Since I began this little project with a look at my favorite music videos of the 1980s, knew I had to let the other shoe drop. One for the ’90s, too. Gone was the Reagan era, along with the Cold War, and my status as a “single” person (having married as the decade of big hair and shoulder pads came to a close). Installed was the sax-playing Clinton as President, after a brief stint with Bush I. Things couldn’t have been any more different, fashion-wise, politically, or socially.
To say nothing of the disruption of war and peace in the Middle East (rise and repeat), disasters (and earthquakes nearby), racially-charged upheaval, analog suffering a digital dint, and that thing called the “internet” that held even more sway upon our lives. Either way, the new decennium brought with it the same melodious distraction of the previous years to help us tolerate it all:
The musical short film that could be traced back to the 1920s and on through to the 1940s. While its prominence began with the ’80s, it would only continue to barrel on through the 1990s. The videos themselves, along with the music, now influenced visually and artistically by what their “auteur” directors brought with them. So much so, they’d use music videos as a stylish launchpad for their film careers down the road. Lasse Hallström, David Fincher, F. Gary Gray, and so on.
The filming techniques found in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and Can’t Buy Me Love specifically, by Richard Lester came full circle with those using the musical short to get into the movie business.
With the ’60s lifting my appreciation for film and music as a kid, my retreat into those same arts to survive the ’70s, the ’80s signature music videos rebounding my outlook (along with the love of my life impacting me for the better), the period right before Y2K offered the last in my compulsory music video viewing1. So in compiling a list, I came up with the following. Again pared down to my favorite number, using the same criteria as the previous.
Merely liking a song wouldn’t do. No, the released music video not only had to be thematic, but justly cinematic in its approach. Rendering the tune for the artist, its concept, and locking it all into this listener-viewer’s head. When I look back on it, the videotaped performance had to be coequal to the published number that made the then analog airwaves. Gelled together in the unique way some music videos can capture the imagination. Tied to the hip; married, but in a good way. Not like some.
Oh, and I’ll limit this to one per artist.
Honorable mentions: Well, there are always going to be tough decisions in a roll call like this, resulting in those left by the wayside. Have to draw the line somewhere. So, in no particular order, the merits of the following just couldn’t be re-encoded into a four-digit year. And yeah, I know I’ll get grief for the more than a few here.
- Fields of Gold – Sting
- Walking on Broken Glass – Annie Lennox
- Have a Heart – Bonnie Raitt
- I Can’t Make You Love Me – Bonnie Raitt
- Escapade – Janet Jackson
- Come Back to Me – Janet Jackson
- Crying – Roy Orbison & K.D. Lang
- Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
- Fantasy – Mariah Carey
- Shoop – Salt N Pepper
- Believe – Cher
- Take a Bow – Madonna
- Justify My Love – Madonna
- Streets of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen
- Freedom 90 – George Michael
- You Can’t Touch This – MC Hammer
- Unbreak My Heart – Toni Braxton
- I Will Always Love You – Whitney
- I’m Every Woman – Whitney
- Linger – Cranberries
Released: April 1994 (re-issue)
Songwriter: Dolores O’Riordan, Noel Hogan
Video Directed by: Nico Soultanakis
Dreams – If the Cranberries’ debut number seems familiar, it’s been used in a number of film soundtracks: Mission: Impossible, You’ve Got Mail, among others. And it was the one film my wife dragged me to, Boys on the Side, where it finally got my attention. Its music video2 also displays something more unique to the ’90s: their penchant for the artist singing while walking down a street. This the first of two to be reflected here.
Released: January 1991 (re-issue)
Songwriters: Chris Isaak
Video Directed by: Herb Ritts
Wicked Game– No surprise this number by Chris Isaak would gather memories. Especially with its haunting B&W photography on a black sand beach… oh and its half naked model contorting with the singer. Little wonder the music video guardians would have it go on to win the MTV Video Music Awards for Best Male Video3, Best Cinematography, and Best Video from a Film. A lesser vid was made for the Wild at Heart film, which paled.
