Viral video killed the MTV star? The four most shocking music video clips of 2010 (so far)

Was it really only a year and a half ago that MTV cancelled TRL?  It seems like a lifetime since that fateful final episode, a whimper that had critics all over sounding the death-knell for the music video. Looks like reports of the video-as-art-form's demise were greatly exaggerated, since 2010 is shaping up to be the year that music videos matter again.

Now that they've been freed from their indentured servitude -- promotional clips doled out (and of course censored) by the hip gatekeepers of MTV -- today's music videos can appear out of nowhere, without fanfare, and run longer than a commercial break. This week marked the release of M.I.A.'s long-form diatribe "Born Free" -- a gratuitously violent and nasty piece of cinema that, by my count, is the fourth important work of music film to have hit our monitors in the last few months.

Maybe it's because today's artists have learned their lessons from video stars of the past: that if you have a grand enough vision, and you are willing to risk scorn and ridicule in the pursuit of spreading your particular gospel, you can still put out a visual statement that will have everyone gabbing at the virtual watercooler for at least a few days of furious tweeting.

EXHIBIT A: Lady Gaga feat. Beyonce, "Telephone"

Arguably the first grand video statement of the year was Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video with Beyonce -- at this point, anyone who had anything to say about Gaga's gratuitous violence, mayhem, fashion and, er, product placement has already said their peace and then some.  Servers were crashed as fans and casual computer users alike flocked to see what the hubbub was about, and a brief internet meme was created out of the concept of smoking sunglasses. But the surprising thing turned out to be that this video was not going to be the hands-down video event of the year -- as shocking as Gaga tried to be, the most outrageous was still yet to come.

EXHIBIT B: Erykah Badu, "Window Seat"

A few weeks ago, noted oddball soul belter Erykah Badu unveiled her "Window Seat" video. If Gaga/Beyonce's Jonas Akerlund-directed spectacle was a gleeful romp through homicidal lunacy, Badu's video was notable for its opposing tone, a piece of shrieking agitprop.  As the Dallas native strolls naked through Dealey Plaza, a gunshot sound forces her to the ground at the end, the purple CGI blood emanating from her body forming the word "groupthink".  The video was filmed in one take with no permits pulled in front of crowds of unsuspecting witnesses, a guerilla filming move that resulted in a disorderly conduct charge being slapped on the singer.  But the $500 fine was, certainly, a pittance compared to the phenomenal free press the video gave to Badu.  She later commented that "my performance art has been grossly misinterpreted by many," a telling line in that it correctly places the video not in the lexicon of video greats like "White Wedding" and "You Might Think", but rather amongst the company of the more avant-garde wing of cutting edge performance artists.  The video really reminded me of the work of Andrea Fraser, in particular her piece "Official Welcome", where she slowly disrobes in the midst of an art awards ceremony.  Standing naked before a shocked audience, she closes with the statement "I'm not a person today.  I'm an object in a work of art."  Perhaps Badu felt a similar sentiment as she began to sense the misunderstanding in the reception to her thinkpiece?

EXHIBIT C: M.I.A., "Born Free"

If Badu's video seemed ponderous and self-important, it seems light and airy compared to the NSFW downerfest that is the video for "Born Free".  The creation of director Romain Gravas, the clip really only makes sense upon a second viewing, when it becomes clear that what we are watching has more in common with the dark sarcasm of Children of Men or "The Twilight Zone" than, say, the searing political film-making of Gravas' father, the legendary Greek rabblerouser known as Costa-Gravas.  Costa-Gravas made an indelible mark on the world of political film-making with the 1969 true crime assassination thriller Z, a film that investigates the dark netherworld where truth dissipates and political callousness trumps all other human senses. It would be easy to run a straight line between a film like Z and the jarring political sensibility of the "Born Free" clip-- except that "Born Free", unlike Z, does not take place in the real world, and is instead a parable of racial intolerance and fascism with all the subtlety of classic Sterling-era sci-fi.  That isn't to say that the video lacks a gutteral punch, because it most definitely does; more importantly, it is instantly debatable, and will probably be dividing its viewers on opposing sides from now until, say, the next polarizing event video hits the interwebs.

EXHIBIT Z: Insane Clown Posse, "Miracles"

That said, I still don't think that "Born Free" will ever generate the pure zeitgeist-tapping shitstorm that met the viral arrival earlier this month of Insane Clown Posse's "Miracles" video. There really was no inbetween on "Miracles": you either thought that it was a brilliant game-changer for the normally violence-bathed ICP, or you were a seemingly sensible person who thought that the video was the worst thing ever in the history of things. In many ways, the song and video seem to have been designed to work as a taunt to the non-Juggalo universe, a cuddly and doe-eyed paean to wonder and magic that seems in complete opposition to everything ICP Nation stands for.  Lyrics like "Music is magic/pure and clean/you can feel it and hear it/but it can't be seen" make it difficult to ascertain the seriousness of the Juggalo charm offensive here -- is this tune a smarmy attempt at playing fake nice a la A.C.'s Picnic of Love album -- or is this yet another side of the ICP universe that outsiders will never understand, along with the Tolkein-esque mythology behind the duo's braindead-seeming exterior?  The truth is that it's both, and neither -- it's probably just as much of a sincere statement of conservative naivete as it is a "fuck you" to critics and non-fans worldwide. Either way, though, the far-reach of this clip means that even non-Juggalos everywhere spent weeks parsing the intent of lines like "Magic everywhere in this bitch" -- and you can bet that the masked duo are laughing all the way to the virtual bank.

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