I have been a dutiful student of popular culture lately and working to fill in some of my lapses in coverage. This week I have been catching up on my Gaga. I have to admit as someone who came to adulthood in the MTV age, it is good to see a revival of the old music video aesthetic of strangeness. Gaga's fashion-driven, highly polished, film-style productions have a bit more in common with Michael and Janet Jackson music videos than they do with some of the truly disorienting weirdness of the very early Blondie spots or that strong run of film school art projects by Peter Gabriel like Sledgehammer. Ah, for the days when you really wondered what these guys were taking?
Some of that spirit is in evidence in a pair of music videos that crossed our desks last week. Both are by Australian director John Hillcoat, who recently directed the feature film "The Road" and has done a string of music videos dating back to 1995 with the likes of Depeche Mode and Bush.
It always seemed to me that music videos were at their best when they weren't aspiring to be feature films. Sometime just being flat-out tab-of-acid hallucinogenic was good enough. And sometimes the aim of the video was the same as the aim of most good music: to evoke mood, feeling, a moment, a mere slice of a time where a larger story is left implied.
For the band UNKLE's song "The Answer," Hillcoat creates a kind of filmed riff on a visual theme. British tough guy actor Ray Winstone starts with a story of an early and life-changing encounter he had with lightning. Much of the video reiterates the jagged lines of a lightning bolt streaking through the sky, but Hillcoat finds them in the veins of leaves or time-lapse images of a rose opening or a seedling sprouting roots. All the while, roughneck Winstone is waxing romantic about the staggering beauty he senses around him. This is the kind of visual prose poem that uses images as poetic language, but in a way that wouldn't fit in a feature film or any other setting. It reminds us that it is good we have a genre where a filmmaker can make such a piece.
The other piece for a Hillcoat favorite Nick Cave is just flat-out vintage MTV trippiness. Heathen Child has it all: a bejeweled blue foot. Centurions (Cave included) shooting lasers from their eyes. A Sasquatch in the bathroom. Stock footage of old newsreels and silent film. An eyeball shows up in a woman's palm. Wolves appear to be stalking the bathroom as well. And one of the Centurions even lights his fart. And yet somehow it is all very conventionally literal. because the images often follow closely the lyrics.
It is good to see that there is a place for total, pompous surrealism in music video that makes Lady Gaga seem astonishingly linear.