Since August 1, 1981 when “Video Killed the Radio Star” first premiered on MTV, music videos have existed as both a bane and boon for musicians and bands alike. Possessing the capability to widen the popularity of a band’s music through a medium that hadn’t previously existed, music videos have at their worst offered up something banal, mundane and just plain awful or, at their best, posed a cultural question in video form that expands beyond the meaning of the song and serves to question the limits of art and music. Many music video directors have created something unique and meaningful in under five minutes while others like Jonas Åkerlund and Spike Jonze have stretched out the time, providing short films that explore the meaning of the song in greater detail and have resulted in a new kind of art form. A video like Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” has managed to offend and shock with the potency of its imagery while Smashing Pumpkins “Try, Try, Try” has gone into the territory of short film, stretching out into a 15 minute feature in its uncensored version. Though the range of ideas about what a music video can be certainly differ, the following videos have all worked to politicize the music and the message, pushing the video well beyond the possibility of its initial form.
10. Turn the Page – Metallica
A cover of Bob Seger’s 1973 song and a gritty tune about life on the road, “Turn the Page” was released in 1999 as a documentary style video about the fictional world of Ginger Lynn Allen, played by nude model and erotic film actress Ginger Lynn. Following a day in the life of a mother trying to make ends meet, Ginger and her daughter live in a rundown hotel while she works the hardscrabble life of a stripper and a prostitute. Closing with Ginger’s daughter watching on from the bathroom as her mother is viciously beaten by a client, the video shone an unsparing light on the difficulties of being a single mother and the dangers of working in the sex industry.
9.Try, Try, Try – The Smashing Pumpkins
A single off of The Smashing Pumpkins “Machina/The Machines of God” album that was released in 2000, “Try, Try Try” turned dramatically away from the romanticism and grandeur that characterized the band’s previous videos. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund, the unpolished video follows addicts Linda and Max who live on the streets and are desperate to score their next hit. They spend the day stealing food and begging for money until they finally manage to glean enough to get high before Linda overdoses while dreaming of more innocent days. Depicting the gritty reality of drug addiction, even the censored version of “Try, Try, Try” was considered too severe a portrayal to be played on MTV during the day.
8.This Note’s for You – Neil Young
Released in 1988 before the concept of branding had firmly taken root, Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You” still seems a bit controversial more than 20 years after the fact. Taking obvious aim at musicians who worked with big brands like Pepsi and Coke, the video and song go hand in hand as an ideal ethos for Young’s personal politics. While Young and his band play in a bar, the video is interspersed with parodies of stars like Michael Jackson’s head being burnt off while pumping his fist into a spotlight and Whitney Houston getting her wig stolen. Though the video was initially banned by MTV after threats from Michael Jackson’s lawyers, MuchMusic played it immediately to wide acclaim and MTV followed suit leading to its win for Best Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1989.
7. Closer– Nine Inch Nails
Directed by Mark Romanek, “Closer” came off of Nine Inch Nails controversial and much-lauded album “The Downward Spiral” which characterized the destruction and breakdown of a man through the lens of lead singer Trent Reznor’s own personal experiences. First aired on May 12, 1994, “Closer” featured a veritable litany of offending images that ranged from almost inscrutable to Avant-garde with a spinning pig’s head, a monkey nailed to a cross and Reznor wearing an S & M mask in shackles. While the shocking nature of the video meant that many scenes were censored altogether, the controversy has not hurt the success of the song and it was voted #42 on Pitchfork Media’s Top 200 tracks of the 90’s.
6. Criminal – Fiona Apple
Released as a single in 1997 off of Apple’s much lauded “Tidal” album, the video for “Criminal” was directed by Mark Romanek and made by the 20 year old Apple who was already a strikingly honest figure in popular music. Though the video seems simple enough at first, it shocked viewers not only with the thinness of Apple’s body but the blatant and somewhat voyeuristic sexuality on display as Apple removed her clothes, looked through the camera and traipsed around a house full of inert, half-naked people. While “Criminal” revealed much less than many other videos, the sexualisation characterizing Apple that was devoid of coquettishness seemed in direct contrast to the pop stars of the time.
5. Coma White – Marilyn Manson
Though the band Marilyn Manson can’t be anything but controversial with a name that was created to represent the dichotomy of American culture, the video for “Coma White” seemed more subtly striking than much of their other fare. Released in 1999, the video parodies the death of John F. Kennedy, with Kennedy played by Manson and Jacqueline Kennedy played by Rose McGowan, Manson’s girlfriend at the time. Focusing in on what Manson thought to be the inherent violence of American culture, “Coma White” ends quite eerily with Manson bleeding to death in McGowan’s lap as the parade car continues down the street, the parade attendees maniacal with excitement as though they are averse to the horror unfolding.
4. Born Free – M.I.A.
While M.I.A was already quite a controversial figure before the video for “Born Free” was ever made, its release in 2010 cemented her status as someone who had a statement to make. Initially banned by YouTube, the video directed by Romain Gavras is a nine-minute short depicting red-headed youths being rounded up by American soldiers, transported to a rural site full of landmines and being forced to run for their life until they are eventually shot at or explode. While the video was supposed to be a conscientious parody of the killing of male Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan army, M.I.A was quite vexed by the censorship it received.
3. Stan – Eminem ft. Dido
In 2000, Eminem already had a reputation as an angry young man for his Slim Shady alter ego, but the song “Stan” drummed up even more shock due to its depiction of a violent relationship. Following the story of Stan, an obsessive Eminem fan, the video shows a man on the edge as he struggles to contact Eminem before finally losing it one night, putting his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of the car and driving drunkenly over a bridge, killing both of them. Not only did the song inspire commentary for the type of extreme fandom it conveyed, it raised many questions about Eminem’s attitude towards women with many of the song lyrics being censored as a result.
2. Jeremy – Pearl Jam
While school shootings weren’t such a common thing when the video for “Jeremy” was released in 1992, this video by Pearl Jam was ahead of its time in its depiction of gun violence and the effect that being an outsider can have. Pushing Pearl Jam into the forefront of popular music, “Jeremy” depicts the life of a young boy who is teased by his fellow students and isolated from his family until, eventually, he walks into class, puts the barrel of a gun in his mouth and kills himself to the shocked horror of his classmates. While the clip of Jeremy putting the gun in his mouth was not shown in the edited version, the video’s theme of gun violence is far more concurrent with the times than it was upon its initial release.
1. Like a Prayer – Madonna
Released in 1989, “Like a Prayer” was the first single off of Madonna’s Like a Prayer album and remains one of Madonna’s most talked-about videos. Taking significant cues from the song, the video featured Madonna witnessing the murder of a young black girl at the hands of white men before seeking shelter in a church, awaking a black saint with her tears and kissing him. The video was condemned by the Vatican for its use of religious symbols and led to softer sales of Pepsi, a brand that happened to be using the song in their commercials. Ironically, Madonna ended up winning the MTV Viewer’s Choice award in 1989 and thanked Pepsi for drumming up all the controversy.