22 July 2006

Instant history codified the video star

Poor Stylus. They try so hard to distinguish themselves from the mighty Pitchfork, only to have the latest countdown feature they've spent months working on pre-empted a few weeks earlier by the 'Fork, who did a far more half-assed and consequently better (not in spite of, because of) job of it, and once again they appear one step behind.

I'm speaking, of course, of the two sites' respective lists of 100 music videos. Both lists are essentially celebrations of the glory of YouTube, a topic that's been popping up quite often lately; Bill Simmons did a list of his favourites for ESPN.com, for instance (and you don't even need one of those bullshit subscriptions to read it). (Yet). The timing seems about right, if you think about it. People are getting over the initial shock at the embarrassment of riches suddenly available and are settling into a world in which YouTube is no longer a Godsend, merely an accepted part of everyday life in the wired world.

As you know if you've read the articles, the sites took two different routes: Stylus, as is their wont, presumably went through a painstaking voting process1 in which everybody submits a list, finalists are narrowed down, everybody watches the finalists and re-votes, and eventually the definitive list emerges. Pitchfork's list, on the other hand, appears to be the fruit of no more intensive deliberation than a late night at the office and a few six-packs. Other than wisely disqualifying any video on the Directors Label DVDs on the grounds that most of those are both too obvious and too well-known, there seems to be no overarching logic to the selections or the running order other than "Aren't these cool?"

And that, in a nutshell, is why Pitchfork's list works so much better than Stylus's on so many levels. First of all, part of YouTube's appeal is that it's so disorganised; you start out looking for something specific, then wind up stumbling all over the treasures strewn temptingly about. Before you know it, it's five-o'clock, you've accomplished nothing, and you go home.2 Pitchfork's list reflects this perfectly.

Secondly, music video, and the Stylus list really highlights this, is just too narrow a field to support a best-of list this long. Surprising as this may seem given the age of the medium, the canon is still under construction.

The Directors Label thing is a big problem. 29 of the 100 videos on Stylus's list can be found on these seven DVDs3; six of them in the top ten alone. Are these seven guys really responsible for almost 30% of the best videos ever? Truth is, while the popularity of the series certainly inflates these directors' representation, that number's probably not that far off. There just aren't that many truly great music videos, or for that matter music video directors, out there.

Thirdly, I also noticed that the Stylus list skews pretty recent, an imbalance which at first I chalked up the the relative youth of the site's stable of writers. A few of the blurbs referred to the writers' having first seen videos from the mid-90s while in their pre-teen years. After all, how else do you account for the absence of so many 80s classics like "Hot for Teacher"? And for God's sake, where the fuck is fuckin' Devo?!?

But on further reflection I've decided that age is only part of the reason; in addition, there probably are more good videos, and better ones, being made in recent years. The medium only really came into its own as an artform within the last fifteen years or so; MTV only began showing director credits in what, '92 maybe? What makes a list like this different from a music list is that a list of the best singles or albums or what have you of all time inevitably skews older as critics are inclined to value originality over other factors. Thus, earlier works are showered with plaudits like "pioneering" and trailblazing". Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is routinely cited as the greatest rock album of all time, but very few critics or rock fans will tell you it's their favourite album ever; most won't even point to it as the best Beatles album. It earns its place at the top of the heap because of its historical significance, and because of how many musical ideas appeared there first.

Videos are the opposite: they grow consistently more daring, more imaginative, more expensive. Unlike with all genres of music, no one points to one particular era as a "golden age" of music video, one against which today's videos just don't hold up. Yes, there are visual ideas which recur in many videos, long-established sets of cliches and conventions, and someone must have done it first. But no one is arguing that the early videos did it better.

For this reason more than any other, this list just wasn't ready to be compiled. Until the day that someone says "You know? Videos used to be so much better," we're just not there yet.

The most glaring difference between the two lists, besides the fact that the Pitchfork one has a lot of older clips (again, the age thing), is that the Pitchfork one is just more fun, evidenced by the fact that they weren't afraid to throw on novelties like the ultimate Is-this-supposed-to-be-funny? classic, Journey's "Separate Ways", or laughably sentimental rubbish like Lionel Richie's "Hello". There's even a few that Stylus probably would have declared ineligible, like David Brent's jaw-droppingly brilliant cover of "If You Don't Know Me By Now". And there's a few that Stylus should just be downright embarrassed about having overlooked, particularly Sonic Youth's "Dirty Boots".

If anything, you could even argue that what makes Pitchfork's list better is, ironically, the same thing that usually makes me prefer Stylus's underlying aesthetic: the unabashed embrace of pop. While Stylus is always eager to celebrate disposable top 40 singles for the addictive sugar rush they can so reliably provide (and rightly so, in my view), Pitchfork built their reputation on their indie-snob attitude (and let's face it, there's a place for that). But with these lists, Stylus makes the mistake of trying, with a few notable exceptions, to be the stuffy gatekeepers of true video art. Pitchfork, on the other hand, haven't forgetten that, more often than not, music videos are just flat-out stupid. And that's why we love them.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. Having briefly written for Stylus, I speak from experience on two counts here: one, their list-making procedures really are these completely convoluted multi-stage projects, which is why I don't doubt for a second that they began working on this long before the Pitchfork list was posted. Seriously, their annual Best Singles of the Year list takes like a month to compile, all in the name of true democracy, and invariably results in readers posting comments in which they accuse the editors of some image-cultivating motive behind their supposedly intentional placement of some crappy pop song at number 78, inexcusably ranking it ahead of some obscur-o hipster twaddle at number 79. "your just tyring to makea piont here, arnt you?" Seriously, every fucking time.

    Two, the Pitchfork-envy is absolutely palpable on Stylus's internal message board (at least it was when I was there), which is why I'm sure that getting scooped on this must have just killed those guys. Shame, too. Personally I rather prefer Stylus's brand of criticism and I'm not just shilling for them, either.[Return]

  2. Speaking of which, I suppose I should have warned you at the outset that perusing either of those lists individually, to say nothing of tackling both back-to-back, will utterly annihilate your day. Perhaps it's already too late, in which case sorry about that.) [Return]
  3. In addition I counted that I own six more on other DVDs (and the Dylan one on VHS!), which I mention not to show off how vast my DVD library is (it isn't), but to reinforce the point that this field is pretty narrow. If I own copies of 36 of the top 100 videos, either a list isn't warranted or the list makers need to watch more videos. By contrast, I owned copies of I think 4 of the videos on Pitchfork's list including, again, one on VHS. Two more random stats:
    1. Number of videos that made both lists: 11, I think, though I may have missed one
    2. Total number of Juvenile videos between the two: 3, with no overlap [Return]

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