Tag Archives: Problem

The Best Music Videos of 2014 (So Far) — #25-16

90s Music Kimbra

by S.L. Fevre, Cleopatra Parnell, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabe Valdez

Let’s take this chance to meet our writers.

S.L. Fevre joins us for only the second time from Los Angeles. An actress, model, and experimental filmmaker, she brings on board a unique industry experience. She also contributes hip hop and rap expertise, but is a fan of narco rock and modern grunge as well.

Cleopatra Parnell kept us down to earth in our 3-part conversation on Lana Del Rey’s “Tropico” and helped us select for our Best Music Videos of 2013 series. A musician and alt-model living in “Austin, Texas, greatest city in the world” she puts the priority on good stories, humor, and solid lyrics in thrash metal, “epic Viking rock,” punk, and house music videos.

Vanessa Tottle has written for us quite a lot. Her most recent solo articles were her touching E3 reaction and her searing declaration of war after the Isla Vista shootings. She’s a fan of folk, alternative, and Asian pop music, but couldn’t care less what the music is if your video conveys a message.

If you follow us, you might already know I’m a film critic living in Massachusetts. I have some particular tastes – I like brash, experimental music videos, good dance if you’ve got it, that place where electronica and hip hop meet, and what’s left of alternative music.

-Gabe Valdez

P.S. Due to music copyright law, we can only feature some videos here. Click on each title to watch every video directly on YouTube.

25. Really Don’t Care – Demi Lovato feat. Cher Lloyd
directed by Ryan Pallotta

This video unabashedly makes a statement. Demi Lovato has the following that only being a Disney music and TV star can give you – her demographic is youthful and open-minded. Not all of them have decided their politics, but they will soon, since she’s been around for a while. What better time to make a statement that “My Jesus loves everybody,” than at the L.A. Pride Parade?   -Cleopatra Parnell

24. Sweatpants/Urn – Childish Gambino feat. Problem
directed by Hiro Murai

Self-congratulation meets extreme self-awareness in a riff on Being John Malkovich and a rip on the ego that fame brought. It’s too egotistical in the end, which is where Hiro Murai tags “Urn,” a soulful, dreamlike cry from under the burdens and expectations of black history.   -S.L. Fevre

23. 90s Music – Kimbra
directed by Justin Francis

I still don’t know how I feel about Kimbra’s deconstructionist pop by-way-of world music schtick. At times it’s transcendental, at other times it feels amateurish. Sometimes both in the very same song, like in “90s Music.” Either way, it’s growing on me, and I think she’s the half of that Gotye song from two years back that’s most worth paying attention to. The video has more to do with antiquated visual art movements than music videos. The result is equal parts “What am I watching?” and “I want to play it 5 times in a row.” Nearly always, the latter thought wins.   -Gabe Valdez

22. Busy Earnin’ – Jungle
directed by Oliver Pearch

Laid back dance choreography goes a long way for me, especially when the lead is this winning. Is it a perfectly executed dance piece or is it a crew having a good time on a rainy Sunday? It hits both marks very easily, which fits the song’s smooth, mid-tempo groove.   -Vanessa Tottle

21. Au Revoir – Chancellor Warhol
directed by Casey Culver

Kanye West opened a door for rappers to make careers of killing off their gangster god identities. Bugattis, bling, guns, and champagne were the measurements of success. Now, they’re the emperor’s new clothes, hiding shame like fig leaves. Both of Casey Culver’s videos on the list [William Wolf’s “King of Sorrow” featured yesterday -ed.] insist the more you boast, the worse off you are and the more you own, the less responsible you are.   -S.L. Fevre

20. No Rest for the Wicked – Lykke Li
directed by Tarik Saleh

Sweden is in a political fight for its future that mirrors Europe’s own. Its artists are fighting hard against rising racist and fascist leaders who demand closing borders and “acceptable” forms of segregation. If we learned one thing from how the Great Depression led to World War 2, it’s that tough times make ugly politicians rise up by creating scapegoats. Every country has a favorite race to blame, and the history of Sweden is interlocked closely with Nazi Germany’s. What Sweden, Europe, and the U.S. all fight over is whether we learned that one thing or history repeats itself. The role of performance today is to be the conscience that refuses repetition.   -Cleopatra Parnell

19. Crime – Real Estate
directed by Tom Scharpling

Andy Daly auctioning pieces of the video. Blood Lord extreme sports vampire gangs who stop chasing a girl to admire an old man’s photo album and get turned into a barbershop quartet. There are a lot of super serious messages in music videos. For once, it’s nice to stop and enjoy something silly.   -Cleopatra Parnell

18. Sword in Mouth, Fire Eyes – Norma Jean
directed by Eli Berg

Norma Jean are like the pop version of Tool, a sort of diet-version Porcupine Tree. They tell the classic tale of a shark following a man to his office and taking over his job. It’s hilarious, but there’s something more lurking underneath the video’s immediate comedy, a Kafka-esque metaphor for the fear that drives us at breakneck pace even for the most mundane job. If that starts getting to you too much, just replay the scene where the shark fixes the office copier.   -Gabe Valdez