Released: September 1991
Video Directed by: Rebecca Blake
Cream – Prince’s last #1 hit4 and it’s still a crowd-pleaser. The video opens at a train station5 where the Purple One and his entourage are pestered by the media as they wait for their train, then breaks into a staged performance. Director Blake captured the artist’s magnetism, sultry cast, and gyrating phallic symbolism. Featured in the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards and the winner for that year’s, “Best Dance Video.”
Released: July 1993
Songwriter: Mariah Carey, David Hall
Video Directed by: Diane Martel
Dreamlover – Can’t help but wonder if this Songbird Supreme’s short was a downstream reflection of the formula used in many top music videos of this era. The habitual attraction to quick-cut editing and close-ups framed against wide scenes of dance and frivolity; as done here with this memorable Mariah Carey piece. All contributed to a picturesque vid that showcased the lovely artist with the five-octave vocal range.
Released: June 1997
Songwriter: Richard Ashcroft
Video Directed by: Walter A. Stern
Bittersweet Symphony – Likely the most famous of the “walking”6 music videos for the ’90s, The Verve’s seemingly spontaneous short sticks in your head, or craw, a much as the song. Almost getting run over at the start, Richard Ashcroft just went more out of the way to disturb those around him. Bumping into passers-by (one loses balance and falls), and jumping on a vehicle stopped in his path while he continues unflinchingly.
Released: March 1992
Songwriter: Annie Lennox
Video Directed by: Sophie Muller
Why – Where to start with this one? Annie Lennox’s first solo single, like her, simply mesmerizing. And the music video, without much flash and dizzying quick cuts7, is a match to the enthralling Lennox. Staged in front of a vanity mirror with her marveling at herself before slowly putting on makeup, it is a thing of beauty. The act of transforming fully into the outfit and glam on her Diva album cover is just spellbinding8.
Released: April 1995
Songwriter: Bryan Adams, Michael Kamen, Robert John “Mutt” Lange
Video Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Have You Ever Loved a Woman – This one is personal. The year we became pregnant made that so! The decision we made to each other the previous year finally came to fruition. I’d play the Bryan Adams’ song featured in the film Don Juan DeMarco (1995) every chance I got once I’d heard it — especially in my wife’s presence. I can still mist up with this vid even now…especially by the time those last Spanish guitar chords play9.
Looks like the media company blocked the original music video, so substituted this live performance.
Released: June 1999
Songwriter: Itaal Shur, Rob Thomas
Video Directed by: Marcus Raboy
Smooth – The final #1 hit of the 1990s lands here10, and it’s definitely a keeper. As a long-time fan of Santana and Latin rock in particular, the song and music video has all of the facets that drive that enthusiasm. A rhythmic beat that’ll get anyone with a pulse to react, as shown in the distinct NYC street scene depicted. With Santana’s signature guitar chords and Rob Thomas’ vocals, this was one of the best duets of the decade.
Released: March 1992
Songwriter: K.D. Lang, Ben Mink
Video Directed by: Mark Romanek
Constant Craving – Will always have a craving for beautifully shot black & white photos and cinematography. So, glomming on to K.D. Lang’s music video is its own constant, and more than pleasing to the eye and ear. A learning experience, at that. Without the vid’s fanciful recreation of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, with Lang singing backstage, doubtful I’d had been interested in “…a tragicomedy in two acts”11.
Released: May 1995
Songwriter: Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis
Video Directed by: Mark Romanek
Scream – Will treat this as Michael Jackson’s, even if his sister is prominent in the music video just so I don’t violate my “one per” criteria. And it’s still an iconic one for the era. Nothing else looked or sounded like it, Jackson’s vivid response to the backlash he received from the media in 1993. With its sharp B&W photography, recognizable choreography, and sci-fi bent, turned out to be the last great musical/visual statement by the King of Pop.
Released: January 1992
Songwriter: Paul Brady
Video Directed by: Unknown
Not the Only One – While her other songs rate higher, this one registers most with me. The music video’s12 imagery seems random, yet are like bits of memory on display. Bonnie Raitt’s conviction gives the lyrics weight, portraying the life I had before marrying my bride. Like with the year of our courtship, the opportunity and vid not to be squandered. Framing a point in time when what we’ve together depended upon it.
