Category Archives: TunesWeek

TunesWeek: the ’90s video that changed the world

Part 5 in a series.

Once upon a time there was Def Leppard and Motley Crue and Skid Row. Then this video happened and that, as they say, was that.

TunesWeek: ’90s video and Spike Jonze

Part 4 in a series.

It sometimes seemed like MTV in the 1990s was little more than a video résumé for one Adam Spiegel, aka Spike Jonze. He seemed to be the guy directing all the damned videos, and some of the era’s most inventive concepts were his. Here’s a sample.

Up first, let’s watch some television. Like, that time when Weezer guest starred on Happy Days.

After that there’s a new cop show on. It’s called “Sabotage.”

There was nothing especially earth-shattering about The Breeders’ “Cannonball,” but damn was it a big hit, and I suspect a large part of the reason emerged from the way Jonze captured the likeable quirkiness of the Deal sisters.

You know the look that video had in the ’90s? Jonze, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible. “Hang On,” by the tragically underappreciated Teenage Fanclub, illustrates the point.

Then there was “If I Only Had a Brain” from MC 900ft Jesus. Clever, clever. The thing about Jonze was that if he did your video, you were just about guaranteed play on MTV.

If I’ve never mentioned it before, I freakin’ loved Elastica. Jonze’s campy, futuristic Ghostbusters take on “Car Song” was a perfect vehicle (if you will) for Justine Frischmann’s deadpan style.

The video for REM’s “Crush with Eyeliner featured some more of that “’90s look” thing I was talking about.

Let’s close it out with “Da Funk” by Daft Punk, which appears high on most Best Video of the 1990s lists, and for good reason. Jonze had a sense for urban atomization, and if you’ve ever felt lost in a new place, you’re probably going to feel some empathy for the protagonist.

Ten years ago this week the Dixie Chicks controversy erupted: I’m still not ready to back down

CATEGORY: FreeSpeech

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. ― Theodore Roosevelt

On March 10, 2003, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London, Natalie Maines stepped to the microphone and said this:

Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.

As our old friend Greg Mitchell notes, “It was a little more than a week before their fellow Texan launched a war based on lies.”

When word of Maines’s comment made it back to the US, what ensued was…well, what ensued was an infuriating look at the festering soul of Bush-era America and an illustration of the good, bad and ugly of how free speech works. Predictably, the hillbilly right closed ranks around the president and his WMDs-are-real cronies. Country & Western stations purged their playlists of Dixie Chicks music, records were burned, fatwas were issued, and the Chicks’ career Mark 1 was effectively destroyed. The message – for the Dixie Chicks and anybody else out there with a brain and a conscience – was more than clear: if you value your career, shut up and sing.

In some respects, the controversy was really useful. For instance, the president responded by saying:

The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say.… they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.… Freedom is a two-way street ….

The remarkable thing about this is that Bush, a man renowned for being wrong on just about everything, was actually right for once. Free speech does not imply a freedom from backlash, and if you’re an entertainer people who disagree with you are perfectly within their rights to boycott. What’s good for Hank Williams, Jr. and Mel Gibson is good for The Dixie Chicks.

Granted, you also have the right to be hateful and ignorant, and it’s certainly true that the Dixie Chicks backlash had more to do with the gleeful exercise of these rights than it did any informed understanding of how free speech was intended to work by the Framers. But that’s another argument for another day.

Now, how you feel about President Obama?

In April, 2009, S&R honored The Dixie Chicks as the 25th addition to our masthead hall of fame. I wrote, at the time (and while I was extremely angry):

History will validate, with a minimum of controversy, the sentiments Natalie Maines expressed at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre on March 10, 2003. Hopefully the record will point to our present moment and note that already the momentum had shifted and that within a generation people would have an impossible time imagining how such an affront to freedom was ever possible. Hopefully.

For the time being, “mad as hell” doesn’t begin to describe the indignation that those of us working to move this culture forward by promoting genuinely intelligent and pro-human values ought to feel, even now. I won’t tell you how to think and act, of course – you have a conscience and a brain, and you can be trusted to take in the information and perspectives around you and form an opinion that you can live by.

But for my part, I have a message for the “shut up and sing” crowd: I’m not ready to back down and I never will be. Your values are at odds with the principles upon which this nation was founded and true liberty cannot survive if your brand of flag-waving ignorance is allowed to thrive. You will not be allowed to use the freedoms that our founders fought for as weapons to stifle freedom for others.

You have declared a culture war, so here’s where the lines are drawn: I’m on the side of enlightenment, free and informed expression and the power of pro-humanist pursuits to produce a better society where we all enjoy the fruits of our shared accomplishments.

What side are you on?

Natalie and her bandmates lost tons of money over the past decade, but they’ll get by. In the end, it seems like they got a pretty good deal. In exchange for all those millions, they earned the right to a special place in the American soul. Justice matters. Facts matter. Humanity and compassion and freedom matter. Integrity matters more than money.

Looking back, I think the lesson to take away is a simple one. Our freedoms are important, but they’re empty and sterile and prone to corruption in the absence of an enlightened, intelligent embrace of the responsibilities that come with living in a democracy.

In the words of another of our musical heroes, George Clinton, “Think. It ain’t illegal yet.”

TunesWeek: the artistic side of ’90s video

Part 3 in a series.

