When OK Go dropped their new video for “This Too Shall Pass,” the Internet became abuzz — and rightfully so, as the clip is near-genius. (Go behind-the-scenes courtesy of Fast Company.) The band spent three months building what is essentially a giant, musical game of Mouse Trap, with the help of friends from NASA and Jet Propulsion Labs.
This isn’t the first time the band has grabbed our attention with a music video, as the infamous treadmill choreography of “Here It Goes Again” is also, admittedly, kind of brilliant. Unfortunately, OK Go have never quite caught up to the level of their visual aesthetic on the musical end of things. Of course, they’re not the only act that has been outshined by its own videos. The following clips exemplify just what happens when an unexceptional song gets trumped by an exceptional visual counterpart.
David Lee Roth – “Just a Gigolo” (1984, dir. David Lee Roth)
David Lee Roth was certainly not the first or the most respected entertainer to cover Irving Caesar’s 1929 adaptation of the Austrian folk song/ode to the ahem, hired hand, nor did he pony up the cash to use real trumpets in his version, either. That’s okay, because the money obviously all went to this self-directed video, a portrayal of the fictional “Dave TV” show and featuring parodies of Michael Jackson, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, and Billy Idol, not to mention gratuitous pyrotechnics, 17 different patterns of stretch pants, tons of T&A, the “Davercise” class, the “Censorship Bored”… whoa, deep breath. It’s a big, glittery ’80s mess, just like Diamond Dave himself.
David Bowie and Mick Jagger – “Dancing in the Street” (1985, dir. David Mallet)
The Bowie/Jagger version of Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 Motown hit was originally supposed to be a live track performed by the two artists via satellite for Live Aid, with Bowie at Wembley Stadium and Mick Jagger at JFK Stadium, but the half-second delay made this impossible. The result? An unbelievably cheesy recording laid down in about four hours, and a video that didn’t take much more time: thirteen hours. While the slap-dash process didn’t do as well by the audio side, the resulting video reveals that when left to their own devices, Bowie and Jagger can’t really dance (seriously, what is happening at 2:08?), but they sure can shake their British tushes. This can only be described as a happy accident, and a delectable slice of camp for fans of David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and leopard pantsuits.
WAX – “California” (1995, dir. Spike Jonze)
When your video ends up on the Artforum website, you’ve probably done something right. Alternative rock band WAX were best known for their contributions to the Bio-Dome and Mallrats soundtracks, and their single “California” did moderately well on the US charts, blending easily into the flannel and pot smoke of the era. The video was another story altogether, banned from MTV airplay for its arresting depiction of a man on fire running down a sidewalk in slow motion, studiously ignored by jaded passersby. The clip had such an impact that a still shot ended up on the cover of a Spike Jonze retrospective DVD collection. Aren’t you glad the Crash Test Dummies didn’t get to Jonze first?
Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity” (1996, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
While catchy, this single from Jamiroquai sure ain’t “Canned Heat,” right? The video, however, is a mindfuck and a half, with singer Jay Kay appearing to dance on a constantly moving floor, with furniture disappearing and reappearing around him. The couches bleed, the other band members fly through the hallways, and you never quite know which way is up. If the future was supposed to be made of virtual insanity, we wish it had ended up this fun.
Will Smith – “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It” (1998, dir. Hype Williams)
God, remember the good old days, when Will Smith ditched the Fresh Prince moniker and thought he was a serious rapper? Sure, this song managed to insult two musical genres at once (hip hop and disco), and Steve Martin was probably a little upset about the King Tut hijacking, but seriously, dudes. If you say you can’t do the jiggy dance and you were born before 1986, you’re a giant liar. We’re doing it right now and we’re sitting down. We’re also having the inexplicable urge to go shopping for a Hawaiian-patterned suit. Hmm…
Fatboy Slim – “Weapon Of Choice” (2001, dir. Spike Jonze)
We think it’s easily agreed that Fatboy Slim is known for cuts better than “Weapon of Choice”… can we get a “Praise You” or “Rockafella Skank”? However, this 2001 video featuring Christopher Walken dancing and flying his little heart out in an empty Los Angeles Marriott grabbed an MTV Music Video award for the actor, along with new admiration from the tail-end of the MTV generation. Oh yeah, and he’s sporting a pretty snappy suit, too.
My Chemical Romance – “Helena” (2006, dir. Marc Webb)
Generally, My Chemical Romance = torturous, so we really had to like one of their videos to include it here. God’s goth sons and daughters tear it up in shameless, unified ecstasy at a funeral in an ornate church, complete with the dearly departed reanimating herself as a macabre ballerina on black pointe shoes. It’s overwrought, gleefully overexposed, and completely deserving of a better song. So while may be hard, please press play, and turn the sound down if need be.
Feist – “1234″ (2007, dir. Patrick Daughters)
Before it became unavoidable as the soundtrack to an Apple iPod Nano commercial, Feist released “1234,” a sweet, if safe single that certainly lacked the freedom and melodic playfulness of her breakout hit, “Mushaboom.” It’s one of those unfortunate cases where an artist becomes recognized for one of their lesser accomplishments simply because it’s shoved down our throats, but hey, at least a colorful, exquisitely choreographed video came out of it. Bonus: no iPods or Apple logos anywhere!
R. Kelly – “Trapped in the Closet” (2005 – ?, dir. R. Kelly)
Clearly, we’ve saved the best for last. R. Kelly began his epic hip-hopera in 2005 with the first video installment of “Trapped in the Closet,” the never-ending saga of an unfortunate R. discovering that he is in a strange woman’s house and must hide in the closet from her returning lover. To date, there are 22 episodes of “Trapped in the Closet,” with 15 more waiting in the wings, to be released “when the public demands it.” Considering that the song sticks to a single chord progression, acting as the foundation for R. Kelly’s talk-singing… er, Real Talk, the fact that it’s spawned a sprawling soap opera series is truly astounding. We wait with baited breath, taking bets on how many more times R. Kelly can rhyme “closet” with “closet.” We’ve started you off with episodes 1-12.
If there’s anything we’ve learned here, it’s that an entertaining music video doesn’t require a sonic masterpiece, just a lick of creativity and artistic freedom. MTV may be undeserving of the “M” at this point, but as long as bands and artists remain visually creative (or hire someone to do it for them), at the very least, music videos will serve as a visionary outlet for new tunes, if not instructional dance videos.