Janet Jackson featuring Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell, “Got ’Til It’s Gone” (Mark Romanek)
Though it was the winner of VH1’s “Most Stylish Video” award in 1997, Janet Jackson’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone” has as much substance as it does style. Set in South Africa during the time of apartheid, the video is a celebration of the music and rhythms that helped sustain black culture under the weight of segregation. As for style, Janet, who dons little-to-no make-up and a bead of sweat on her brow, has never looked so sexy.
Tori Amos, “Spark” (James Brown)
“’Spark’ is about a girl having a really bad day,” Tori Amos says in the “Tori Stories” promotional booklet which accompanied her 1998 album From the Choirgirl Hotel. But the video is much more than that. Amos’s musical images are potent and rarely sufficiently enhanced by the music video format, but “Spark” is a beautiful exception. Amos plays a blindfolded kidnap victim who squirms her way out of her captor’s car trunk and must trust her instincts to guide her through a dense forest. Her character tiptoes her way toward a river’s edge, submerging—and subsequently unshackling—herself beneath the murky water. Of the two supposed “angels” who drive by slowly and subsequently abandon her, Amos says quite matter-of-factly, “When the wolf is at your door, there is no insurance.”
The Verve, “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (Walter Stern)
Life sucks, especially when the government milks you dry and doesn’t so much as give you a wider sidewalk for your troubles. Walter Stern’s video for the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” begins on a fascinating note. Disenchanted that life has reduced him to an emotional zombie, ex-Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft chooses to move only to the beat of his own drum. One may ask, “Who’s to say that they’re not bumping into him?” Which is precisely the point of the video. Ashcroft’s subjective reality declares that the world should move for him and not the other way around. This is his passive response. Both song and video pessimistically acknowledge humanity’s smallness and oppression by big business and government. But it’s not until the song’s hopeful bridge, precisely when Ashcroft stares at his reflection on a car window, that he’s forced to acknowledge his responsibility to the world around him and his disenchantment turns into something entirely more hopeful.
The Cars, “You Might Think” (Jeff Stein)
The only video on our list that propels us to say: they just don’t make ’em like they used to! Twenty years after videos for Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing” supposedly broke all sorts of new ground (one because it featured headless robots, the other because it lazily took us inside a digital factory and made one infamous shout-out to MTV), “You Might Think” is one of several 80s relics that have truly stood the test of time. This colorful clip is a melange of corny yet innocent visual puns, goofy sight gags and cutout digital effects. In just over three minutes, director Jeff Stein brings to mind both Michael Snow and Andy Warhol’s negotiated personal conflict via a postmodern reality. Because of its underlying romantic spirit, “You Might Think” is more liberating than Snow’s Wavelength (not to mention *corpus callosum) and less preening than anything Warhol ever produced. In the name of love, Ric Ocasek repeatedly presents and repackages himself as a desperate romantic figure.
Lauryn Hill, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Big TV!)
Doo Wop originated in the late 40s and evolved throughout the ’50s and ’60s as a blend of jazz and rhythm n’ blues characterized by group harmonies and nonsensical syllables. Before Lauryn Hill uncomfortably aired her emotional baggage on “MTV Unplugged,” she produced one of the most socially and spiritually provocative albums of the last ten years, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. In their video for the album’s first single, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” British directing team Andy Delaney and Monty Whitebloom (a.k.a. Big TV!) used split-screen imaging to evoke a city’s undying affection for the sound of its culture. As the video’s cross-generational chanteuse, Hill revitalizes doo wop and acknowledges its influence on modern R&B. “Doo Wop” is not so much about blackness itself as it is about the pride that keeps that blackness alive.