Our first couple of installments in the series where characterized by rage, I suppose. So today let’s step away from the anger and look at videos of a more artistic bent.

First up, the video I’ve always sort of regarded as the best ever: “Dirt,” by Death in Vegas. Avant gardiste to its core, and very much in step with the non-linear mode of the era, this short, directed by Andrea Giacobbe, assaulted us with image and discontinuity.

I had heard about “Dirt,” but had never been able to catch it (and this was pre-YouTube, of course, so some effort was required – either you were watching when it came on or you set the VCR and fast forwarded through 90 minutes of tape, kind of like a hunter opening a trap and hoping there’s something inside). It was a Sunday night, around 11, and I had been working all day at my computer. I shut everything down and prepared to go to bed. Something stopped me as I hit the lights, though. Hmmm, I thought. I flipped on MTV and there it was, just beginning. If I believed in fate, I’d be a little weirded out. But I don’t, so I’m grateful for the coincidence.

Our second offering today is artistically the antithesis of “Dirt” in a lot of ways. Whereas “Dirt” was imagistic and non-linear to the nth degree, Blues Traveler’s “Runaround” (directed by Ken Fox) was built around a more conventional narrative mode of storytelling and an incredibly clever riff on The Wizard of Oz. If you want to know what the band thought of the music industry, pay attention, and if I’m Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, I’m probably not flattered by the portrayal of the lead singer in the lip-synching band in front of the curtain.

Finally, Orbital’s “The Box,” which I have been known to use in classes when discussing cyberculture. The video, directed by Luke Losey and starring Tilda Swinton, “won a silver sphere for the best short film at the San Francisco Film Festival and got nominated for the best video award at the 1997 Brit Awards. It also closed the Edinburgh Film Festival and opened the London Film Festival.” Swinton, portraying an anachronistic ingenue, stop-motions through an accelerating city landscape trying to fathom the pace and decay of contemporary urban life, and I think most viewers come away empathizing with her bewilderment.

TunesWeek: ’90s video goes political

Part 2 in a series.

The Reagan/Thatcher years were marked by an utterly bizarre shiny/happy pastel sheen spread liberally across a decidedly apocalyptic doom. Listen to songs like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Forever Young” and “It’s a Mistake” (and watch the videos). The aesthetic seemed to be “we’re all going to die in a nuclear holocaust, of course, but at least we can be alternately romantically beautiful or positively chipper about it.” But at the end of the decade Reagan’s charisma gave way to the cynical years of Bush the Elder. The happy buzz gave way to a mean drunk, and then the hangover set in.

By the early ’90s, the tone of the political landscape had darkened considerably, and a growing anger was mirrored in our music and the videos that accompanied it. Here are some of our favorite examples.

We’ll start with Ministry and their love song to the Bush years, “NWO.”

Meanwhile, Bad Religion turned its attention to the xenophobic, hateful Christianity fueling America’s lurch to the right. (Directed by Gore Verbinski.)

They were dealing the the rise of the right across the pond, too, and Pop Will Eat Itself attacked this new fascism head on in “Ich Bin Ein Auslander.” Few political rants manage to capture the essence of the problem quite as keenly as this track did. I’ve included the lyrics below so you can follow along.

Listen to the victim, abused by the system
The basis is racist, you know that we must face this.
“It can’t happen here”. Oh yeah?
“Take a look around at the cities and the towns.”

See them hunting, creeping, sneaking
Breeding fear and loathing with the lies they’re speaking
The knife, the gun, broken bottle, petrol bomb
There is no future when the past soon come.

And when they come to ethnically cleanse me
Will you speak out? Will you defend me?
Or laugh through a glass eye as they rape our lives
Trampled underfoot by the right on the rise

[CHORUS}
[s]”You owe us…”….Ich Bin Ein Auslander (x4)
(“You owe us everything”)… Ich Bin Ein Auslander
Welcome to a state where the politics of hate
Shout loud in the crowd “Watch them beat us all down”
There’s a rising tide in the rivers of blood
But if the answer isn’t violence, neither is your silence

If they come to ethnically cleanse me
Will you speak out? Will you defend me?
Freedom of expression doesn’t make it alright
Trampled underfoot by the rise of the right

[CHORUS]

Ich Bin Ein Auslander. (x12)

TunesWeek: our favorite videos of the 1990s, pt. 1 (NSFW)

Part 1 in a series.

In the 1980s, video killed the radio star. In the 2000s, MTV, Millennials and a whole new wave of mobile technology killed video. In between, though, we had the ’90s, the golden age of the form. While the ’80s were about pioneering a new genre of short film built around pop and rock songs, the ’90s were about exploring the deeper creative possibilities of an established genre. When we think about the greatest videos of all time, most of what comes to mind happened in the 1990s.

This week, S&R is going to feature some of our favorites of the decade. We’re not going to go all self-righteous and rank the 100 greatest of all time or anything – other sites have done that and we don’t want you laughing at us as hard as we’re laughing at them. But we are going to present some great moments, some artists, directors and vids that moved the needle. In no particular order. So enjoy yourself.

Let’s start with an ass-kicking or two, shall we? Up first, one of the most shocking and thought-provoking videos of all time, Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” (Directed by Jonas Åkerlund.)

Nine Inch Nails went on to release videos that were arguably more accomplished artistically, but for me “Wish” was the wake-up call. (Directed by Peter Christopherson.)