The best pop video ever made was the one Mark Romanek directed in 2003 for Johnny Cash’s swansong — ‘Hurt’. It’s also definitely the bleakest. The Man in Black was on his last legs when he made it, a doddery, rheumy-eyed 72, and here you see him very consciously bidding farewell to his adoring wife June (who appears alongside him, choked with emotion, and who predeceased him, of cancer), his life and the trappings of wordly success.
My favourite bit — actually, I’ve lots, like the perfect moment at the end where his huge hands slowly, pointedly, close the piano lid for the last time — is where you see him enthroned in his Nashville home, looking like some ravaged former god rendered cruelly mortal. With a shaky hand, he raises a goblet of wine and spills it contemptuously towards the viewer, singing, ‘And you could have it all — my empire of dirt.’ What makes it more poignant still is that it’s intercut throughout with footage of Cash in his virile youth — striding on to the stage with his guitar at San Quentin prison; driving an old steam train; playing with his kids — together with shots of his House Of Cash museum filmed looking bedraggled and forgotten just after it had been half-destroyed by a flood.
The song is great, too. As originally performed it was a slightly dirgey, nihilistic account of heroin addiction by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, but — just as he did with Nick Cave’s ‘Mercy Seat’ and U2’s ‘One’ — Cash transforms it with his resonant, world-weary, tender voice from the merely good into the utterly transcendent. You’ll probably be wondering, if you’re not familiar with it, why I’m banging on about it so much. But I think once you’ve watched the video, which you absolutely must, you’ll understand what makes it one of the truly great pieces of art, in any medium, of the past 50 years.
Unfortunately, I don’t watch many pop videos any more. To get the full benefit, I feel you need to be catatonically stoned or, better still, tripping your face off on acid, and I no longer have the time or constitution. But watching Channel 4’s round-up of The 100 Greatest Pop Videos on Sunday night, I rather wished I still did. At their best, they’re like the most brilliant movie you ever saw condensed to three minutes, and with a much better soundtrack. ‘Music videos are the only form of commercial art that still allows a director a lot of freedom to create ideas, use new technology or just experiment,’ said Howard Greenhalgh, who has directed 11 pop videos for the Pet Shop Boys. But I’d go further than that: it’s probably the only art form in the world today that’s still capable of complete aesthetic purity. The reason for this is that it’s quite untainted by what the critics think or what the market wants or what its sponsors would like it to be: instead, the director is simply given a wodge of cash and told to do whatever the hell he likes with it.
This is how Spike Jonze (director of Being John Malkovich) started his career. There was lots of his work in Channel 4’s top 100 (the Beastie Boys; Björk), but probably his most famous video is the one he did for Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’. Pretending with a bunch of actor friends to be part of an incredibly crappy amateur dance ensemble — the Torrance Community Dance Group — he played the song on a ghetto blaster outside a cinema and, watched by an audience of embarrassed filmgoers queuing for their tickets, performed all sorts of dreadful, histrionic moves in time to the music. Halfway through, the cinema’s manager appears and turns the portable stereo off. When Fatboy Slim’s record company saw the video, they were aghast. Time has vindicated it, though, as one of the critics’ all-time faves.
I do wish that it had been critics, rather than ordinary plebby members of the public, who had chosen the 100 top hundred. The problem with the public is that they have no sense of perspective or judgment and always end up voting for far too much recent cheesy chart-fare and for far, far too much by Robbie Williams. And you end up with infuriating situations like Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ coming in at a mere number 48 and Radiohead’s endlessly intriguing ‘Just’ video being given all of ten seconds.
Also, the talking heads they get for these series can be bloody annoying. I didn’t mind Jimmy Carr as presenter because he’s acerbic and funny and it was clever the way they managed digitally to insert him into some of the featured rock promos. And I do respect the opinions of genuinely informed observers like Tony Wilson, Paul Morley and the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis.
It’s the all-purpose, platitudinous youth- culture commentators that I can’t stand: the girls with bad haircuts who’ve been asked on solely for the purposes of sexual balance; Ekow Eshun. If I ever start going in that direction — and I’ve a terrible fear I might: vide the Spaced boxed set in which I bore on about how ingeniously post-modern the rave episode is — can someone please shoot me.