Dark strangelands in music videos
Date : Monday 31 October, 2016
Despite an enormous interest in music from my early childhood, I didn’t grow up watching music videos. At home we had neither MTV nor any other music channel, so it was only when I was visiting friends that I could watch videos accompanying songs I was listening to. With the arrival of YouTube, I finally had a chance to fill the gaps in my limited music clip experience and so I would binge-watch them with the enthusiasm of a child exposed to sweets for the first time. As a result, I have seen tons of videos, but to be honest, there aren’t very many I remember. Just like film trailers, which are becoming more and more descriptive and generic, most music videos are made using a similar pattern, which features the band playing their instruments, often against some “dramatic” landscape. In an attempt to give the film some depth and intrigue, some vague characters and a lightly stitched plot are artificially added to what is essentially a recording of a live music. The thing is, if I want to see the band play, I will either go to their concert or watch a documentary based on a live performance. It is not what I seek in a music video. My favourite ones are those which either don’t feature the musicians at all, or they create a unique and surreal enough visual world for them to play and sing in, which makes the song more powerful and memorable. Having recently seen a superb video for Behemoth’s The Satanist, I decided to share a few particularly powerful music clips which have made a last impression on me.
1. Behemoth – The Satanist
Behemoth’s video is unique for many reasons. First of all, its director, Andrzej Dragan, is not only a filmmaker and photographer, but a physicist with a PhD in quantum physics, numerous awards and scholarships. The video is one of the first projects that came out of his movie production studio, Weird, established in 2014. The premiere production, Time Dilation, received the Golden Sword award for the best personal work at the KTR ad festival (2014) and Best in Show and Best CGI awards from Creative Review (2014). The music clip to The Satanist was shot in Warsaw and Starogard, a small city in western Poland where Dragan got fascinated by a subway passage next to the train station, particularly its tiled floor. The concept is based around the idea of a meeting point between the physical world and the underworld, which a young girl is drawn towards, as she stumbles in a faceless crowd down the streets of Warsaw. With (digitally) distorted facial features, she immediately brings to mind characters from Quay Brothers’ or David Lynch films. The latter is no coincidence, for one of Weird films is a re-shooting of the famous “I’m at your house” scene from Lynch’s Lost Highway. Also, the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks might be another inspiration for the “unknown” world in The Satanist.
What makes the video so strong is not only the fact that it is beautifully shot, and very well acted, but that is manages to communicate the ideas and themes in Behemoth’s song and music in general in a way that escapes cliches and pretentiousness. Occultism, demons, black magic, are a very hard topic to handle in a way that avoids grotesque and pastiche. Dragan’s film is sensitive, empathetic and moving; it sends us chills but also makes us feel compassionate for the main character, and the underworld it portrays is not laughable, it could be interpreted as a scary metaphor for the underworld of one’s troubled mind.
2. Nine Inch Nails – Closer
Another music video that makes several reference to the work by other artists and incorporates elements that would not be out of place in an alchemist’s studio, is Mark Romanek’s video for Nine Inch Nails Closer. Despite being made 22 years ago, it is still one of the most controversial videos on YouTube, due to its use of sexual and religious imagery accompanying a fairly explicit song. There is a nude, bald woman with a crucifix mask, taken literally from one of Joel-Peter Witkin’s photograph; Man Ray’s metronome; a monkey tied to a cross, a severed pig’s spinning head; a diagram of vagina. Reznor features as dressed in leather with an S&M mask, a ball gag, meat wings (a nod to Francis Bacon), suspended in shackles, and finally he is shown in silhouette as he’s licking a breast-resembling old-fashioned microphone. Closer is a very powerful song, with explicit and disturbing lyrics, and the video enhances its subversiveness. Trent’s own comment on the video was: “The rarest of things occurred: where the song sounded better to me, seeing it with the video. And it’s my song.”
3. prodigy – smack my bitch up
An even more disturbing video from a sexual point of view, is Jonas Åkerlund’s film to Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up. Filmed from a first-person perspective (at a time when, as Jonas recalls, GoPro cameras weren’t widely available, which meant that the director of photography had to walk around with a gigantic old 35-mm film camera taped onto him — “I even have photos of him napping with it on.”), it depicts a night out in London which includes heavy drinking, drugs, violence, vomiting, vandalism, nudity and sex (there is also an unedited version with a scene of heroin use and a full sex scene). The protagonist ends up picking up a stripper (played by model Teresa May) to bring home and have sex with and it is only when the stripper leaves that we realise, seeing the protagonist’s reflection in the mirror, that the violent drinker is in fact a woman.
