Before Christmas I was asked by The Guardian to write a blog about the best music videos of 2012. So I did. Then they remembered they’d already commissioned someone else to do something similar so the blog was scrapped. It took me quite a while to write to be honest, so I thought I’d plonk it here so the whole world could finally get to read my thoughts on the Gangnam Style video. HURRAH.
MIA - Bad Girls (Dir: Romain Gavras)
Like the second series of Homeland, MIA often aims loftily for the intellectual and political but tends to be best enjoyed as surface level entertainment. On the incredible Bad Girls video – directed by the never-knowingly subtle Romain Gavras – we find her at one point nonchalantly filing her nails on the side of a white BMW as it drifts along perilously on two wheels. Filmed in the deserts of Ouarzazate in Morocco, its power comes from the strange juxtaposition of the barren landscapes and traditional Saudi Arabian dress with the big ostentatious set pieces that seem to have been plucked from a more traditional hip-hop video (MIA had the see-through, glow-in-the-dark car custom made don’t you know). Whether it’s read as a comment on women’s rights in Saudia Arabia, where women aren’t even allowed to drive let alone perform stunts, or a brilliantly OTT visual representation of the song’s central lyric - “live fast die young, bad girls do it well” - is sort of irrelevant when the whole thing is this entertaining.
Psy - Gangnam Style (Dir: Psy)
If the sight of a 34-year-old South Korean man pretending to ride an invisible horse around a stable while a skip-load of rubbish and fake snow is blown into his permanently ecstatic-looking face doesn’t raise a smile on your own, then, well, there’s no hope for you. 2012’s biggest meme/song/dance routine has been parodied to death but there’s something infectiously carefree about the original video - it’s disregard for logic and anything approaching a narrative thread (K-pop videos don’t really do realism) all part of its charm. Highlights are too many to mention individually, but there’s something oddly amazing about the bit where, apropos of nothing, he snuggles up to a topless man in a sauna, his own towel prudishly pulled up to cover his nipples. As Joseyirl mused in the YouTube comments: “I love this! No pretence, no bullshit, just entertaining. So much better than all the egotisticalcrap on the radio today.”
Fiona Apple - Every Single Night (Dir: Joseph Cahill)
There’s a moment two minutes in to the disturbing nightmare that is Fiona Apple’s Every Single Night video where our protagonist is shot sat on some soil in a barely-there night dress looking forlornly at the camera. Perched on her head is a large octopus. Earlier in the video Apple lays prostate as hundreds of snails and slugs crawl over her. Throughout she somehow manages to maintain a level of unnerving intensity that makes you forget the octopus headgear and actually listen to the words of the song, which hinges delicately on the line: “I just want to feel everything”. It’s beautifully nonsensical, merging Dali-esque imagery to create an unremitting melange of visual metaphors that long to be decoded simply because Apple plays them all out with such conviction.
Grimes – Oblivion (Dir: Emily Kai Bock)
Directed by Emily Kai Bock, who also helmed Grizzly Bear’s excellent Yet Again video, Oblivion wasn’t Grimes’ showiest video of 2012. That honour goes to the Xena-Warrior-Princess-goes-to-LA treatment for album highlight Genesis. Instead, Bock highlights Grimes’ other-worldliness simply by setting her in a number of fairly ordinary, mostly male-dominated environments. So she has a bit of dance in a hyper-stylised locker room as topless athletes wander about and mimes along to her stereo in front of intoxicated sports fans in soulless stadiums. Throughout she looks completely out of place but the video never casts judgement on anyone or anything – she’s not there to sneer or position herself as some hipster too cool to break into a sweat, she just sort of drifts around the periphery, like a slightly lost newcomer looking to make friends.
