There’s no doubting that the budgets and ambitions of music videos have dwindled since the glory days of MTV. We live in the age of TikTok-targeted ephemera. Yet miraculously, 2023 gave a much-needed shot of cinematic life to the form.
The best videos of the year emphasized meticulous technique over virality, offering intimate, impressionistic portraits of their respective artists’ interior lives and thoughts. Lana Del Rey and Lucy Dacus subverted Old Hollywood tropes, with a meta riff on studio system-era glamor and a lesbian tweaking of Wizard of Oz, respectively.
Others went bigger. Troye Sivan brought back the sheen and unabashed sexuality of Y2K pop princesses with a drag transformation that represents the performance of his career to date. Doja Cat took a maximalist approach to portraying the simultaneous highs and horrors of stardom, while Olivia Rodrigo constructed an elaborate, blood-splattered supernatural story to rival The Lost Boys.
As if to one-up all of them, Yaeji took a literal sledgehammer to our hyperreal, spectacle-obsessed, oversharing cultural moment. Whether going big or small, the year’s best videos are more than mere second-screen distractions. They’re art. Paul Schrodt
Lucy Dacus, “Night Shift” (Director: Jane Schoenbrun)
The video for “Night Shift” succinctly encapsulates the experience of being queer, closeted, and lonely, as Lucy Dacus longingly admires the couples attending a Wizard of Oz fan convention, steals a Wicked Witch costume of her own, and falls for a wandering Dorothy Gale. In addition to drawing out the queer themes that fans have long extracted from the 1939 film, the video feels like a victory lap for Dacus, who’s attained a new level of indie celebrity thanks to her solo music and as a member of Boygenius. With “Night Shift,” she steps into her own, accepting a protracted, climactic kiss and celebrating just how far she’s come. Eric Mason
Lana Del Rey featuring Jon Batiste, “Candy Necklace” (Director: Rich Lee)
It should come as no surprise that Lana Del Rey portrays a sumptuous Hollywood starlet in the video for “Candy Necklace.” Like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. the Black Dahlia), and countless others who changed their name and appearance before her, Del Rey (born Elizabeth Grant) has long been an avatar for the soul-crushing dream-peddling of her adopted hometown. While those actresses were summarily swallowed up and spat out by the system like so much chum, though, Del Rey (and her character in the clip) seems determined to meet a smarter ending. Directed by frequent collaborator Rich Lee, the 11-minute video includes a monologue explaining the meaning behind it that’s too meta by half, but what has Del Rey’s career been if not a painstakingly annotated dissertation on excess? Sal Cinquemani
Doja Cat, “Attention” (Director: Tanu Muino)
The influence of the 1990s on Doja Cat’s “Attention” extends to the video’s visuals, which cannily depict the distorting effects of the social media echo chamber. The striking clip opens with Doja riding up on a crowd of shrieking fans and paparazzi, flashbulbs shrinking her pupils. The faces in the crowd soon begin to morph into twisted visages, evoking Madonna’s similarly themed video for 1998’s “Drowned World/Substitute for Love.” In yet another clever ’90s touchstone, Doja walks down the street in a black leather coat, clipping shoulders with passersby a la a stone-faced Richard Ashcroft in the Verve’s iconic “Bittersweet Symphony.” The perils of fame may be well-worn ground, but “Attention” puts a macabre twist on the perennial subject for the Formerly Known As Twitter era. Cinquemani
Jungle, “Back on 74” (Directors: J Lloyd and Charlie Di Placido)
The one-shot, TikTok-approved video for U.K. electronic duo Jungle’s “Back on 74” is a galvanizing triumph of choreography, cinematography, and production design. Like the song itself, the vibrant clip is playful, theatrical, and nostalgic. Put simply, it oozes personality. Cinquemani
King Krule, “If Only It Was Warmth” (Director: Archy Marshall)
Inspired by the long train rides that King Krule, a.k.a. Archy Marshall, frequently took to visit his partner, the self-directed video for “If Only It Was Warmth” turns the forlorn despair of the song into a set of mysterious images, gradually expanding from near-total darkness. Slowly but steadily, the camera pushes forward into a street scene featuring a man whose hands are on fire. Marshall rides on a boat, carrying a cactus, the mood enhanced by digitally degraded images of clouds and waves. Back projection allows him to interact with a snake and sing to a tiny version of himself. Throughout, a ferry ride becomes a spiritual experience. Steve Erickson
