It’s hard not to smile when you see the White Stripes cast in Lego and jamming away in the video for “Fell in Love With a Girl.” Will the whimsical Michel Gondry video, nominated for Breakthrough Video at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, go on to be considered one of the most innovative and influential in music video history?
If you’re thinking stop-motion-animated children’s toys aren’t significant enough to inspire future generations, keep in mind that dancing chickens and singing fruit were among the striking images that made Peter Gabriel’s 1986 video for “Sledgehammer” so legendary.
The concept that directors Stephen R. Johnson, the Brothers Quay and Nick Park (“Wallace & Gromit”) executed with “Sledgehammer,” which went on to win nine VMAs (including Breakthrough Video), paved the way for videos such as Primus’ “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” and Tool’s “Prison Sex.”
“It felt pretty exciting at the time, I must admit,” said Gabriel of the video, which also featured the singer’s head being circled by a train and bashed with hammers. “I think Stephen and myself were determined to get something that was a bit groundbreaking, and we were extremely lucky to be able to pull in the Brothers Quay. There was a team thing about that which was really fun and exciting, so it was easy to explore lots of different ideas.”
As jaw-dropping as it was at the time, music videos have evolved considerably since “Sledgehammer” was a staple of MTV’s daily playlist. While time and creativity have turned techniques such as rapid-fire edits, unearthly morphing and explosions worthy of the next “Star Wars” into commonplace elements of video’s vernacular, they were all, at one point, considered groundbreaking.
Indeed, had Weezer not been transported to the set of “Happy Days” in the irony-drenched, Spike Jonze-directed clip for “Buddy Holly” (1995′s Breakthrough Video), Foo Fighters might not have imitated a Mentos commercial in “Big Me.” And if the Smashing Pumpkins hadn’t made their own version of the 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon” with “Tonight, Tonight” (1996′s Breakthrough Video), ‘NSYNC might never have emulated a Charlie Chaplin movie in the beginning of their video for “Gone.”
When MTV first hit the air on August 1, 1981, with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” there was little indication that music videos would eventually feature Lego rock bands, a breakdancer with a giant nose for a head (the Crystal Method’s “Name of the Game”) or a dude stepping into a puddle and falling through the sidewalk (Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work”). Those clips are all nominees for the 2002 Breakthrough Video, as are Coldplay’s animated “Trouble,” DMX’s stark, caption-heavy “Who We Be” and Cake’s novel “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” in which a seemingly random assemblage of people listens to the song on headphones and offers criticism.
Breakthrough Video winners have mostly been influential in one of two ways. Either they spawned new camera, editing or effect techniques that altered the look and feel of the video landscape, or they offered visual icons and thematic elements that were borrowed by other directors down the line.
Some Breakthrough Videos have directly inspired other media, including film. Richard Linklater’s 2001 film “Waking Life” uses rotoscopic animation techniques reminiscent of those in A-Ha’s 1985 video for “Take on Me.” And in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” many of the backgrounds were treated in post-production with a glazey sheen not dissimilar to the silvery desert shots in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1992 Breakthrough Video, “Give It Away.” Hollywood isn’t the only entity to exploit new mediums — elements from Breakthrough Videos frequently surface in television commercials.
“In the five years following [the "Sledgehammer" video], I saw a lot of advertisements that seemed influenced by what we had done,” Gabriel said. “The companies are amazingly cheeky sometimes, because the ad agencies will just ask you to send copies of your work, then they rip off all the ideas and never pay you a penny. But then, that’s the business.”
The first VMA celebration in 1984 awarded its inaugural Breakthrough Video distinction, then called Experimental Video, to Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” which was directed by Godley & Creme. The video depicted robots carrying out pedestrian tasks, while much of the footage jerks back and forth in tandem with the scratching in the song. Elements of that editing style later surfaced in clips for Orbital’s “The Box,” Roni Size/ Reprazent’s “Brown Paper Bag” and Swizz Beatz’ “Guilty,” and they’re echoed in the dance routine from Daft Punk’s “Around the World.”