Solange - Losing You (Dir: Melina Matsoukas)
When Solange, director Melina Matsoukas and a bunch of Solange’s friends flew to South Africa to shoot the video for Losing You they had no specific idea of what they wanted to do. Solange had recently become obsessed with the book The Gentleman of Bocongo which documented a sartorially superior breed of men in the Republic of the Congo known as the Le Sape Society. There to shoot a cover for Elle, she discovered a group of Congolese Sapeurs living in Cape Town, allowing Matsoukas to create a documentary-style account of what looked like the world’s most stylish holiday. As with the song itself, the video feels refreshingly out of step with everything else that’s happening at the moment – shots are held for longer than MTV regulations seem to allow these days, the dance moves slow and purposeful (apart from at 3:14 when she busts out her finest wobbly leg moves), while the whole thing feels refreshingly laid-back and off the cuff (there are a number of cute moments where Solange seems to be in the way of the extras who, rather than wait for the next take, nudge past her or close doorways she’s stood in).
Antony & The Johnsons - Cut The World (Dir: Nabil)
“But when will I turn and cut the world?” sighs Antony Hegarty on the mournful Cut The World, a song written for his collaboration with artist Marina Abramović and actor Willem Defoe. This question seems to linger over the first two minutes of the Nabil-directed video, which manages to slowly build tension through its office-environment mundanity and the supposed importance of something happening outside the grey office building. In the brief moments we have with Defoe’s character he seems like a nice enough chap and his co-worker, played by Carice van Houten, appears to get along with him until, seemingly without warning, she reaches for a knife and violently hacks at Defoe’s throat. Remorseful and emotionally distressed by her actions she cries a single tear that drops into Defoe’s eye and calmly walks out into the fresh air, only to be joined by hundreds of other women who all seem to have violently killed their male co-workers (one of them is Abramović herself). Probably best not to watch this one if you’re feeling a bit depressed.
Woodkid - Run Boy Run (Dir: Yoann Lemoine)
Yoann Lemoine, aka Woodkid, knows a thing or two about music videos having helmed Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream video as well as the lavishly epic Born To Die for Lana Del Rey. Having remixed the latter, Lemoine started making waves in late 2011as a musician with his intricate mini-symphonies, of which the string-laden Run Boy Run is a fine example. For the monochrome video Lemoine drops the viewer into an austere world of towering mountain peaks and post-apocalyptic architecture, slowly focusing on a boy sprinting furiously to escape some unseen foe. It soon transpires that the Yeti-esque creatures doing the chasing are actually only trying to help as they quickly multiply and form some kind of army with the boy at the helm. Breathtakingly beautiful and painstakingly auteured (Lemoine does everything himself), it’s one of the year’s most impressive mini-movies.
Lana Del Rey - National Anthem (Dir: Anthony Mandler)
Video Games positioned Lana Del Rey as a torch-ballad singer for the Tumblr generation, while Born To Die showed her off as some sort of modern-day goddess luxuriating on a throne surrounded by tigers. For the near eight minutes of the National Anthem video, however, Del Rey went one giant leap further and became Jackie Kennedy to A$AP Rocky’s JFK. Audacious, wonderfully OTT and – with the recreation of the Kennedy assassination intercut with Del Rey looking forlorn in a field of pink roses – strangely moving, it proves that despite an influx of plucky DIY videos made on a shoestring, Epic can still be brilliant if handled correctly.
Bjork - Mutual Core (Dir: Andrew Thomas Huang)
Directed by artist Andrew Thomas Huang in association with the Museum of Contemporary Arts, the video for the pagan-techno blitzkrieg Mutual Core continues Bjork’s fascination with the natural world as detailed on 2011’s app album, Biophilia. Submerged in sand up to her waist, Bjork initially acts as a sort of benevolent mother nature figure, gracefully moving Tectonic plates around and summoning up strange rock formations that soon start beautiful-looking fights. Ultimately though, the constant messing about results in the creation of huge lava spewing volcanos that look like something out of Lord of The Rings. Like the song and indeed nature itself, the whole thing is simultaneously beautiful, unremittingly violent and utterly awe-inspiring.