Since I couldn’t rate one higher over the other, had to give in with the following two and call it a tie. And both premiered in the first year of the new decade, which set the tone for what was to come, heralding how women artists and their directors further evolved the music video. I can live with that, and them as my top pick.
Released: March 1990
Songwriter: Madonna, Shep Pettibone
Video Directed by: David Fincher
Vogue – Both would blow the doors off conventional thinking with the music video, in one manner or another. Madonna’s, care of director David Fincher, recalls the look of films and photography from the Golden Age of Hollywood13. Its cinematography making use of Art Deco design and B&W imagery is striking, yet incorporating the artist’s contemporary seduction of the viewer using her own and the male form to titillate14. Music and dance, to say nothing of Madonna’s bedroom eyes, all co-joined in the video to be the ultimate allurement and fashion statement.
Released: October 1990
Songwriter: Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis
Video Directed by: Herb Ritts
Love Will Never Do (Without You) – Janet’s would do similarly. But this time, director Herb Ritts upends the viewers thinking about Jackson herself by way of the music video15. Using both color and B&W cinematography16, and half-naked male models and actors17, this short will systematically throw out every previous perception of the child-turned-teen singer that had been in the viewers’ head. Bringing a full-blooded appreciation of her womanhood and form in a daringly sexualized (for the time) melodious manner. We’d never look at Janet the same way ever again.
I daresay, these two videos were Madonna’s and Janet’s peak using the music short form. Yes, they’d keep upping the ante in later videos, as would other artists to follow, but it’d be more of the same. These two (both the artists and videos), in my opinion, were the game-changers that raised the bar (and temperatures) for the better.
1. Entering parenthood mid-decade would curtail a lot of things, including having any time to watch music videos. Changing diapers, anyone?↵
2. There are three versions of the music video: The first version features Dolores O’Riordan donning her original hairstyle with her and band members fading in and out. The second shows the Cranberries performing the song in a dimly lit aquatic-themed room interspersed with shots of geometric flowers hitting the water.↵
3. “Despite being released as a single in 1989, it did not become a hit until it was featured in the 1990 David Lynch film Wild at Heart.” (Wikipedia) And I’m sure featuring supermodel Helena Christensen rolling and frolicking on the beach with Isaak only helped.↵
4. “The lyrics are very suggestive, but tame compared to Prince’s previous single “Gett Off,” which had more trouble getting pop airplay.” ~ Songfacts↵
7. Like those deployed in the later Walking on Broken Glass vid, also directed by Muller.↵
9. The Spanish flamenco dancers in the music video were the other highlight.↵
10. Over 20 years later, “Smooth” is ranked the second most successful song of all time by Billboard, right behind Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and right above Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife.” It won three Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.↵
12. The man in bed sleeping, then later in the video popping his coat collar on the patio, was Bonnie’s then-husband, actor Michael O’Keefe of Caddyshack and Roseanne fame. The handsome white-haired gentleman, shown in profile a couple of times, is her father, John Raitt.↵
13. “Some of the close-up poses recreate noted portraits of such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis, Veronica Lake, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, and Jean Harlow. (Additionally, several stars of this era were name-checked in the song’s lyrics.)” ~ Wikipedia↵
14. “There was some controversy surrounding the video due to a scene in which Madonna’s breasts and, if the viewer looks closely, her nipples could be seen through her sheer lace blouse, as seen in the picture on the right. MTV wanted to remove this scene, but Madonna refused, and the video aired with the shot intact.” ~ Wikipedia↵
15. “Because Janet is known for her instinctive talent for dance, as well as being an all-around entertainer, Janet and I decided to try something innovative on the video. The video is a departure from her elaborate dance production routines and focuses, instead, on her alone, She is fresh, sensual, womanly and vulnerable as she reveals herself to the camera. We wanted to show this intimate and more personal side of Janet”. ~ Wikipedia↵
17. “The video features cameos by actors Antonio Sabàto Jr. and Djimon Hounsou.” ~ Wikipedia↵