If “Rockit” raised the bar for the art of music videos, MTV’s Experimental Video for 1985, Art of Noise’s “Close (To the Edit),” set a new standard both conceptually and stylistically. The clip, directed by Polish avant-garde filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczynski, features long, single-edit shots of a little punk girl guiding three men in laying waste to musical instruments, such as demolishing a piano with a buzzsaw, a chainsaw and a power drill. Much of the footage is sped up and jittery, and the visuals are stark and industrial.
This creepy vibe lives on in clips such as Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.” The Prodigy have said that their video for “Firestarter” was influenced by “Close (To the Edit),” and Faith No More might have raised a glass to Rybczynski when they detonated a piano at the end of their video for “Epic.”
The success of “Rockit” and “Close (To the Edit)” helped open the door for experimentation in mainstream music videos, but the vid for A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” the 1986 Moonman winner, was probably as influential as “Sledgehammer.” The piece features a girl who steps into a comic book and is swept into another world where she falls in love with the cartoon hero. The Rotoscopic animation created a conduit for filmed characters to enter an animated environment, and vice versa. Incubus’ “Drive,” Limp Bizkit’s “Boiler” and U2′s “Elevation” have employed similar devices.
“['Take on Me'] was one of the first super, super creative videos,” said director Francis Lawrence, who lensed P.O.D.’s “Alive” as well as videos by Nelly Furtado, Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child and loads of others. “It almost created the music video genre by incorporating performance into a little story with a gimmick.”
The concept took a quantum leap 14 years later when Chris Cunningham took advantage of tremendous advances in digital technology to create Björk’s “All Is Full of Love,” one of the most stunning sci-fi videos to date. The video depicts the singer as an assembly line robot who falls in love with another female robot. But what’s most remarkable are the digital effects, which convert the singer into a lifelike mechanical being.
“In my opinion, it’s the most flawless video ever made,” said Nathan “Karma” Cox, who co-directed Linkin Park’s “In the End.” “I remember watching that video and wanting to hang up my hat and get a job at a gas station. I watched it over and over and tried to figure out what was digital and what wasn’t.”
A similar style of digital wizardry was employed by Linkin Park DJ Joseph Hahn in the band’s video for the “Points of Authority” remix. Its influence can also be seen in Basement Jaxx’ “Where’s Your Head At?” and even Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life.”
Any modern music video that incorporates beautiful, reverent imagery owes a nod to R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” which was named 1991′s Breakthrough Video. The provocative clip, which was directed by Tarsem Singh, depicts singer Michael Stipe as a wounded angel and is filled with lingering shots of painterly tableaux. (Singh later used some of the same techniques in his movie “The Cell.”) Metallica’s “Unforgiven,” Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sour Girl” and the intro and outro to No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” refer back to “Losing My Religion.”
“The portrait work in that was just amazing,” said director Cox. “It felt like a work of art instead of a video. It had ascended from pop art into high art of some sort.”
Also approaching high art is director Stephane Sednaoui’s video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” which won a Breakthrough Video Moonman in 1992. Set in the desert, the video conveys the Peppers’ colorful quirkiness in black and white as they gyrate away in gilded body paint and satyric makeup, using cinematic techniques reminiscent of ’60s underground movies. Later videos that put artists in alien, arty environments include No Doubt’s “Hella Good,” Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” and Garbage’s “Queer.”
When this year’s Breakthrough Video envelope is opened and the winner is announced, the victor — whether it includes Lego, a big nose, animated birds, a puddle jumper, spiraling words or amateur music critics — will surely be reflected in clips for years to come (click for the complete list of 2002 VMA Nominees).
Catch all the sizzlin’, star-packed VMA action direct from Miami on August 28. MTV News’ preshow kicks things off at 6:00 p.m. ET/PT, followed by the big show at 8 p.m.