Perfume Genius – Hood (Dir: Winston H. Case)
The first twenty seconds of Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius’ Hood video are taken up by a close-up of him miming along to the sparse piano-ballad, his eyes gazing off camera. He looks incredibly young and incredibly lost. Slowly he’s revealed to be curled up in the not inconsiderable arms of porn star Arpad Miklos, whose gaze is fixed protectively on Hadreas’ face. It’s an incredibly strong yet tender image that deals with masculinity in a way that’s not often touched upon in music videos. Throughout, the pair play around with the parameters of their relationship, swapping costumes and gender roles with Miklos often appearing as the more subservient of the two. An advert for the accompanying album, which featured footage from the video, was initially banned from YouTube for not being “family safe”, but Hood only seems intent to communicate a fairly base human need to feel protected.
Chairlift - Met Before (Dir: Jordan Fish and Ari Kuschnir)
It’s all very well passively sitting back and enjoying a new pop video, but wouldn’t it be nice to get involved in some way? Well, yes it would and luckily with Chairlift’s Met Before video everybody could. Basically, like those Famous Five books where the reader gets to decide the plot when prompted to do so, this unique video gave the viewer the option of sending the video down a number of different narrative paths, all of them centred around Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek and her unlikely tenure as a geeky science student. Luckily it isn’t just a good idea waiting for a good video, with each different permutation throwing up something new (Polachek shaving her legs in the university bathroom, for example), as the song’s central theme of the power of deja vu coalesces nicely with the video’s looped narrative.
Jack White - Sixteen Saltines (Dir: AG Rojas)
Directed by AG Rojas – who also created the distinctly NSFW video for Hey Jane by Spiritualized – Sixteen Saltines is an unsettling glimpse into a world run by neanderthal children (some painted blue), that splices shaky, documentary-style handheld camera footage with a movie-like sheen. There’s a brief attempt at plot when we see a glimpse of White in the opening minute tied to a radiator and again at the end when he’s locked in a car being covered in gasoline. In between however there are disparate shots of pale kids playing hopscotch using a finger instead of a stone, while another scene finds a shop worker swallowing a gloopy blue liquid before spitting it into a co-workers face. Realism and the mundane are constantly flipped on their heads to create a strange world with no rules. Perhaps the best scene comes when a group of kids start free-styling in the street only for one of them to suddenly rise about forty feet in the air and just hang there, completely motionless.
Le1f – Wut (Dir: Sam Jones)
If Beyoncé’s Single Ladies video taught us anything – and, on a personal level, it taught me A LOT – then it’s that videos don’t need a lot going on when the central performer is ridiculously captivating. It’s this truth that makes New York rapper Le1f’s cheap and cheerful video for the clap-heavy Wut so spell-binding. Videos are meant to be visual representations of the artist’s personalities and in Wut – all gif-friendly dance moves, Pokemon masks and lashings of undeniable sass – you get a crash course on what makes Le1f tick without having to read a single interview.
Plan B - Ill Manors (Dir: Yann Demange)
There was no better video in 2012 for pure visceral aggression than Plan B’s Ill Manors. Opening with Ben Drew looking out over a London landscape with fires raging in the distance, its almost depressive power lay in the fact that the fictional scenes are able to merge seamlessly with real footage of the destruction caused by last year’s London riots. Sometimes it’s not clear which bits have been staged and which bits are snatches of news footage or scenes caught on a mobile phone camera. It’s a brutal, unrelenting four minutes that feels almost uncomfortably in your face (at one point a brick cracks the camera lens as it’s hurled towards the viewer), going beyond the realms of entertainment into something close to a vital reminder.
Taylor Swift - We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Dir: Declan Whitebloom)
For Taylor Swift’s big Max Martin-produced pop breakthrough she needed a video that simultaneously announced her as a bonafide pop star but didn’t alienate her country fans who still want her to be homely and down to earth. For the opening scene of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together we find Taylor sat on a window sill in her pyjamas gazing out at a knitted bird. She looks like a 12-year-old at a slumber party. Shot in one take – it’s essentially a Michel Gondry video in all but name – it creates a strange, almost cartoon world for Taylor to live in, as if to say ‘I’m only here for a bit, this isn’t the real me’. But clowning about with her mates and mugging to the camera suits her and as each scene seamlessly glides into the next you suddenly notice what may have been missed before; Taylor Swift is a properly amazing pop star.