Reilly Hodson looks at the best music videos of the year so far and how they’re commenting on these messed up times.
In a world where music consumption seems to occur mostly with headphones plugged into a phone in one’s pocket, it’s easy to overlook the art of the music video. What was once one of music’s most important marketing tools is now often a cheap way to boost streaming numbers. As a result, lots of artists get lazy with them, and chuck up any old thing: a lyric video with a landscape background (looking at you, Kanye), a band performing with a colourful backdrop, a singer riding down the highway with a supermodel in the passenger seat, that kind of thing.
This year, though, some artists have made capital-S Statements with them, challenging our dominant cultural narratives while still looking and sounding awesome.
‘This Is America’, Childish Gambino
This is the video that turned Donald Glover from a darling of rap fans and people who followed alternative comedy into a legit contender for Greatest Artist Alive. ‘This is America’ is ‘deep’ in a number of ways, commenting on the commercialisation of violence in America and the media’s dehumanisaton of black bodies. It’s also a Migos-assisted trap banger. Its on-the-nose commentary is nuanced, but also straightforward enough that your liberal auntie probably shared it on Facebook, along with that friend of yours who is always arguing with racists in the NZ Herald comments section. This could be the defining piece of popular culture this year, and it provides the catharsis we all need in the Trump era.
‘PYNK’, Janelle Monae
At first glance, ‘PYNK’ is filled with standard pop video stuff. The beautiful women dancing by a pool and the bright, oversaturated colours make it all seem like confectionery, but this video is actually quietly revolutionary. Janelle dances in what can only be described as vagina pants, and her rumoured partner Tessa Thompson acts as a clitoris. The camera pans between women wearing underwear that reads “sex cells” and “I grab back”. There’s no consideration of the male gaze in the way this video is shot. Instead, it speaks to a specific sensibility that hardly exists in mass culture: the perspective of a black, queer woman. It’s also just a bunch of fun.
‘APES**T’, The Carters
Beyonce and Jay-Z took over the musical consciousness with what can only be described as the most insane flex in the history of pop music. They hired out the Louvre for this video, centring black people and art in a space filled with odes to white people, white culture and art which takes people who probably weren’t white and whitewashes them.
The ‘APESH**T’ video is filled with references to art history, comparing Beyonce and Jay to prominent historical and artistic figures, and after this video, it’s hard to disagree with those comparisons. In one of my favourite sequences, Jay shit talks the gatekeepers of the music industry: “Tell the Grammys fuck that 0 for 8 shit”, a reference to the fact that he somehow won no Grammys despite eight nominations last year, and then laughs in the face of the camera. This video is the genius, opulent victory lap of our greatest musical power couple, and demands repeat viewing.
‘Laugh it Off’, Chelsea Jade
I’m on the record as saying that Chelsea Jade’s latest single is a perfect pop record. It takes Chelsea’s innate understanding of the way that pop music works and uses it to speak to something a bit deeper, and explore complex relational issues within a charming pop package. This video is similar. It takes an understanding of the tropes of pop music videos and turns them up a notch, to make something that is absurd and captivating and maybe even makes a statement about all the public discussion of the Waterview Tunnel?
Much like Chelsea’s ‘Life of the Party’, one of the most fun music videos to come out of New Zealand, ‘Laugh it Off’ is a bit funny, a bit serious, and difficult to parse in the way that performance art sometimes can be. But in a good way. Even if you’re not completely sure what the video is saying, it’s almost impossible to look away.
‘Bloom’, Troye Sivan
I first encountered Troye Sivan when he was a quiet YouTuber who sometimes sung covers but mostly did Q&As and challenge videos. He was also someone who denied he was gay. ‘Bloom’ shows just how far he’s come. It’s a visually stunning video, filled with Valentino and makeup, flowers and bare chests. It is pop music at its most explicitly gay, and the video takes whatever traditional conceptions of masculinity you might have and sets fire to them. He does it in a way that follows in the footsteps of Bowie and Prince, but with a sensibility informed by a career created by the internet. I can’t remember when such explicit homosexuality was last presented by a male pop star – ‘Bloom’ shows a version of masculinity that just isn’t prevalent in the mainstream popular culture.
‘Nice For What’, Drake
‘Nice For What’ was the first Drake song I ever straight up loved. It’s an anthemic banger that doesn’t tell women to be a certain way, but instead asks why they bother trying to please men. Drake gets woke in this song, and the video is similarly brilliant. Directed by Karena Evans, it’s a celebration of women on their own terms, showing them in a way that we seldom get to, especially in a rap video. Tiffany Haddish is smoking a cigar, Yara Shahidi is studying in a Harvard hoodie, Olivia Wilde is dancing in a dress and Jordans, Michelle Rodriguez is… hovering? It’s dope, and did I mention Drake is roller skating the whole time?
‘Set It Off’, JessB
This video is great to me on a couple of levels. The song bangs, of course, and is an all-caps exclamation that New Zealand hip-hop is just as fun as that of anywhere else. But the video is something more, and better. It’s a celebration of New Zealand women, particularly women of colour (including the Fagin from my high school production of Oliver!, in one of the more interest appearances of a former schoolmate), as well as both the Northern Mystics and Madeleine Sami playing netball to varying degrees of success. It takes images of New Zealanders that you might not see mainstream television but ones that feel authentic, vibrant and contemporary. It also features a very good cameo from MP (and style icon) Chloe Swarbrick, but don’t blink or you’ll miss it. This video shows New Zealand as it should be, if not how it always is.
Bonus tracks: If you’re looking for music videos that maybe aren’t as thematically deep as the ones above, but are still really awesome, here are few of my other 2018 favourites: ‘Off The Top‘ by SWIDT, ‘Surf Music‘ by Paul Williams, ‘Bubblin‘ by Anderson .Paak, ‘Garden‘ by SZA, ‘OKRA‘ by Tyler, The Creator.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.