Armond White's Music Video "Introspective"
On Saturday I caught a presentation of classic music videos by renowned pop-culture critic Armond White of New York Press. The event was part of Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual New York Video Festival, in which White has participated for the last decade or so. Some years he's shown a selection of the best videos from the preceding 12 months; other times he's hosted in-person dialogues with especially accomplished auteurs such as Marcus Nispel and Benjamin Stokes. Always, he offers the rare chance to see great music videos interspersed with terse commentary that widens your perceptions to suit Lincoln Center's big screen.
Armond White was one of the first culture writers to take music videos seriously, and his is still the most sophisticated approach to the form. He shows how videos "hook into our sanity and unleash our fantasies," to quote from his book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World. This approach is as applicable to the postmodern image-play that launched Madonna's career in the '80s as it is to Public Enemy's political propositions and pronouncements. By contrast, most mainstream commentators eschew complexity by praising clips that make simple-minded statements (e.g. Eminem's "Mosh" from a few years back) or by viewing the work solely in relation to what we think we know about the featured pop stars.
This year, Armond White flouted hype by providing a totally new analytic structure. Aiming to "prove the significance of music video by examining its history," he chose 14 clips from throughout the MTV era. The eclectic list included household names such as U2 and Madonna as well as fringe figures (Prince protege Jill Jones, dwarf rapper Bushwick Bill). The two-part program began with a non-chronological assortment of ten impressive works representing different genres. White then proposed a "pantheon" consisting of four genre-busting, epochal clips arranged chronologically. The impressionistic format of the evening was an ideal way to confront an art that, at its best, makes social history and personal fantasy inextricable. Hence the title of the presentation, "Official History of Music Video: An Introspective."
It's sad that most people outside NYC didn't have the opportunity to attend this event. For those unfortunates, I'm offering what I hope is the next best thing, though in comparison to the real thing it's pretty thin gruel. Below you'll find links to the 14 videos in the order in which they appeared on Saturday, along with Armond White's genre headings and snippets of his commentary.
Manifesto: Back to My Roots, RuPaul
(dir: Randy Barbato)
Armond White: "The manifesto here preserves the moment when gay dance culture merged with hip-hop...RuPaul insists that there's more than one way to be black, which is to say more than one way to be human."
Fantasy: Mia Boca, Jill Jones
(dir. Jean-Baptiste Mondino)
Armond White: "A wonderful example of Mondino's always-stylish eye and his wonderful media savvy...This was the period when postmodernism was a thrill--and popular."
Autobiography: Ever So Clear, Bushwick Bill
(dir: P.S. O'Neill)
Armond White: "It's a superb tragic drama."
Memoir: Dead Homiez, Ice Cube
(dir. Eric Meza)
Armond White: "It's more effective than Boyz N the Hood and the lousy Menace II Society."
Elegy: Blue Savannah, Erasure
(dir. Kevin Godley)
Armond White: "The director uses ingenious, daring symbolism to comment on an aspect of late '80s/early '90s experience: people confronting the devastation of AIDS and seeking ways to live with it...The final image suggests a painter's thumbs-up gesture to get balance on the image, or an emblem of God's blessing if you like."
Allegory: Feel So Good, Mase
(dir: Hype Williams)
Armond White: "Modern life is imagined as a Vegas extravaganza. Williams highlights a sort of allegorical sheen. One of the most dazzling pieces of visual art you can ever see."
Erotica: 6 Minutes of Pleasure, L.L. Cool J
(dir: Marcus Nispel)
Armond White: "Perfectly captures the experience and complexity within hip-hop, an adolescent art form that at its best has difficult things to say. Cleverly pushes examples of erotic innocence into areas of sexual trouble."
Exotica: Mysterious Ways, U2
(dir: Stephane Sednaoui)
Armond White: "I love this video simply for the way it looks. It's excitingly avant garde, it seems to bend the screen. It makes your eyes widen and buckle."
Graphic Puzzle: Imitation of Life, REM
(dir: Garth Jennings)
Armond White: "It's designed to force viewer attention and concentration. A more genuine technological innovation than the recent Dogme movement."
Semi-Doc: A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays', De La Soul
(dir: Benjamin Stokes)
Armond White: "Stokes understands the formally radical nature of hip-hop. The video expands both the documentary genre and fantasy."
Night of the Living Baseheads, Public Enemy
(dir: Lionel C. Martin)
White: "The first great hip-hop video...A combination of political reporting, political fantasy, and media satire that is still definitive. I don't know if hip-hop will ever be that thrilling again."
Like a Prayer, Madonna
(dir: Mary Lambert)
White: "Combines social commentary with Madonna's white-negro fantasy, but the two mesh for better reasons than her own ego. Its historical and social and religious messages are as provocative as the updated Brecht/Pirandello staging."
Black or White, Michael Jackson
(dir: John Landis)
White: "The video ranges from a cosmic point of view to earthly pop consciousness. Its ideas justify its ambition, and the morphing sequence is still amazing. Michael Jackson's rage is the second half of his brotherhood message, because we have both inside us."
99 Problems, Jay-Z
(dir: Mark Romanek)
White: "As profound a vision of moral turmoil as I've seen...The editing is as brilliant as that of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch."
In addition to his weekly reviews in New York Press, I'd like to direct designers to White's essay on the legendary Fell in Love with a Girl video by Michel Gondry and his extended piece on 99 Problems. White has more on Night of the Living Baseheads in this week's New York Press cover story. And for moment-by-moment exegeses of Like a Prayer and Black or White, check out The Resistance, an essential volume.