Even though the advent of streaming has forced the whole “video killed the radio star” sentiment to awkwardly clear its throat and slowly back away from the limelight, music videos are as impactful a medium as ever. Comparing recent winners and nominees with those from the turn of the millennium, it’s impressive to see how the emphases and public taste flowed from hermetic mini-blockbusters to dance-offs to emotional self-expression to societal and political statements.
For the past three years, the latter were especially evident in selecting the industry’s most outstanding visual pieces. The gamechangers not only combined inspired direction, flawless editing, and superb choreography – they also pushed an uncomfortable topic into public debate. In 2019, this task fell onto Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” (gun violence), in 2018, it was Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” (taming men’s egos), and in 2017, Beyonce’s “Formation” (empowerment and perseverance).
Closer Look: Gary Clark Jr., FKA twigs, and Lil Nas X
Out of the five current nominees, three of them provoke with their narratives. While the creative artistry and delightful over-the-topness of The Chemical Brothers’ “We’ve Got to Try” and Tove Lo’s “Glad He’s Gone” are undeniable – the former tells a trippy story of a modern day Laika that’s also a proficient Formula 1 driver, and the latter is a short BFF-themed action comedy with hints of Orange Is the New Black – it’s the next three works that, in our opinion, remain buzzing in your brain far longer. This is why we took an additional look into their YouTube performance, examining data from the time they were published until 19 November, a day before the official Grammy nomination announcements. Shall we?
A few years into the Trump administration, protest songs of any genre are not uncommon in America. But when Gary Clark Jr., the Texan blues virtuoso, who until now steadily refrained from making overt statements, starts making them, and with such vigor, you can bet the proverbial crap has hit the fan.
“Well F you, I'm America's son!”
In “This Land”, Clark Jr. addresses how deep and painful the racial wounds still run in the American South, with imagery that leaves nothing to semantics: children are kneeling on Confederate flags in the middle of cotton fields, while he blasts away passionately on his guitar, an abandoned colonial-style porch as his stage. In an interview, Clark Jr. describes his defiant and powerful stance as a warning against growing societal unrest and “sliding back as a country” when it comes to equality, expressing his wish that people could see and accept others as equals in the way that children tend to.
Opening the video season on 10 January, the angry, raw, and heartfelt video hit the 1M mark in just two weeks, and kept propelling upwards until the end of March. The views then stabilized, and the video has remained slightly above 3M mark since August. The overwhelming musical honesty and relevance did not go overlooked, and brought Clark Jr. four Grammy nominations.
FKA twigs’ album “Magdalene” follows a three-year career break, during which the artist struggled not only with a frightening medical issue, but also an emotionally exhausting, and very public, breakup with Robert Pattinson. Always impossibly ambitious, twigs re-focused her pain into exploring the legacy of fascinating women overshadowed by men, choosing Mary Magdalene, the origin of the universal “virgin-whore” archetype.
Cellophane: The Art of a Wrap-Up
Being a perfectionist and a visual storyteller, twigs learned to pole dance specifically for the “Cellophane” video. She artfully draws the viewer into her extremely vulnerable microcosm, inhabited by a woman longing for spiritual and physical redemption, who literally bares herself for the world to see, pushes her limits when climbing to heavens, only to painfully plummet to rock bottom.
Choosing pole dancing to strengthen the “virgin-whore” narrative, and carefully combining it with impactful visuals that remind us of the emotive works of Björk or Kate Bush, FKA twigs has managed to deliver one of the year’s most unforgettable videos. Moreover, she has demonstrated just how far the creative envelope can be pushed in the cliché-dominated world of Pop and R&B.
Twigs' fans welcomed the comeback with 2.3M views on its April release, and pushed the views over the 4M mark in just one month. When the Grammy nominations rolled around, "Cellophane" already had 6.4M views and several UK Music Video Awards under its belt.
Few stories are such brilliant proof of the American Dream concept as Lil Nas X’s. A typical “rags to riches” situation, this is the story of a college drop-out who bet everything on one horse, and won. While sleeping on his sister’s floor, Lil Nas X bought a sample track online for $30, recorded his track for an additional $20 in one afternoon, and put extraordinary effort into strategic (and shameless) self-promotion via memes, social media challenges, and combined efforts with other young artists. The result: a song that galloped to 1B streams (yeah, brace yourself for more horse-related puns) and is already praised as one of the seminal works of the decade.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse – and Winning
The origin story is nothing short of amazing. As if an openly gay black man blurring the lines between Country and Hip Hop, two of the most unapologetically macho music genres, weren’t enough, both Lil Nas X and the song’s beatmaker (Dutch producer YoungKio) originally had no idea who they’d sampled – as they had never heard of this “little band” called Nine Inch Nails. Instead of crying copyright issues, Trent Reznor was quick to give his blessing and the song’s traction continued. When Lil Nas X publicly invited Billy Ray Cyrus to a remix and additional “Nashville cred”, he too immediately saddled up. The resulting inter-generational cocktail was then spiked with chart-removal controversy, broke every Billboard record imaginable, and was even crowned Country Music Association Awards’ “Musical Event of the Year 2019.”
What makes "Old Town Road" so wonderful isn’t its incredible accolades (in October 2019, it became the fastest single in RIAA history to receive Diamond certification in the US, meaning it surpassed 10M sales and streams), it’s the fact that it’s somehow everything at once: hilarious, provocative, poignant, retro, modern, and relentlessly optimistic. With line-dancing, fringes, comparing horse power and playing outlaws, the video couldn’t be more timelessly American, yet groundbreaking at the same time. Everything just…works. It’s no wonder that its YouTube debut counted views in tens of millions and has already gained more than 390M views. Lil Nas X pushed a Trojan horse (just one more, I promise) smack in the middle of the industry, and took it in one swift move.
All that being said, our money and yee-haws are on Lil Nas X this year. Going from an underdog performing at Glasto, to Twitter-challenging Gordon Ramsay to collabing on Panini (with a resulting cooking lesson), to single-handedly demonstrating how the online realm can bend the music industry to the will of the young people, time will tell how this cowboy’s story turns out, but for now, the world is his rodeo.
Cover photo: Lil Nas X / Apple Music Awards 2019
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