MTV turns 36 today, but because the channel is the television equivalent of Peter Pan—refusing to ever grow up or even acknowledge their past—today’s programming remains an endless sea of Teen Mom and Catfish detritus. It’s a shame MTV won’t air music videos today, because the channel’s role in transforming the medium from a cheap touring alternative into a legitimate art form cannot be overstated.
I absolutely love music videos, and if MTV refuses to celebrate its success by playing any videos today, I’ll take the reins by spotlighting some excellent clips. I’ve forgone popular classics by Madonna and Michael Jackson to present five underrated gems, instead. Watch these and remember why MTV was once such a potent force.
The Sun Always Shines on TV—A-Ha: Sure, they’re mostly known as “that ‘80s one hit wonder with the cool, hand drawn video to ‘Take on Me’,” but Norwegian band, A-Ha, had another ace up their sleeve with the equally stunning video to “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” The introductory image of lead singer, Morten Harket, and video vixen, Bunty Bailey, continuing their cartoon love affair acts as a red herring; the black and white performance video really starts when the drums and guitar kick in, with the band playing to an audience of mannequins. The result could’ve been colossally cheesy, but expert, award-winning editing created haunting, chilling scenes of motionless mannequins singing, raising their hands aloft, and even playing violin, enabling this video to stand as the quintessential forgotten classic.
Karmacoma—Massive Attack: British collective, Massive Attack, made their name in the ‘90s by marrying inventive, iconic imagery to their trip-hop masterpieces. The tower-block terror of “Safe From Harm,” the singing fetus in “Teardrop,” and the creepy chase in “Angel” are all outstanding, but the surreal hotel visitors—including a paranoid gunman, a typist missing a “K” on his typewriter, and two crimson-clothed call girls—in “Karmacoma” are impossible to ignore. Despite knowing nods to The Shining, Pulp Fiction, and American Psycho, the video manages to thrill on its own accord, with disturbing, vaguely sinister undertones that perfectly match the song’s trippy vibe.
Giving Up the Gun—Vampire Weekend: Early DIY videos for “A-Punk” and “Oxford Comma” marked New York indie band, Vampire Weekend, as a creative tour de force, but they upped the fun factor on their second album with the playful video for “Giving Up the Gun.” The video stars a precocious young redhead burning her way through a tennis tournament until she’s faced with her doppelganger in the dramatic finale. But it’s the hilarious cameos from Jake Gyllenhaal, Joe Jonas, Daft Punk, RZA, and Lil ‘Jon that make the video such a treat. Tennis has never looked so silly and fun.
We Come 1—Faithless: Riding a wave of big British ‘90s beats, Faithless burst onto the scene in 1996 with seminal dance track, “Insomnia.” Though hailed as an instant classic, the song’s simple, black and white promo left much to be desired; it wasn’t until 2001’s “We Come 1” that Faithless created a visual treat to match the music. The video starts with lead singer, Maxi Jazz, sitting on a sofa in Gandhi-like gear. Then, against the catchiest beats of Faithless’ career, the video ignites in a strange explosion of protest and club-dancing imagery. Rocks are tossed while couples kiss, ambulances are tilted while revelers shake their ass, and a full clash with armed police ignites while the dance floor loses their mind. By expertly walking a line we never knew existed, Faithless created an unforgettable video that still resonates today.
If I Had a Gun…—Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Because Britpop icons, Oasis, were not renowned for their music video prowess, not much was expected from Noel Gallagher’s post-Oasis project, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. However, the video to third single, “If I Had a Gun…” delivered in spades. It centers around Peyton List (Mad Men, Frequency) as a bride whose wedding is interrupted by a horse-riding cowboy from her past. Sparks immediately rekindle between the pair, leaving Gallagher (in a hilarious cameo as the wedding officiant) to shrug in confusion. Devoid of dialogue, perfectly executed details—a bridesmaid’s telling laugh, the best man preparing for fisticuffs by removing his cuff links—make this video the authoritative guide to wordlessly ruining a wedding.