Thriller gets a lot of play as “The Greatest Music Video Ever” but I’ve always found it to be too long, an embodiment of everything terrible about music videos. It doesn’t say much about the song, it takes too long to get to the song, and mostly it serves as a mini-movie to seemingly prop up the ego of the star. (Not to mention that Michael Jackson turned into a very different but much scarier monster.) This tendency is taken to it’s logical extreme in Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat”, then gets recycled by Kenny Chesney (the walking avatar of the Napoleon Complex) in this snorefest. All these videos might as well have the singer look straight at the camera and say in their best dinner-theater Shakespeare voice “AAAAaaaaaaCTiiing!”
If I was hard-pressed to pick the best music video ever (actually, no one asked and I’m telling you anyway, so…) it would be this:
Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark go on a road trip. Nothing is ever specified in the video, we’re only left with a couple of lines from the song, but they seem to be driving to the hospital where Rodney’s Dad is dying. Guy has a big-brother, almost fatherly relationship with Rodney in this video. Once it becomes clear what’s going on, his part in the story becomes more poignant. Guy is moral support for Rodney, a friend to help him through what is arguably one of the hardest experiences a person can go through. He’s the other mentor figure to Rodney, a surrogate father of sorts. Without expressly telling you all these things, this video is communicating a bigger, deeper story with only a few details.
I’ve heard it said quite a few times that the written medium film most resembles is poetry. Both mediums rely heavily on imagery to get the point across. Songwriting is probably much the same. There’s only a short amount of time to relay a great deal of information and so the artist is going to have to suggest rather than insist and hope the audience makes the right connections. There’s a richness and depth in the small gaps between what is sung and what is seen here. That’s why this is my favorite video.
Both Clark and Crowell would probably be the first to tell you about the hallmarks of American Literature. How it all goes back to Huck Finn and Hemingway. Color and Economy. The open road and regionalism. There’s lots of references to all the Americana staples: classic cars, drive-ins, campfire sing-a-longs, googie architecture, and panoramic shots of the American West. It’s a heavily mythologized picture of America. A picture postcard of the country most of us like to think we live in. Underneath that dream, there’s still death and flat tires. Crappy hamburgers and cigarettes that will kill you.
Crowell looks like a 50’s rock and roller with his snazzy coats and vintage Thunderbird. Clark looks like he just rode in off some dusty range. Each man, in their way, is an iconic American figure: the cowboy and the rockstar. Male archetypes that represent freedom and independence, but also a loneliness. With Rodney’s Dad dying, the world gets a little smaller and these guys are left just a little bit lonelier. There’s freedom on the road, but no home. Independence but not much family. All the paradoxes of a America’s freebooting culture.
I could go on, but I think this is a pretty good intro to why I like this video so much. It doesn’t sell me anything, it only tries to tell me a story about the distance between dreams and reality. About friendship and the changing of the guard. It’s trying for something simultaneously grand and intimate, something uniquely American and universal.
But who am I kidding. This is probably the best music video ever created.