I haven’t tripped upon or been introduced to yet. I’m frustrated when a song doesn’t have a video or performance I like, and then I sit on the list for ages wondering if I should put the song itself in. But I also feel like whatever I do come up with is useful for storing an emotion, processing it, seeing it turned over and over in this weird tumble dryer of videos.
As something extra, I thought I’d put together a playlist of videos every two weeks – no discussion like I might put in an article, just an order of videos that helps me to think about something, cope with it. In this one, it felt like I had permission to be sad and frustrated. They’re emotions that I often deny myself – angry and frustrated, sure, but sad I fear de-railing work, I fear getting in the way. I hate the way it makes me doubt myself, second-guess my worth. I fear wasting time when I already have trouble focusing. I hate permitting stress when it feels like I already have enough, as if that doesn’t somehow create more stress.
I think putting these particular videos together helps me create a space where I have permission to be sad, where I can let that be legitimate, where I can feel safe feeling that, and realize how badly I sometimes need to allow that for myself.
“Rich, White, Straight Men”
Little Simz ft. Tilla
“Just Make it Stop”
“On a Hilltop Sat the Moon”
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The 2010s were an odd decade for music videos. The medium seems to have both a record audience and a diminishing importance. Music videos at the beginning of the decade measured the celebrity of an artist. The best were (for some reason) often considered those with the most cameos of other celebrities.
Now, viewership is overwhelming, there’s more access to music videos than ever before, and that interest is much more fragmented. Websites dedicated to covering music videos have gone under. A star can no longer maintain their celebrity solely on opulently produced music videos.
Are these good things or bad? It’s genuinely hard to say. It’s an evolution. I certainly don’t mind that stars themselves have become less central to music videos. When they do feature, it’s less about anchoring the video to a musical performance and more about how the star features, highlights, or contrasts to a story taking place. It leaves more room for narrative, setting, a director’s touch, dance, choreography, performance.
These are the 10 music videos of the last decade that stick with me the most:
10. “Land of the Free” – The Killers
directed by Spike Lee
Hope can’t function without the work to realize it. Change doesn’t happen unless people enact it. Spike Lee’s video for The Killers’ “Land of the Free” speaks to the sad, backwards phase the United States has found itself embracing. We’re running concentration camps for Latinx immigrants, tearing children from their parents and keeping them locked away for no reason. Incarceration has been transformed into a modern version of slave labor for the prison industry. Children are shot in our schools with no real effort made to decrease the risk they face.
“Land of the Free” is a Rorschach test for how you’re feeling that day: hopeful, angry, motivated, hopeless, desperate. All of those feelings are part of a whole. All of them are legitimate and natural. Just keep taking the next step to changing something. Keep taking the next step of the work that feeds that hope and one day realizes it.
Many of Mitski’s videos center on the dissonance of being biracial. Director Maegan Houang’s “Happy” might investigate this best in terms of the white beauty standards held against women of color. What the video reveals is how racism is used to undermine feminism that isn’t intersectional. While it supposedly prizes white women over women of color, it’s ultimately used to suppress both. White patriarchy doesn’t enable or reward women held as successful in it, it just points them at another marginalized community while both are victimized.
8. “Genghis Khan” – Miike Snow
directed by Ninian Dorff produced Sarah Boardman, Rik Green choreography by Supple Nam
And now for something happy. A surprise hit that came out of nowhere, “Genghis Khan” is a terrific love story that exemplifies the strengths of music videos as a medium. It communicates its ideas quickly and upends your expectations through song, dance, and just a few cutaway shots.
We’re familiar enough with the tropes it plays with that it doesn’t need any more than this. It’s successful because it can tell a story in under four minutes with very broad strokes and a bare handful of specifics that establish and then invert cliches we love. It’s expertly directed because it knows where to pull back and trust the audience.
7. “Elastic Heart” – Sia
directed by Sia, Daniel Askill choreographed by Ryan Heffington
Dance can communicate a great deal, including the inability to escape certain struggles and bring the people we love with us. Sia has discussed the video in terms of being two sides of her personality, and it also works as demonstration of family members struggling and fighting – sometimes with each other. A daughter learns to cope with mental illness and trauma and a father can’t escape its impact – whether because it’s too late or too progressed, he simply didn’t have the tools and help in time.
The responses to this video were understandable. Many worried about connotations of pedophilia at the idea of Shia LaBeouf dancing opposite Maddie Ziegler in a cage. Impact outweighs intent, so it’s appropriate that Sia herself quickly clarified the aim of the video and didn’t seek to blame or attack those who were concerned about it.
As a metaphor for mental illness and trauma recovery, it can be powerful. The video itself is the sum of a number of smart decisions. Ryan Heffington’s choreography is off-kilter and imbalanced, playing with the power dynamic and difference in size between his two dancers. The camera remains still at various points only to explode into motion. The editing is energetic and chooses its patient moments. There’s sometimes a slight fish-eye effect used in shots taken from inside the cage that creates a slightly distorted perspective. And of course, the two dancers are phenomenal, both in their choreography and in their performances as actors.
6. “What Kind of Man” – Florence + The Machine
directed by Vincent Haycock produced by Jackie Bisbee, Mary Ann Marino, Alex Fisch choreographed by Ryan Heffington
Florence Welch has a catalog of fearless performances in music videos. Perhaps none of them match “What Kind of Man” for their range and the flexibility of their interpretation. Welch and Director Vincent Haycock put together a 48-minute film called The Odyssey, composed of nine original Florence + The Machine music videos. “What Kind of Man” serves as the opener to it.
