My spare evenings are spent making people watch music videos that I love. My rewards for work assignments are revisiting old videos that are good friends. And songs that I love deeply often become even dearer to me if they’re attached to a great video. The following videos were ones by women that shaped my 2011 year. (Hilariously, many of the songs I picked also appear in Rolling Stone’s 2011 In Review list of Top Singles. Great list – check it out).
(in no particular order)
1. Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
Rolling Stone called this song the “Single of the Year,” and the video is certainly its equal in terms of artistic awesomeness. The song eats into your bones with its relentless bass line, its soul-ly echoing chorus, and the heart-tearing breaks at the edge of Adele’s raw-like-honey voice. The video gnaws similarly with its evocative, unclearly metaphorical house. Yes. Heartbreak does feel like a whole floor full of trembling water glasses. Like a faceless dancer swirling through smoky clouds of debris. Like dishes smashing against a wall in time to a constant beat. Like a half-finished room full of sheeted furniture. Like a perfect paper city that goes up in beautiful, heartbreaking flames. Just watching the swirling motions of the dancer could speak to my heartbreak for years. An amazing video that is symbolic without going over-the-top-arthouse and that beautifully showcases Adele’s physical, evocative singing.
(The video came out November 2010, but its 2011 reign made it seem like fair game).
2. Nicki Minaj, “Moment 4 Life”
While “Super Bass” might have gotten more press and more airplay, the “Moment 4 Life” video really feels like the quintessential Nicki. Multiple personalities having a crazy conversation [“It’s Martha”???]. Hyper-feminine Cinderalla opulence paired with a head-shaking hip-hop swagger. Fantastic chemistry with Drake that makes us wish they really were “getting married today”. Snarly rhymes and a cruising chorus. Pink Friday rocked my world in 2011, and in this video, we see that Nicki was not just the princess living the dream of that album’s success but also the fairy godmother that crafted the whole thing.
3. Beyonce, “Countdown” (shout-out to my friend Laura for introducing me to this video!)
I know, I know, I know – all the controversy about Beyonce stealing whole chunks of choreography (see Washington Post‘s article on that to get up to speed) from Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. But I don’t care. Yes, I know – I’m a writing instructor and I know about plagiarism and such. But…well…Maybe we just need to find ways of quoting and giving credit in art. Shakespeare, anyone? All I’m saying is if Beyonce had just given some credit in this video for the moves there would be universal agreement: this video is straight-up fun. I don’t care about individual artistry and all that when I’m looking for pop entertainment (which is also why I just get bored by arguments about how Gaga is just a mash-up of….cue the list…Madonna…etc….). This video is so entertaining. Watch it once. I dare you. It is music video addiction. Beyonce can dance! And she does, with bubbling assists from the poptastic back-up band, disembodied snapping fingers, flashing primary colors, and constant costume changes. I’m still not sure what a “bouf bouf” is, but I will try to find out eight more times by watching Beyonce swagger in an oversized T-shirt, shimmy in a spangled dress, and rock a striped headband. I want to dance in every abandoned studio and warehouse in every city! I want to ride in a bouf bouf or with a bouf bouf. I want to wear neon eyeshadow in seventeen different shades! I’m even considering wearing long-sleeved monochrome leotards, though they look a little constricting…
4. Ke$ha, “Blow”
If you’re taking yourself too seriously, then you should probably watch this video. Why? An epic battle between Ke$ha at her most sleaztastic and James VanderBeek at his most self-ironically-mocking. This battle involves unicorns, guns, rainbows, and Muenster cheese. Creepy unicorns. Also guns on shoes, men seductively removing their own bras, and lots of sassy facemaking. It’s pure party joy without substance – that is, Ke$ha at her absolute best.
5. Britney Spears, “Til the World Ends” (shout-out to my friend Urooj for literally googling “What is the song that goes oo-oo-oo-oo-oooooo” in order to track down exactly what Britney song we had been listening to at the club one night).
Britney is back for sure with this addictive blast-off of a party anthem, and she’s taking the underground party deep into post-apocalyptic sewers in this hallucinatory video. I want to go to this party and I’m not into sewers or being underground at all. It’s as though the leather-and-studs world of Gaga’s “Telephone” video married The Matrix – you know, that horrible dance orgy scene in the second movie??? – and instead of weird pseudo-tribal Keanu Reaves sex scene spliced into slo-mo dancing, you got an infective world full of sequined jumpsuits, exploding sprinkler systems, and nuclear bursts of radiation pulsing in the sky each time the chorus takes off. Yes. I also dare you to watch this video and not want to put on too much eyeliner and dance, even if just around your own room. Who knew the apocalypse was going to be so much fun?
6. Katy Perry, “ET”
I’m not a huge Katy Perry fan, and I didn’t even like this song until I saw the video. But the video is so deliciously strange that it won my heart. Kanye is so cool he even wears sunglasses in his space capsule! And the floaty aliens creep me out in all the right ways, as do the strange stopmotion videos of rotting things and insects and other space-gothic-y things. The end, however, is what really got me: how did floaty pink space Katy become a dainty faun? Is Kanye inside the glowing robot heart? It doesn’t look like him, but what, is he just floating around in a space capsule rapping to himself about probes? Okay, maybe that did happen. Can I have a romance in a post-apocalyptic garbage dump on some abandoned world? I think the combination of weird in this video takes the not-quite-that-weird alien conceit of the song to the level of weird necessary to get me on board.
7. Rihanna, “Man Down”
I love this video for its bravery. I’ve written before about how this video stirred up significant controversy, but I don’t think it’s that surprisingly violent. Lots of hip hop talks about violent death; what seems to make this video particularly troubling is that it does not glamorize, defend, or sanitize such violence. It just lays the violence out there in all its terrible, painful reality. The video’s protagonist is raped; she retaliates with murder. In Rihanna’s horrified faces, at the video’s opening and closing, what we see is not a celebration of violence so much as a reflection on the horror that surrounds sexual violence. The video certainly makes us think in new ways about the trope of a guy picking up girls in a club, since this time the aggressive overtures of a male are not welcome and are not part of a celebrated culture of excess.
8. Florence and the Machine, “Shake it Out”
From last year’s effervescent “Dog Days are Over” to this year’s soaring ‘Shake It Out,” Florence and the Machine write real anthems of female empowerment. In “Dog Days,” the singer proclaims that “happiness hit her like a bullet in the back” and explains that happiness is something that comes through self-individuation: running fast, seizing happiness where you can find it. “Shake It Out” echoes “Dog Days” in its cries for autonomy, self-realization, and risk. The singer of this song is not seeking happiness in one person or in the past, but by launching herself into the full dangers and beauties of the present. “I’m ready to suffer and I’m ready to hope,” she cries, summarizing in one brilliant paradox all the dangers of really engaging with life. “I am done with my graceless heart,” she also cries, continuing, “I’m going to tear it out and then restart.” The beautiful video manages to capture the song’s engagement with such complicated emotions – the recognition that one is caught in painful emotions; the desire to start over; the danger and uncertainty that comes from such attempts. As Florence flits through a party, attempting to find a way to dance without a devil on her back, her face captures the gamut of emotions: hesitance, as strangely masked party-goers try to coerce her into occult party games; exultant participation as she spins in the middle of a crowded dance floor; fearful capitulation as she spins in the arms of forceful, mysterious men; peaceful acceptance as she balances, ethereal, in a tree. The video thus illustrates the very question framing the whole song: how do we reenter the dance when we are carrying so much history and hurt with us? It’s a beautiful and true love song.