17. Down on My Luck – Vic Mensa
directed by Ben Dickinson

Think Groundhog’s Day at a club, all boiled down to a three-minute song. It’s a daunting task, but it’s deftly handled through some wicked smart choreography and editing. There’s little more to say about this video; it’s a comedy that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.   -Gabe Valdez

16. Black – The-Dream
directed by Daniel Sannwald

According to the Supreme Court, three of the four writers of this article don’t own their bodies in the United States of America. Two of the four have been asked by police if they’re here legally because of their name or appearance. Three of them have had thousands of dollars legally stolen by trusted employers. Two of us have had research legally stolen by employers. All four have multiple friends suffering PTSD. All four know someone who was shot in a foreign war. Three of us know someone who was shot on U.S. soil. The fourth knows someone who shot and killed their child while cleaning a loaded gun. All of us know someone who has lost their house. All four of us have taken a friend who’s suffered sexual assault to the hospital. Two of us have taken a friend who’s been rufied to the hospital. All of us grew up with the American dream, two in Texas, one in Illinois, one in Wisconsin. Heartland, straight up the middle. Some had rough childhoods, some had wholesome ones, but all of us believed that dream of equality and fairness growing up. Now we live on four ends of a country, in as different situations as you can imagine. Yet all of us are fucking pissed. And all of us bet you are, too.   -Vanessa Tottle

Watch this blog for the continuation of our rankings.
Here, you can check out #35-26.

Bits & Pieces — Rhythm Editing, Ariana Grande’s “Problem” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”

Ariana Grande Problem lead

Thank You, Gene Kelly

How did ’50s musical star Gene Kelly play a part in launching David Fincher’s career? To explain that, we’ve got to rewind all the way back to 1989. Before Paula Abdul was a beloved reality show superstar, she was a singer and dancer.

Back then, David Fincher wasn’t an Oscar-winning director responsible for Fight Club, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He was a sought-after commercial and music video director who had worked with ’80s musical artists like Rick Springfield, Foreigner, and Gipsy Kings.

Neither Abdul nor Fincher needed the other, but they would each make the other’s career. Abdul got her start through a try-out for the Laker Girls, the L.A. Lakers’ cheerleading squad. She was quickly promoted as their head choreographer, shortly after which she was nabbed by the Jackson family to do their music video and tour choreography. Fans now think of her just as an 80s singer with a handful of hits, but Abdul’s history as a choreographer – especially with Michael and Janet Jackson – is often overlooked. She was one of the most important choreographers of the ’80s and ’90s.

Paula Abdul Straight Up

Abdul made a demo in 1987 and – on the strength of her dance ability at a time when music videos were king – her singing career kicked off. Her single “Straight Up” was a megahit in 1988, fourth on the year-end Billboard Hot 100. It hardly needed a music video to make it relevant. She had worked with Fincher that year, creating a solid – but largely ignored – video for “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me.”

Fincher made his money directing commercials. He had made a name for himself as an edgy, subversive director whose ads could stand on their own as half-minute films. Sometimes, they barely featured a brand’s name.

“I’m totally anti-commercialism,” Fincher said. “I would never do commercials where people hold the product by their head and tell you how great it is, I just wouldn’t do that stuff. It’s all about inference.”

Fincher had also co-founded Propaganda Films with, among others, Michael Bay. He knew at a time when MTV made or broke careers overnight that the quickest route into feature film directing was music videos. He’d been at it since 1985, he was solid, incredibly productive, and he had vision, but he had yet to break out as a music video director the way he had as a director of commercials.

Then came “Straight Up.”

Aside from featuring Arsenio Hall and introducing America to Djimon Hounsou, it became one of the most heavily played videos on MTV, winning four 1989 MTV Video Music Awards – Best Female Video, Best Dance Video, Best Choreography, and Best Editing. It’s often forgotten because it was overshadowed by a music video Fincher directed later that year – Madonna’s “Express Yourself” – and one that was released the next year – Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun.”

It’s worth noting the video that stuck the longest in people’s minds from 1989, however, was Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” directed by Mary Lambert and winner of MTV’s Viewer’s Choice award. Lambert had earlier in the decade earned notice working with choreographer Abdul on a handful of Janet Jackson’s music videos. The ’80s were a small world.

Paula Abdul had already spent years as one of the music industry’s go-to choreographers, and she had a major hit on her hands before filming with Fincher. Fincher was, perhaps, inevitable – a year later, he held three of the four nominations for best direction in MTV’s 1990 Video Music Awards (for Madonna’s “Vogue” and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence,” in addition to the one for Aerosmith).

Yet Fincher’s first music video to truly catch the public’s attention was “Straight Up,” and the battlefield of MTV was littered with productive directors who never broke through. Paula Abdul was the route Fincher took in stepping up to major artists like Madonna and Aerosmith, and “Straight Up” was the music video that truly announced him, the connective tissue between one phase of his career and the next.

