There’s no denying it: music videos are an absolute cornerstone of ’90s culture. Just think of the absolute biggest bands of the decade: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins: each unit churned out some distinct, eerie and memorable pieces of cinema to accompany their biggest singles, and to an extent, will always be remembered with such cinema attached to their signature image.
There’s really no point in this post other than just reiterating that I grew up in the ’90s, would spend entire sick days home from eighth grade parked in front of MTV and think nothing of it, and still get a giddy feeling thinking back to the summer of ’99, all the nice days, working my first real job feeling puberty roll over me and just that awesome feeling of growing up, when growing up meant going nuts, doing crazy sh** and living completely in the moment, which, for a while, it did.
I’ve arranged these videos in no particular order of alphabet, chronology or importance, but rather like a playlist, the order in which I watched them and which seemed to work alright. I tried to keep the mood fairly upbeat on it, as I’m putting it together in December and the holidays should be a happy time (sorry Our Lady Peace). With each piece I’ve included a little blurb just meant to solidify reasons why I enjoy the clip so much and to maybe level any false anxieties or stigmas against certain bands or songs that might have been prevalent among viewership contemporarily and since. Don’t be afraid to enjoy things: that’s how I see it. The crown goeth to he who shaketh the most rump, after all.
Merril Bainbridge – “Mouth”
For how awesome this song is, there’s no doubt that Merril Bainbridge is shrouded in a considerable amount of mystery, these days and even back in the mid ’90s when this song and the album The Garden were released. It turns out she’s Australian all along, calling home some place down under called Melbourne. Now, to think this could have contributed to her obscurity, given again how catchy this song is, how applicable the subject matter and how cute her face is, seems absurd, but I don’t know what else it could have been.
Anyway, this video has an interesting technique of rendering Bainbridge in several different outfits and toggling back and forth between them, but having her sing along to the lyrics in lockstep within the given style nonetheless, as if they shot a take of her singing the entire song in each separate wardrobe, separately. One thing that jumps out, other than that, is that black dude she or the director apparently has some fixation on, whose face we get in close up mouthing out a kiss type thing, and in another, very peculiar shot, finds his face sort of molten into Bainbridge’s as if the artist is positioning him as a sort of spiritual foil, as if they possess the same mind, or soul, within different bodies. Then in terms of that one shot where she’s sort of in darkness and there are shadows playing on her face in different shapes, that reminded me a lot of I think some technique Andy Warhol used on Nico for some of their visuals with The Velvet Underground in their earliest days, but I could be wrong. Finally, my ultimate favorite part of this video is toward the end, actually at the exact point when the music comes out and she ends the song vocally with one more, this time a capella, “Don’t wanna waste it”. The reason why I love this shot so much is that you see a very, very beautiful look in her eyes. She looks so alive, her eyes so clear yet full of color, the whites so distinct against the irises, and she’s got the expression of somebody just subsumed in this overwhelming feeling which really should, every time, go into bona fide songwriting. And seeing as she’s credited with writing “Mouth” on Wikipedia, I guess we could surmise that that’s exactly what’s transpired.
Merril Bainbridge – “Under the Water”
Somehow I got the wacky idea to actually listen to all of Merril Bainbridge’s stuff other than “Mouth”… I mean I’m only totally obsessed with that song, why would I listen to a single one of her other songs or anything? Well, stranger things have happened, but anyway like I said nobody really KNOWS this girl. She’s like a Canadian or something. She’s like that girlfriend on Seinfeld who’s too GOOD, which is how you know she’s not American.
Anyway, much to my chagrin her album The Garden wasn’t on Spotify, which is sort of like the music app equivalent of my Farmer Fred blanket, so I had to venture out to the strange and ominous world of Youtube, found a couple of the songs pretty good and that “Under the Water” actually had a music video for it. As far as the cinematography goes, it’s a lot more shots of Bainbridge and her classic innocent but soulful look, casting an image not an all unlike Madonna in spots like “Take a Bow” or “Cherish,” or whatever, glimpses of her ability to really captivate a camera and make an artistic statement with her appearance alone. Then musically, we’ve got basically another alt-rock ride with acoustic guitar riffs and harmonica that could have soundtracked The Real World Seattle or whatever, if not for this woman having just generally been grossly overlooked and underrated.
