Try to talk to Swedish video director Jonas Akerlund about his work on clips for such high-profile artists as pop diva Madonna, modern-metal act Metallica and electronica outfit Prodigy, and he's just as likely to talk about his time as a drummer for a speed-metal band or the modern circus he started in Stockholm, Sweden.
"I have my own circus. That's my main job," said Akerlund, 33, who used to hit the skins for speed-metal act Bathory. "It's a European circus, but we're going to move to America and we're going to change the name."
Circus aside, the multi-talented director -- who broke into the industry doing commercials in Sweden -- has begun to earn a reputation for making controversial videos. That is due largely to his work with Metallica on the recent video for "Turn the Page" and his work with Prodigy on the clip for the incendiary track "Smack My Bitch Up," which drew fire from women's rights groups.
Despite the attention drawn to the "Smack My Bitch Up" video -- which features a person, revealed at the end to be a woman, stumbling through clubs, going to strip joints and generally making a scene -- Akerlund insists many of the complaints about the video seemed to be more about the song than the video itself.
"Sometimes when I hear stuff about it, I realize the people that say stuff haven't even seen it. A lot of comments from 'Smack My Bitch Up' [made me think] those people never saw it," Akerlund said. "I heard women's groups in America were really pissed with the video and I was like, 'Why? It's a woman.' If there was a men's group, they should be pissed."
Akerlund's video for Swedish pop act the Cardigans' "My Favourite Game" (RealAudio excerpt), from their latest LP, Gran Turismo, faced censorship in the U.K. and U.S. The band and Akerlund shot four endings for the video, ranging from one in which the singer drives off a cliff to the one airing in England, which Akerlund said is mostly just the singer driving.
"I can't come to America or England and change standards. That's not my goal, but in that case I think it's really stupid, because the video is supposed to be fun and I think it is," Akerlund said. "If you compare that video to other stuff you see, it's nothing, you know. I have to say I was really surprised when they censored that video."
Cardigans' lead singer Nina Persson echoed Akerlund's disappointment at the video's censorship.
"It's just sad that censorship strikes music videos more than daytime TV shows. It's just stupid because TV and movies are often worse," Persson said before her band's early November performance at the CMJ Music Festival. "Music videos are the artistic medium, just as much or more so than much of the stuff in movies and other TV shows."
Drawing from his background in commercials, Akerlund said he views his music video work as similar to crafting an advertisement for the artist, with his goal being to create a treatment that accurately reflects the lyrics and makes the artist look good.
Akerlund said ideas for the "My Favourite Game" video and modern-metal act Metallica's video for "Turn the Page" (RealAudio excerpt) come from his view of the lyrics melded with his own life experiences. In one of the four endings shot for the Cardigans video, the singer puts a rock on the accelerator of her car and drives off a cliff. While Akerlund has never driven off a cliff, he said the rock on the accelerator pedal is an old trick from when he was touring with Bathory.
"I thought about what I did like 15 years ago driving a car in America. I put a stone on the gas pedal when we were driving on a straight, straight long road in the desert," Akerlund said. "This was before cruise control. ... That's cool and that's perfect for what I was trying to capture."
The video for "Turn the Page," Metallica's cover of the Bob Seger song, features a woman working as a stripper and a hooker with her daughter in tow or nearby. It might not at first blush seem to share much with Akerlund's life experience, but the single father of one said there are similarities.
"She has the same kind of problems that a lot of people have everyday, but she's into something else," Akerlund said. "I am a single father and I do work a lot and I should be more with my kid and I'm struggling in life like a lot of people do. I'm not planning on hooking and stripping, but I do other stuff. We all have our different problems."
Despite the undercurrent of violence present in the "Smack My Bitch Up" video and the beating given the stripper/hooker in "Turn the Page," Akerlund professes to dislike violence. But he said he sees it as a useful tool.
"I hate violence. I'm against violence. But sometimes when you have an idea, to make that idea really strong, you need to go all the way," Akerlund said. "If I have that kind of idea I have to go all the way."