Olivia Rodrigo, “Vampire” (Director: Petra Collins)
The too-obvious bloodsucker motif of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire” is deployed less overtly in the song’s captivating video. The clip is at first dreamy and surreal, opening with the singer sprawled out in an obviously synthetic patch of lush greenery. Then, she’s conked by a swinging stage light and the scene is revealed to be an awards show performance gone awry. Bloodied and dazed, Rodrigo continues to sing for a confused audience before dashing out of the theater and onto the streets of L.A., an apt—and visually arresting—extended metaphor for the crushing pressures of celebrity. Cinquemani
Troye Sivan, “One of Your Girls” (Director: Gordon von Steiner)
Even more than on the gooey-sexy-funny song itself, the video for “One of Your Girls” finds Troye Sivan confidently navigating the tricky aesthetic valley between satire and sincerity. His wink and Rush t-shirt (playfully nodding to another single from Something to Give Each Other) lets us know that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and that it’s okay to both laugh at and lust for his drag transformation, as he suddenly sashays around a half-naked male model. In its nimble physicality and commitment to the bit, it’s a performance that puts a number of Drag Race stars to shame. But the pant of desperation on his face in the final shot is what elevates this beyond shtick—the wink turning to raw, white-hot desire. Schrodt
Tyler, the Creator, “Sorry Not Sorry” (Director: Tyler Okonma)
There isn’t a more pointed metaphor for self-criticism than the image of beating oneself up, and in the video for “Sorry Not Sorry,” Tyler, the Creator does just that. The self-directed video centers around a moving diorama of past iterations of the rapper, from his early Odd Future days to today, addressing pensive and teary onlookers seemingly meant to represent both his loved ones and his real-life fans and critics. “Sorry to the fans who say I changed, ‘cause I did,” he offers as his doppelgangers gradually exit the frame, leaving him alone with the pastel ushanka-clad Tyler from the cover of his album Call Me If You Get Lost. The surreal, saturated clip ends in brutal fashion with Tyler pulverizing that version of himself, marking the end of this album cycle and signaling his commitment to personal change. Mason
Weyes Blood, “God Turn Me Into a Flower” (Director: Adam Curtis)
Weyes Blood’s “God Turn Me Into a Flower” is about the desire to embody beauty in an ugly world, and with the help of British documentarian Adam Curtis, the singer-songwriter aims to reveal human life in all its divine, profane, and complicated dimensions. She makes scarce appearances throughout the video, often in the form of a blurry, angelic silhouette with a glowing heart. The rest of the clip comprises increasingly quick flashes of life on Earth, from protests to rock concerts, true crime to awards shows, abjection to resistance, displays of power to moments of pity. Considering the all-encompassing scope of the song, and the album on which it appears, montage was the natural choice of technique here, and its success speaks to the song’s filmic grandeur. Mason
Yaeji, “For Granted” (Director: Yaeji)
While Yaeji’s production style is rooted in the music of nightlife and community—house music, especially—her output in recent years has been preoccupied with stasis and introspection. The video for “For Granted” opens in unassuming fashion, presented in the aspect ratio of a cellphone screen, but it becomes apparent quickly that the thick blocks of black space flanking her reflect a feeling of confinement. The clip widens to reveal the musician in a sterile white room, and when she fails to pacify herself by decorating it, she opts instead to tear it all down. As the song shifts from passive synth chirps to a furious breakbeat, Yaeji grabs a sledgehammer and swings it, dragging hot pink crayon scribbles across the screen. With these visual metaphors, she captures how she uses creativity as an escape, breaking free from the comfort of monotony. Mason
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