Extreme – “Hole Hearted”
These Boston boys are sure reppin’ their city… maybe it was the sports fixation that made Nirvana hate these guys so much (Chris Novoselic referred to them as “shlock rock”… not sure that helps us out too much). Anyway, the whole thing doesn’t make much sense, since about the furthest thing from “jock” imaginable this video devolves into this laughably goofy hippie dance-fest (also what’s up with that “If I’m not blind why can’t I see” line), but God da** it it’s fun, and I find the bass drum in this song very infectious and relaxing. All in all, for a cheesier swatch of quintessentially ’90s dancing you’d have to look to Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Da** I Wish I Was Your Lover,” which indeed we might have to later.
Smash Mouth – “Walkin’ on the Sun”
Ok, here’s where serendipity comes into play: good ol’ Youtube was on and I was trying to listen to that whole Merril Bainbridge album then all of a sudden No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” comes on. Well, I can’t stand overly tanned girls, so I hit fast forward, thinking it would go back to Bainbridge, and then this travesty rears its ugly head. Well, it’s not “All Star”! It’s really not “All Star”! You can listen to this song and still look yourself in the mirror afterwards! Hooray! So I notice some common threads with a lot of different videos popping up here, such as the dancing which reminds me a little of Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” (an assured compliment to singer Steve Harwell there), the enclosed room which called to mind Everclear’s “Everything to Everyone,” and, perhaps most importantly, the inclusion of seemingly pointless, scantily clad female dancers, as a sort of half satire on the quandary of “sex sells” and half just an instance of, well, sex selling, in my opinion. Hey, usually you can’t hedge your bets in life, but videos are an exception. This is one parallel this video possesses with Fastball’s “The Way” and another is the sentient body waking up from the dead in order to play guitar (in this case after a car crash, in that case after a lethal fall), perhaps to poke fun at the fact that music basically made these guys rich and without it they’re essentially nobodies, so they’d be just as good as dead without their guitars, at least in the eyes of the label or of society. Ope, come to find out, “Walkin’ on the Sun” and “The Way” do share the same director, some guy by the name of “McG,” if you can believe it.
Chumbawamba – “Tubthumping”
Almost more anthemic than it is semantic, “Tubthumping” booms out of the speakers as an invigorating sports mantra or party song, a song so melodic that it’s hard to remember that it’s actually more or less a rap, a song with alcoholism firmly embedded in the lyrics so much that I could have sworn Chumbawamba would turn out to be Scottish (they’re British, as it stands). When I first heard this song on the radio I thought that that broad was saying “Kissin’ the night away” and I was like, yeah, that’s a viable lyric, but then I sort of watched on in horror when I eventually glimpsed the videos, all the shots of the guys coming out of the stalls and noticed that her lips actually do enunciate “Pissin’ the night away”. Gulp. Where to go from here? Hey I never said I was gonna ANALYZE this song, at least I hope I didn’t, but anyway, that cinematography of the light hitting and missing her face, alternately back and forth in rhythm, is definitely one of my favorite parts of this brilliant video, as is that sharp red background as the singer keeps pummeling that infectious chorus into our ear drums, with undeniable purpose and urgency in his eyes.