But before Paula Abdul was a reality show superstar, she was a singer, and before she was a singer, she was a choreographer, and before that – as she once told an interviewer – she was a little girl who had no idea she wanted to dance until she saw Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, and then it’s all she ever wanted to do. So thank you, Gene Kelly, I really liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Get to the Part About Ariana Grande Already!

Look at this. If you haven’t watched “Straight Up” yet, watch it after. (On certain browsers, you’ll have to click through to YouTube.)

Congratulations, you’ll now have that song cycling through your head for the next month.

Notice anything? The two music videos are incredibly similar, down to the cutting philosophy of isolating featured dancers. It’s not as if no one’s used these techniques between “Straight Up” and “Problem,” but few music videos have echoed “Straight Up” so proudly.

They’re both edited with what I think of as rhythm editing – this isn’t a term used very widely in editing – but I liken it to choreographies themselves. A rhythm choreography is something that’s based on the music. You cut to the hard beats. “Problem” is a superb example of this. From the moment Grande starts singing, nearly every cut is made to either two or four beats. As she crescendos and we approach the chorus “I got one less problem without you,” the editing reflects the increased intensity, suddenly cutting on every one or two beats. Later in the song, we’re cutting on half-beats, as well.

Ariana Grande Problem

How exactly does this reflect rhythm choreography? In many styles – jazz, tap, and hip hop – a rhythm choreography broadly means that the choreo is based on the musicality of a piece. Its inverse is lyrical choreography, which means the choreo is based on the meaning or story of a piece. They’re not mutually exclusive, but choreographers often prioritize one over the other based on the dance they want to create. As Dance Spirit described the difference between hip hop and lyrical hip hop, “hip-hop dancers hit the beat (one, two, stop). Lyrical hip-hop dancers ride through the beat while still accenting it (one, two-ooo).”

These are broad definitions. Hip hop, jazz, tap they each have countless style permutations, but for the purposes of understanding how a music video is edited, I think rhythm and lyrical editing fit very well. Rhythm values editing to the hard beat, reflecting the pace and intensity of the music itself. Lyrical editing prioritizes the story; you edit to the timing the narrative demands.

Ariana Grande pinwheel close

“Problem” wants a softer tone, but it still wants to be a rhythm-edited dance video, so it can’t use the severe overexposures and underexposures Fincher uses on “Straight Up.” Such severe contrasts are a dated effect anyway, evoking a style of glamor photography that is today more closely associated with commercial style – it’s the way we shoot iPads, Big Macs, and tractors now. Glamor photography in 2014 is far more informed by fashion photography, tabloid coverage, and theatre. “Problem” does reference Fincher’s black-and-white effects in Grande’s two-tone main set and pinwheel backdrop, while evolving it in the psychedelic tunnel effect of Azalea’s solos. (The pinwheel is used as a lighting effect in Grande’s separate lyric video for “Problem.”)

Iggy Azalea Problem

Grande (who, unlike some singers, is reportedly very involved in the editing process) and director Nev Todorovic also double down on Fincher’s film scratches, most notably at the edges of frame, while updating other imperfections to the digital era – those scratches are joined by digital artifacting (when pieces of information are dropped from the image, often in the form of visual static). A few faux-signal losses, like you might see on an old-fashioned TV, mimic edits as a way of simultaneously prolonging a single shot while maintaining the quicker pace of editing – your brain registers a cut, but the shot hasn’t changed. The psychedelic effect for Azalea further echoes the digital concept of constant screen refreshes.

Similarly, the dance styles are updated. The tap and isolation jazz in “Straight Up” – styles that typically require professional training – are replaced with styles more closely associated with street performance, like breakdancing and flexing (also called bone breaking). Abdul’s motorcycle is updated to some fancy Vespas.

Problem breaking

From a song standpoint, a couple of quick notes – I appreciate that the song “Problem” itself is about a woman cutting off a difficult relationship, rather than pining for one or trying to get the guy. Iggy Azalea’s line “I got 99 problems, but you won’t be one” is the conclusive rejection to Jay-Z’s infamous and oft-repeated “I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one” that I’ve been waiting 10 years to hear. The saxophone loop has seen credit given to Macklemore’s use of sax in songs like “Thrift Shop.” That’s fitting, but the sax loop in “Problem” has far more in common with the baseline electric guitar riff from C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now.”

As we understand the evolution of storytelling on film, it’s important to understand the evolution of music videos as well. It’s still the medium from which many of our future directors arise, and through which endless new editing, design, and cinematography techniques are forged.

As a viewer, “Problem” is even more enjoyable when I can recognize all the little details that come together to make it. Like “Straight Up,” it may be popular for a year before fading away, but the artistry behind it deserves better. Most will never give these music videos credit for being smart, nuanced, studied pieces of filmmaking. They’re bubble gum, and that makes it easy not to afford them their places in the history of the medium. It’s too bad. The technique behind “Problem” is masterful.

Ariana Grande pinwheel