I’d describe it as a burgeoning storm of a music video if it wasn’t expressly making that comparison within the video itself. The range of scenes swings wildly across intimate experiences, framing an entire rocky history of trust, anger, desire, shame. We come away with the shape of what someone’s love life has felt like – whether across multiple romances or just one is hard to say. We understand the gender inequality that played into it, the feelings of disaster and healing that accompanied it.
If we were asked to build a chronology of events out of the video, we couldn’t possibly. Yet if we were asked to describe the feelings surrounding those events, we could describe what the video shows us for far longer than it runs. “What Kind of Man” is like an impressionist painting – we may not be able to identify individual objects in it, but we can describe exactly what it feels like.
(I had this list sorted out before I looked at the production and choreography credits. Lo and behold, choreographer Ryan Heffington again. I supposed I should be looking for more of his work.)
5. “The Body Electric” – Hurray for the Riff Raff
directed by Joshua Shoemaker produced by Dan and Cathleen Murphy
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s protest anthem “Pa’lante” could just as easily have made the list, but “The Body Electric” is the music video I go to when I feel most helpless in changing things. It’s not because the video makes me feel hopeful. It’s because it makes me see how much more hopelessness out there is felt by others, how many marginalized communities are struggling and seeking for their voice to be legitimized, to be seen as human. The sheer volume of that struggle isn’t reassuring, but I know we’re none of us alone in that struggle. The hopelessness I’m feeling isn’t unique, or unprecedented, or insurmountable. It’s a desired effect of the racism I fear and fight against, of the misogyny and transphobia addressed in the video.
“The Body Electric” reminds me I’m not alone. There are more of us who want to change things than those who want them to remain this way. That pain is heard. It’s felt. It has platforms. People are fighting every day. I don’t fail if I’ve fought until exhaustion. We all have at some point. I fail if I don’t recognize that in others, if I don’t see the communities who are all in this. Art like this can be poignant in driving a point home, and it can also serve as a bridge to the lonely and exhausted that reminds them it’s OK, that exhaustion is shared, just as overcoming it is shared.
4. “Quarrel” – Moses Sumney
directed by Allie Avital, Moses Sumney produced by Meghan Doherty
Moses Sumney’s song speaks of the power imbalance in a relationship between people of different privileges. The music video deals with the desire to transform into something he cannot, the fairy tale that people of color can be seen as the same when the difference that’s applied to them is itself illusory. We turn the hate of that inward in an impossible effort to become the things that hate us.
Or, the music video deals with the desire to oppress and cause violence to those we care about who don’t have the same privileges, and it’s not until Sumney puts himself into the shoes of those he oppresses that he can understand how his actions cause harm.
“Quarrel” is difficult to parse. Like many great fairy tales, it can say multiple things depending on your point of view.
3. “This is America” – Childish Gambino
directed by Hiro Murai produced by Danielle Hinde, Jason Cole, Fam Rothstein, Ibra Ake choreographed by Sherrie Silver
Obviously, “This is America” belongs high on any list like this one. Why does it work so well for so many people? It speaks to a country (and cultural movement across many countries) that increasingly uses fear to dominate and radicalize its people against each other. It builds layers of violent imagery immediately ignored with smiles and dancing. The smiles and dancing immediately enable the next eruption of violence.
Nothing is healed in that cycle. All of us quietly fear it while simultaneously feeding it, participating in it, enabling it. It fuses together the acts of violence and illusions that erase them to evoke a lurking fear that we use those illusions to suppress and deny.
2. “RAPIN*” – Jenny Wilson
Content Warning: sexual assault
animated & directed by Gustaf Holtenas
Jenny Wilson’s 2018 album EXORCISM is an unraveling of after-effects from a sexual assault. The entire album serves as a maelstrom, an extensive fallout of damages and dealing with them. Its uncomfortable discussion of recovery as a process that often repeats the trauma is stark and realistic. There’s no before-and-after picture to it.
“RAPIN*” is the first song on the album, a fever dream that serves as a terrifying monument in life that can never be erased. Gustaf Holtenas’s animated music video reflects that terror in a way that’s both surreal and sickeningly physical.
It’s not a representation that can be easily digested. It’s confrontational, visceral, revolting, haunting. It conveys how trauma changes the way someone sees the world from that point forward, how the event itself replays in their mind. It’s a direct and painful music video that places the viewer into the shoes of the victim, if only to describe in some slight way something that can’t be described.
1. “Afterlife” – Arcade Fire
directed by Emily Kai Bock produced by Anne Johnson
The best we can do for the people we’ve lost is remember them. Sometimes we can only do so in impressions. Perhaps its a TV show you grew up watching with them. Perhaps its a place where you danced. Perhaps its a shoulder you rested upon. We don’t always have access to these things anymore. We reach out to them in our imaginations, in our dreams, we try to resurrect them in the art we create.
We try to touch them just one more time, to evoke something lost – their image, their voice, their presence. Sometimes a death can feel like nothing will ever be the same. Sometimes it can feel like they just stepped out for a minute, and they’ll be right back.
“Afterlife” deals in the impressions we might remember in our dreams, the memories of work and leisure a father might have, a teenager’s memory that’s precise but lacks context, the brief feeling of reassurance after a child’s nightmare.
“Afterlife” is sad and longing, but it’s also immensely reassuring. It shares one glimpse of something we all feel in our lives, at a way our hearts all break and mend until we can test their breaking once again because we so dearly want to remember those we’ve lost.
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