Fastball – “The Way”
I should have put this song on right after “Walkin’ on the Sun” but to be honest I can’t listen to that one without “Tubthumping” right in tow, the malaise of having heard them both in the top five on Rick Dees and the Weekly Top 40 over, and over, and over, and over in about fall of ’97. “The Way” came a little later in ’98 and while its album mate “Fire Escape” might be a better song, “The Way” still has a sort of spooky tension that’s really hard to pin down and which is still even unraveling in my mind, after I rank All the Pain Money Can Buy in the top 20 albums on my ’90s list and after I listen to it a solid hundreds of times. Earlier I alluded to the theme of somebody playing guitar while essentially in a state of being deceased, as an illustration of the dominance of music in these individuals’ lives, and also the presence of pointless female dancers (actually in this clip it might be even more comedic and obvious that McG is spoofing the “sex sells” strategy, especially since in the opening shot singer Tony Scalzo and a bandmate are getting freaked out by a woman doing some really sensual yoga of some sort). Well, at least in “Walkin’ on the Sun” the sort of cheap entertainment fit in with the lyrics (“It’s just like any fad / It retracts upon impact” in adjacency to the “This is a love attack” proclamation)… so ironically the technique is rendered more efficacious on “The Way,” whose lyrics seek not to satirize the entertainment industry at all but rather the actions of two old people with Alzheimer’s who literally set off on a road trip and got lost and died, starting in Texas and ending up somewhere in Mississippi or something like that.
Smash Mouth – “All Star”
You know, you COULD always stop being a total prick and admit that you like this song. I mean, stranger things have happened. I mean, I see you making fun of it a solid 18 years after it came out, I see you rearranging its notes into one solid tone for the whole song and acting like it’s some hilarious apocalyptic expression mechanism… ya know… you could like, admit that it might actually be a GOOD song. Without doubt, there are worse chord progressions that have come about in our fine day and age, the band having a savvy knack for including a surprising chord just before a big shift in the musical energy, as a way of spicing things up, a “spice for the recipe” indeed. You know what? Forget it. Forget I mention it. Well, sh**, it just SOUNDS great, opening up with no drums but just that sweet bouncy bass, that fruity, surfy guitar strum and Steve Harwell’s anthemic vocal. Then, I have no idea what that percussion sound even IS, but I wouldn’t say it’s something a whole wealth of producers were doing around this time who weren’t named Timbaland. Now, as for the Mystery Men references in this video, I’ll leave that to those scabby individuals who just have to look down on themselves and others. Me, I’m goin’ streakin’.
Len – “Steal My Sunshine”
Len is a very interesting story actually – they originally hail from Toronto and began, for their first two albums, I believe, as a sort of punk band, or sort of lo-fi alt-rock, anyway, but realized probably that in order to get rich in music they’d have write a really stupid radio hit like this, which is really a fairly passable tune, really. I mean, what the he** is “tribal lunar speak?” And this guy doesn’t even look like somebody who would say that. But then, what are conceptions? Len is composed of brother-sister duo Mark and Sharon Costanzo, each shouldering some of the singing load on “Steal My Sunshine.” Sorry to get gushy here, but in Sharon’s second verse, she lowers her sunglasses and gives you a glimpse into her eyes. Now, she doesn’t do this for any topical reason – she’s not talking about anything naughty or racy. But it’s not without effect, and again, as with Merril Bainbridge, I sense just an unbelievable amount of character in those eyes, like a mixture of pain and the reality of having gotten through that pain, of maybe losing friends to success or seeing the ugliness of humanity up close through fame, whatever it might have been. But that look in her eyes is indescribable and when you combine that with the fact that these siblings are riding on a motorcycle together in this video, dancing together with others in a goofy manner and in general just having a lot of cheesy family fun, I think it makes for something truly rare, which will arguably at best ever be replicated in music in the future.
Everclear – “One Hit Wonder”
“Everything to Everyone” is pretty solid but this is possibly my favorite song on their 1997 album So Much for the Afterglow right here, the main character of the video apparently having been a MALE named Loopy but replaced for this spot by this just obscenely sexy redhead woman with a name tag “Loopy” on her busty chest (probably similar to how Nirvana wanted to have really nerdy looking cheerleaders on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” spot but the label wouldn’t let them). “One Hit Wonder,” of course, is an interesting situation of an artist spoofing his own situation, sort of like the guru shoulder-rubbing at hand in Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones,” one cinematic theme being that rich white game show host grabbing that dancer’s a** and her going along with it, but then, again, so much truth and power just being rendered in the artist’s eyes, singer Art Alexakis fixing this aluminum death-glare on the camera as if to say nothing more than, simply, “Fu** you, this is my song.” Message sent.