Most art is open to interpretation. But given the seismic status of 2016 in terms of political upheaval and bloodshed – it’s no surprise many music videos have arrived with more than an essence of the apocalypse about them.
Earlier this year I wrote about the ways in which music videos had taken on strange and often surreal narratives, a flourish which reflects both the temperament of the creatively liberated times and also the competitive requirement of making an album launch an “event”. On reflection, art was simply reflecting life, a sense of foreboding and dread running throughout.
Many chose to mirror the political quagmire – exposing the powers that control the globe as evil dictators. DJ Shadow’s video for Nobody Speak, featuring the vitriolic, eviscerating presence of Run the Jewels, was directed by Sam Pilling and produced by Pulse Films. Its narrative follows a global summit, its representatives involved in an unflinching verbal battle before a physical fight breaks out and the men are seen grappling one another like cannibalistic monkeys. It ends with one man atop a table, holding the American flag, prepared to skewer his enemy through the chest, stopped only by the cleaning lady who interrupts his act of mania with a look of pitying contempt.
There was no scramble for power in Jamie XX’s Gosh video, however. Casting an eye into a grim, Romain Gavras-created future world controlled by a vacant, emotionless autocrat, its cinematic shots show an army of devoted followers who bow and salute as if they were a robotic army. The tension is whipped up by frenetic samples of jungle and drum and bass, a futuristic soundscape which matches the stark, spooky footage captured in Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang province.
Arriving ahead of the Brexit referendum, Radiohead’s comeback came in the form of Burn the Witch, a song with stress-inducing momentum. The video for the song references both Camberwick Green and The Wicker Man, and while the group are secretive about its meaning, it looks as if it was influenced by British, or maybe even global tensions, and perhaps is even a comment on online public shaming and/or rightwing rhetoric (Trump’s “lock her up” chant springs to mind). Pitchfork described it as “a pointed critique of nativism-embracing leaders across the UK and Europe”, and it was certainly a timely launch during a period in which feelings of insularity, identity and fear were prevalent across the world.
Homages to horror films appeared in videos, too: Quba Tuakli mirrored the bleak and brutalist sound of Rocks FOE’s Law with a startling black and white video. On a housing estate, a police officer is chased and force fed black (or possibly blood red) liquid, a thick poison which emits from the eyes of a female sacrifice and generally makes a gloopy, satanic mess of the pavement.
Grimes’s self-directed video for Kill V Maim was also an end-of-days imagining. Set in an abandoned city, it shows the last surviving humans as a gang of cyber-goth warriors. She and her Sin City via manga cartoon-inspired friends wreck havoc in underground train stations and clubs.
Austra’s Utopia and Voodoo in My Blood by Massive Attack featuring Young Fathers were two videos that presented technology as an ominous enemy. The first employed a speaker-styled black box which isolates its users and leaves them eating maggots – all vaguely possible, all very Black Mirror. The second, meanwhile, saw Rosamund Pike trapped in an underpass and entranced by a floating ball. So entranced that she ends up face against the floor, in agony. Time for a digital cleanse, perhaps.
And what better way to mourn the demolition of the planet and environment through war and human destruction, than enlisting one of nature’s most exquisite creations: Naomi Campbell. During Anonhi’s Drone Bomb Me, the supermodel weeps into the camera (an intense and intimate format employed by Anonhi throughout her Hopelessness campaign).
Thankfully some found the humour in the sadness. Scottish alt-pop hermit Pictish Trail offered a warped myriad of apocalyptic symbolism in his brilliant video for After Life. In it he plays a monk, a poncho-wearing evangelist, a superhero, the grim reaper, a red puffy man and himself. An explosion of imagery, a chaotic collage of crappy graphics and scream faces represent the horrific overwhelm of the modern world. It’s the stuff MTV’s 120 minutes was made for.
Let’s end on a (slightly) more soothing note, with another video from Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. Daydreaming, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, follows Thom Yorke as he walks into various rooms looking lost and confused, before curling up in the foetal position somewhere dark and hoping everything will be OK. Something I think we can all relate to at the end of 2016.