Madonna and more
One of the most accomplished artists of the video generation, Madonna made her image as the mysterious Desperately Seeking Susan thrift store fashion icon. Madonna is an example of the danger faced by a prodigious artist who seems to be everywhere at once and constantly reinvents herself: the earliest or most dissonant images are doomed to irrelevance. As Madonna has aged and continued to be proficient, many of the earliest videos that made her—“Lucky Star”, “Borderline”, etc.—have aged. At least she avoided the “Cher atop a battleship in her stockings” as she desperately tries to “turn back time”. Yet, it was her clip for “Like a Prayer”, a big risk that initially backfired, that endures today. Controversy erupted around the depiction of her dancing near the altar in her underwear and kissing a saint. Pepsi pulled her as a sponsor, cutting an ad which had “Like a Prayer” running in the background. Oddly the commercial got canned, while the video stuck. This video is a prime example of genre storytelling at its best.
Few videos capture the exuberance of young musicians, carefree and playful, than this classic from the Police’s Ghost in the Machine album. Much like “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”—that song about that book by Nabokov—this video shows the playful camaraderie of the band before it imploded behind the scenes. While the Police’s oldest videos look worn out, both “Every Little Thing” and “Spirits in the Material World” were shot while the group was recording in Montserrat, where the steel drums, the welcoming crowd, and the frenzy of a homecoming style parade created a warm environment. It also adds up to a fun, slightly irreverent video, as when the band members scuffle in the mixing room over control of a song, and then playfully romps with a hat changing routine that serves as a great reference to Waiting for Godot.
(Go Feet/Sire, 1980)
Of all of the ska bands from England, the English Beat was the tightest outfit, with its instruments all working in strict tandem. In contrast to the Specials, which seemed to feature a looser, more improvisational feel to their sound, the English Beat utilized a very crisp interplay of instruments that is reflected in this track. A straight ahead, cleanly shot performance clip, the video captures the band’s essence, that showcases the band as hipster collective, reflected in the song’s namesake mirror. As the camera washes over the band, the individuals stare back, demonstrating a young, brash confidence that shows them to be all business. This is in marked contrast to the underground left-bank hipster cavern in which the band is depicted in the lighter “Save it for Later”. As for bathrooms and their windows, they serve as windows to a character’s development, if one considers the central role that the bathroom plays in Quentin Tarantino’s films.
(Sugar Hill Records, 1982)
One of the most visionary songs of the era was “The Message”, Grandmaster’s Flash plaintive plea documenting urban woe. “The Message” has held up, in part, due to the timeless nature of the appeal, and the stark minimalist portrayal of street scenes in the clip doesn’t trivialize the underlying problem by providing easy answers or sensationalizing it through fictitious depictions of some type of cop and robber conflict.
The video has new relevance now during the depths of the current economic crisis, as millions of American get shoved under the poverty line. The song was also one by many by African-American artists that was widely ignored by MTV, given the network’s reluctance to play videos that did not fit the network’s purported rock-oriented programming. Sadly, the themes in this song are directly applicable now, particularly as the economy struggles with a jobless recovery and urban blight. The timeless message of “The Message” is in marked contrast with the countless rap songs that glorify materialism and conspicuous consumption, including excessive gold-chains-and-bling songs by the likes of P. Diddy and Biggie Smalls demanding that one “Pass the Courvoisier” or that “It’s All About the Benjamins”. And in a sign that things come back—the problems of urban decay, homelessness, and ennui that we thought we outgrew in the 1990s. Guess what, it’s back.