History of the Pop Video pt.5: The age of the auter

Music videos in the 90’s saw directors such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek add a new level of artistry making them an MTV must-have for the big acts.

So having given plenty of coverage of the first age of MTV I want to move on to the second age, one which saw the video director step forward and become a bit of a name in their own right. By the time the 90’s had gotten underway music videos were becoming more sophisticated reflecting advances in film-making techniques. Plus, budgets had increased allowing a better class of video to emerge.

Alongside this a better class of video director emerged, many of whom would go on to become fully fledged film directors. Names like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, David Fincher, Hype Williams, Chris Cunningham, Floria Sigismondi and Stephane Sednaoui began to become well known, in no small part due to the fact that MTV by now included the name of the director in its screen-corner credits for each video shown. The standard performance video of a band in a studio or a mocked up concert started to decrease and increasingly bands and artists were looking to work with directors who could bring an artistic vision not merely to accompany the song, but to use the song with which to create a short film that was an end in itself.

I haven’t the room here to be exhaustive (and yes, there will be posts on such things as ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys later this year) but what I want to do is look at three videos that in one way or another did exactly that – created a buzz, and helped elevate that music video in to a valid and highly expressive art form, and also at the directors responsible.

‘Human Behaviour’ by Bjork, directed by Michel Gondry. (1993)

Having left the Icelandic indie outfit The Sugarcubes Bjork released her first solo album Debut to much critical acclaim. This unique singer/songwriter was looking for an equally idiosyncratic imagination with which to collaborate on this, the first single from the lp, and had seen videos by a French band called Oui Oui directed by their drummer Michel Gondry, who was also a keen amateur film-maker.

Having agreed to make the video Gondry was expecting to shoot something much more straightforward. As he explained in an interview later “I was thinking: “Great, we’re going to Iceland and we’re going to shoot a lot of great landscape.” And she [Björk] said no… she wanted to use animals to reflect human nature. And it was great, because as soon as she started to throw some ideas they started to bounce in my mind and imagination… we did a video that was very collaborative”.

The result is an enchanting, richly textured film which expands on the lyrical theme of an animal’s point of view of human behaviour and turns it in to a Goldilocks and the Three Bears-ish fantasy involving Bjork, a toy bear, a hedgehog and a human hunter who is eventually defeated and dragged away by the bear. The video received plaudits everywhere for its uniqueness and originality and was nominated for eight MTV awards (although it failed to win any).

As for Gondry, he would go on to win an Academy Award for co-writing 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as well as writing and directing such films as the very wonderful The Science of Sleep (highly recommended if you don’t know it!) and making videos with the likes of White Stripes, Beck, and The Chemical Brothers.

‘Scream’ by Michael Jackson feat. Janet Jackson, directed by Mark Romanek. (1995)

Having already established himself as one of the best and most sought-after video directors around with videos for Lenny Kravitz, Madonna and Nine Inch Nails amongst many others, Romanek was an obvious choice to direct this, one of the last truly worthwhile Jackson singles. Jackson himself had written the song as a riposte to years of media hounding and various allegation relating to child-abuse, plastic surgery, and his general state of mental well-being.

However, unlike the previous example the resultant video has very little to do with the lyrical content of the song and is instead a highly stylised black-and-white affair set aboard a spaceship, and which sees the Jackson siblings strutting, dancing, and generally larking around to great effect. If we’re talking about buzz videos it’s hard to think of one that created more of one in the 90’s, not least because it was purported to have cost in the region of $7,000,000. It is to this day the most expensive music video ever made, befitting of the self-styled ‘King of Pop’.

A huge part of it’s appeal is that both Jackson’s look striking throughout, especially in the joint dance scene. Not only that but it marked a new phase of Janet’s image, appearing as she does in a small bikini top and at one point even grabbing her breasts in a fashion that apes Michael’s by now infamous crotch-grabbing dance move. Whilst the production style of the song dates it slightly the video is still an arresting and thoroughly enjoyable reminder of the last of the glory days of MJ. It would go on to win three MTV awards including that for best choreography.

As for Romanek he is still directing music videos today, recently working with artists such as U2, Taylor Swift, and Coldplay, and also has three feature films to his name including the Robin Williams film One Hour Photo.

‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ by The Verve, directed by Walter A. Stern. (1997)

English director Walter Stern began his music video career in the early 90’s making videos with dance outfit The Prodigy and would go on to work with the likes of Massive Attack, Bloc Party, and David Bowie. However, this video, one of the most watched ever on Youtube and a staple of MTV in the late 90’s is maybe the most famous.

Shot in one continuous sequence in Hoxton, North London the video is actually a homage to the Baillie Walsh directed film for Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, which was shot in Los Angeles and released a few years earlier. It follows lead-singer Richard Ashcroft walking obliviously, bumping in to people, knocking a woman over, stepping over the bonnet of another woman’s car who then attempts to remonstrate with him whilst he carries on without breaking his stride, and continuing until the end of the video when the rest of the band join him to walk off in to the distance (this last scene then becomes the first of the video for their next single ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ directed by Andy Baybutt). Easily one of the most famous videos of the era, it was nominated for three MTV awards, and the song itself has become one of the defining anthems of the Britpop era.

What all three of these are an example of is the age when the pop video grew up and started to be taken much more seriously. These directors were amongst a generation of film-makers who imbued the form with a whole new level of artistry. In doing so they helped lay the foundations for the Youtube era where performer, song and video would become seamlessly entangled to create products which were integrated, holistic artistic visions. In the next part we’ll take a look at the music video in the internet age and explore how some bands and artists are helping redefine exactly what a music video can be…

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