The video received very polarised opinions, including those from the feminist circles. Some considered it misogynistic, while others praised it for subverting gender stereotypes. In Åkerlund’s own words, the video “was supposed to be outrageous and over the top, and we considered it comedy when we watched it later.”
Like any piece of visual art work, narratives for music videos can often start with a single image. In the case of Prodigy’s clip, that image was of a man… sitting on a loo at a night club. Åkerlund describes how the idea was born on a night out not dissimilar to the one he shot for the band: “(…) at the end of the night Hans and I were at a strip club around the corner from the hotel. (…) We were totally wasted and I kept losing him, so I remember at some point going into the bathroom and finding a locked stall and thinking Hans was stuck in there and something went wrong, so I kicked open the door and it was just some poor random dude taking a dump. That image in my head of kicking down the door and finding a random guy taking a dump is what gave me the whole idea for the video.” First sent as a rough edit on a VHS, it got rejected by the band, and it was only when a final, exquisitely edited version was shown to the singer, that the band fell in love with the work and insisted on keeping it. Which shows what difference a high-quality post-production can make. And in the case of Smack My Bitch Up, the distortions to both image and sound, mimicking the drugged experience of the protagonist, are done in a way that blows one’s mind off.
4. depeche mode – wrong
Depeche Mode’s video for Wrong, directed by Patrick Daughters and often referred to as “the best 3-and-a-half minute David Fincher video never made”, is also controversial and disturbing, albeit for different reasons. Inspired by the famous dead-end cab ride from David Fincher’s 1997’s film The Game with Michael Douglas, it depicts a car driving backwards in LA with a man in a latex mask lying asleep and duck-taped in the front seat. That man is played by Julian Gross from the band Liars, the musicians are virtually absent from the video except for a basic cameo, while Spike Jonze plays the part of a man jumping onto the car’s hood and rolling on the street.
According to Daughters, the original concept was even more ambitious and dramatic than what we see in the video. “The main character was going to get into a big accident halfway through instead of at the end– and not quite die. An ambulance comes, but the car starts rolling again. Then it crashes through a fence and ends up in a river. But that wasn’t really possible to execute. I envisioned it on a Hollywood movie studio budget”, he said in an interview for Pitchfork. Unfortunately, not only was the budget modest, but because of various hiccups on the first day of the shoot, when the most expensive piece of equipment got accidentally destroyed, the crew had to invest their own money, and rely on the generosity of MPC, the post production company, who put some extra time into editing the video. Nevertheless, the result of their efforts is a film that not only leaves a lasting impression on the viewer, but appears to be a much bigger a production than it really was.
5. Justice – Stress
The music video for Stress from the French duo’s debut album †, directed by Romain Gavras, caused an avalanche of controversy on the internet and was immediately banned from the French television when it got released in May 2008.
In his work, Gavras, who runs the Kourtrajmé collective of artists born in the sort of banlieues he portrays, pays homage to the aesthetic of Mathieu Kassovitz’s award-winning 1995 film La Haine (Hate). The video follows a group of youngsters who go around Paris, committing gang violence, which involves harassing passers-by, vandalizing property, carjacking and setting the vehicle aflame. Since most of the characters are of black skin, the video was instantly labelled racist, yet Gaspard Augé’s response to that criticism was that “If people see racism in the video, it’s definitely because they might have a problem with racism; because they only see black people beating up white people, which is not what happens.” Through this shockingly brutal and blunt piece of work, Justice wanted to “to open a debate, raise questions, something done regularly by cinema, literature and contemporary art”, but as Jeffrey T. Iverson points out in his article for Time, they failed to get their point across mostly because of the medium their work is presented in. Lacking a context and a dialogue, the visual message is likely to be misinterpreted.
“(…) as the video rages across the Web, it leaves in its wake a flood of commentary from viewers who see it as everything from a tasteless marketing ploy to a brutally effective critique of the media’s portrayal of the banlieues, the desolate and poor neighborhoods on the edge of French cities, which exploded in violence in the autumn of 2005. (…) The Stress video controversy draws out precisely this dubious quality of the Web. Justice calls the hoopla a reminder of “just how difficult it is today to control the destination of images and the integrity of their meaning.” Indeed, that integrity seems to get fuzzier with each new viewer clicking play — and, for that matter, with each new dot-com article about it.”
But despite the backlash, the song received a lot of praise, and those who managed to look at the video beyond the simplistic interpretations, praised how well it matches the music, and enhances it. I don’t listen to Justice but ever since I watched the video (not long after it was made), the song has stayed in my memory, for it is the video that makes it unforgettable. And that’s a great achievement.