It won't be long until the music industry hands out honors at the 52nd Grammy Awards ceremony. Sure, much of the annual hubbub surrounds the Best Song, Record, and Album categories (Will Lady Gaga's “Poker Face” trump both Beyonce's “Halo” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”? Discuss!). Let's not forget that the Grammys have handed out an award for Best Short Form Music Video since 1984. Music videos have been the one of the most important methods of disseminating new music to audiences for nearly 30 years (not to mention they've been works of art in their own right on countless occasions), but considering the award program structure the Grammys still treat them as mere afterthoughts.
Still, the category isn't a complete write-off, as it is generally filled with multiple nominees of merit, typically avoiding some of the head-scratching choices that can plague the more notable fields of competition. You probably won't see any music video awards given out during the January 31 broadcast, so here's a brief rundown of the nominees in the category for your own consideration.
Beast - “Mr. Hurricane”
You can always count on at least one artist earning its sole Grammy nomination in the Best Short Form Music. While the more visible categories are prone to embargoing newer artists due to institutional inertia that favors tried and true favorites, less-recognized fields like the music video categories can allow for less traditional selections.
Which brings us to Beast, a French-Canadian duo that mixes indie rock, hip-hop, and electronic music together, resulting in a thick intensity that still grooves. Depicting a human-shaped cloud of bees “wandering” around a rundown house, the video for the group's first single “Mr. Hurricane” matches with that sound perfectly. The song's belching bassline and Betty Bonifassi's tightly-wound vocals enhance the viewer's unease as the camera takes them through dark, unfamiliar hallways, only to be faced with a monstrous form that appears... quite sad and lonely. I wouldn't have known about this video without the Grammy nod, so that counts for something.
The Black-Eyed Peas - “Boom Boom Pow”
A reasonable first impression upon viewing the “Boom Boom Pow” video is “This must have cost a lot of money”. Which seems like it was sound investment, given the track became the biggest American hit of 2009. The basic idea here is that the video is attempting to reinforce the song's futuristic party theme (sample endlessly-repeated lyric: “I'm so 3008 / You so two thousand and late”). Instead, the vast jumble of high tech imagery incorporating everything from touch screens to lasers never congeals into a fully-realized whole. Ultimately, “Boom Boom Pow” is little more than a Black Eyed Peas commercial. It has its moments of visual flash, but the promo is clearly deferential towards acting as window dressing for the song instead of being able to exist on its own artistic merits, like all truly great videos can.
Coldplay - “Life in Technicolor II”
Coldplay may be a stadium-level band of such polite blandness it makes you long for the over-bearing earnestness of Rattle and Hum-era U2, but the British four-piece at least has a decent sense of humor (just check out Chris Martin's appearance in the second series of the British television show Extras). Coldplay aims to further unstarch its image with the delightfully amusing promo for "Life in Technicolor II". The video starts out unoffensively winsome and becomes progressively more ludicrous as it takes the concept of a Coldplay-themed children's puppet show to its logical conclusion, transforming the performance into a full-fledged puppet-scaled arena show (complete with Marshall amps, pyrotechnics, and triumphant exit by helicopter) in front of a bewildered assemblage of children and their parents. Personally, I'm tickled by the fact that puppet Coldplay has a puppet crewman.
It's a surprisingly great video that begs for repeated viewings, as well as the Grammy for this category. The only downside is that for the life of me I can't remember anything about the song itself afterwards, aside from the repetitious intro that goes on for far too long before Martin starts his crooning.
Depeche Mode - “Wrong”
If there ever is a Music Video Hall of Fame, Depeche Mode are indisputable shoo-ins. The synthpop group's collaborations with Dutch director Anton Corbijn are exemplars of the music video medium, so much so that ever since Corbijn more or less retired from the promo clip game, the boys from Basildon, England have struggled to deliver videos that matched those hallowed artistic heights. "Wrong" is very much a workmanlike latter-day Depeche video: slow-paced brooding that never lets you forget that instead of entering a Euro-tinged monochrome world of lust and longing as in the days of yore, you are watching a video made by middle aged pop stars who exist in the here and now. The video isn't even the best thing directed by Patrick Daughters, whose oeuvre includes modern classics like Feist's “1234” and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' “Maps”.
While it's not the most spectacular nominee in this category, “Wrong” is a very effective at pacing itself to build up its mood of menace and fear. The video follows a black car heading backwards down a city street, slowly revealing the fate of the man inside, who had his hands tied behind his back and an unsettling flesh-colored mask duct-taped to his face. It's effective enough that that perfunctory appearance by the members of Depeche Mode as passerbys adds little to clip's execution.
Oren Lavie - “Her Morning Elegance”
One of the pitfalls the music video medium runs into is basing clips around technical gimmicks. Find a new technology or special effect, affix it to any random song, and then you've earned yourself music video immortality. he problem is these gimmicks, while awe-inspiring, are often applied indiscriminately, such that it really doesn't matter what song promo they accompany.
At first the video for Israeli folk singer Oren Lavie's “Her Morning Elegance” struck me as gimmicky, but I gradually warmed to its slice-of-life-in-a-bed stop photography. The reason is because “Her Morning Elegance” is able to convey the distorted reality of dreaming hinted at by the song. Here, the most mundane elements of one's daily life—walking down the stairs, wrapping your arms around yourself while walking against a cold breeze—are recontextualized into something that's more strikingly vibrant than the real thing.
The images are familiar, but like in dreams, they can blend endlessly together to form a surreal tapestry of moments. Even after all the medium's accumulated cliches, “Her Morning Elegance” is just one example of how music videos can still be fertile areas for imaginative experimentation that can resonate deeply.