Top 5 Favorite Opulent Music Videos

Welcome to Top 5 Fun Friday, a regularly-occurring blog feature where I give you a list of extremely specific pointless shit from my life no one asked for. Why? Because it’s now 2022 and I still find myself BEGGING the internet for fun little diversions to read, so I have to create some of this shit myself. This week’s list…

Top 5 Favorite Opulent Music Videos

For my best friend Jason’s birthday in early 2021, we did a prototype of what would become Music Video Theatre. We didn’t get it exactly right, but the bones of it were there – a list of music videos selected by the participants then arranged and curated by me in advance, plenty of intoxicants, and friends who love music and riffing on music in equal measure.

Music videos are amazing because the form is so malleable. They can be miniature movie tributes, standalone narrative stories, kickass footage of bands playing in front of enthusiastic fans, weirdo avant garde art pieces or any of a billion other forms. I would know – we’ve now done Music Video Theatre four separate times, which means on those alone I have curated more than 160 music videos and love pretty much every video chosen for a unique reason.

I love the technique of Alexandre Courtes in his video for Cassius’s “Go Up” video of matching two pieces of stock footage on a split screen with each other to create absurd and hilarious pastiche. (Ed. note: I tried and tried to write that less pretentiously, but failed. Just watch the thing. I guarantee you’ll love it.)

And I can equally love Sum 41’s “In Too Deep” video because it’s bright and sunny, reminds me both of being on swim team with my friend Stephen AND an important conversation I had with my mom when Sum 41 played this on Saturday Night Live, and ends with the drummer doing a Triple Lindy off a 10 meter diving platform like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. Great shit!

But of all music video types, it turns out there’s one I want more than any. I want decadence! I want opulence! I want extravagance! If you remember me gushing about “Helena” by My Chemical Romance awhile back (pictured above), you know it’s hard to top a twink goth funeral in an ornamental Catholic church where gorgeous undead little fairies do elaborate Broadway choreography, but I’ll sure try! Here are 5 lavish music videos I absolutely adore!

Madonna – “Vogue”

One of my favorite things on the internet is Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” column at Stereogum where he reviews every Billboard Hot 100 single starting with the list’s inception in 1958 and works his way to the present. His review of “Vogue” begins with discussions of how Madonna brought Harlem drag ball culture into the mainstream for a song that wasn’t even supposed to be a single, but became one of Madonna’s defining hits anyway.

I know basically nothing about Harlem drag ball culture, but I know that when it comes to music videos I definitely want a glamorous black and white tribute to 1940s Hollywood featuring black, Latinx and LGBTQ dancers along with Madge herself looking fucking fabulous and striking a pose. And I know I want it directed by David Fincher. Yes, that David Fincher. The dances, the costumes, the choreography, the cinematography… Jesus Christ, no wonder so many people basically worship Madonna. She knows how to be the biggest star in the entire fucking world WHILE somehow properly paying beautiful tribute to a marginalized subculture. You could go into this video without the subtext of how “vogue-ing” arose as a result of the AIDS scare in the 1980s and still enjoy the hell out of the video.

The fact that it can exist purely as enjoyable entertainment AND as trenchant cultural commentary without annoying anyone looking for one or the other is a goddamn magic trick. I should really watch this video every morning when I wake up. Everyone in it looks like they smell amazing, and since I work from home, I could really use some encouragement to up my personal grooming habits. Not that I’m a slob, but I’m certainly not Greta Garbo, Deitrich or DiMaggio, and sometimes it’s fun to be.

Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight”

Ah, my all-time favorite music video. Based on the 1902 French short film A Trip to the Moon (you can see we’re already DEEP in pretentious waters here), husband and wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris decided on this concept after learning their original concept had been swiped by another band (more on that below). You may be more familiar with these directors from their debut film Little Miss Sunshine.

Smashing Pumpkins were a polarizing band in the 90s. I generally either loved or hated them based on who in my high school I was trying to impress, get to like me, or make out with. But I always loved this video. It begins as a couple takes an elaborate jaunt from the earth to the moon via zeppelin where we meet alien creatures who explode when hit with an umbrella. After escaping, we end up on the bottom of the ocean with sea monsters where no less than King Neptune himself, a giant octopus, and some mermaids put on a show before returning our heroes to the surface via giant air bubble. It bears mention the set design, while gorgeous, basically looks like it was created by a rinky dink local theatre production, only adding to its charm.

I learned that one of the biggest challenges in getting this video made was in procuring enough period piece costumes since James Cameron, filming Titanic at the time, had basically rented everything in the city. They figured out a workaround, and the result is this beautiful piece of filmmaking. The lighting, the makeup, the costumes, the silent-era iconography… it’s all a portal into another world, and it’s soundtracked by my favorite Smashing Pumpkins song. Beautiful.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Aeroplane”

So, the original idea for “Tonight, Tonight” was a big Busby Berkeley-style production with people diving into champagne glasses and stuff, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers had beaten them to the punch with this video. I’m glad they did because I think Smashing Pumpkins’ ultimate product for “Tonight, Tonight” fits their song better. But I fucking love this video, too! So who knows!

This video has so much going on at all times, it feels like watching the inner workings of a fancy watch. One moment there’s elaborate synchronized swimming routines to enjoy. The next there’s chicks on trapeze swinging back and forth while dancers below grab old-timey semaphore paddles like they used to have at airports to direct traffic and compose routines with them. Sometimes you can just enjoy the angular Tim Burton-esque architecture of the set design. One thing I can do without is Flea’s seemingly constant mugging with his ugly expressions and tongue flapping everywhere, but otherwise this is the visual experience of drinking champagne and wearing sequins.

It also bears mention that pretty much every member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers exist in a state beyond my wildest fitness goals. If I looked like any single one of them, I wouldn’t ever wear a shirt either.

Culture Club – “Karma Chameleon”

As the opening strings of “Karma Chameleon” come on, a graphic appears onscreen reading “Mississippi – 1870” as African Americans stack steamer trunks on the banks of the river. Oh god, you think, worried you’re about to watch something that’s aged terribly and that just by virtue of watching it, you’re going to deserve to be cancelled. White Southern belles stroll into frame, many carrying parasols, and we pan over to Boy George sitting on top of… well, I can’t really tell what in the hell he’s sitting on, but whatever.

More and more people continue to show up in frame both black and white, mixing and matching between high and low class, and thankfully no one does anything offensive or off-putting. They all sway along to the song until a riverboat shows up, everyone piles on, and the good times continue. At one point a man gets a straight flush at a poker table (Sidenote: Do directors know any other hand of poker?), gets caught cheating, and the boat passengers make him literally walk the plank until he falls into the river, at which point, he seems oddly okay with everything.

The whole thing is deeply silly and innocuous. But it’s got a fucking riverboat! More music videos should have riverboats! And what can I say? I’m a sucker for period piece costuming and set design. I must have some musical theatre dweeb just aching to get out of me somewhere, but I suppose my short attention span means limiting my exposure to music videos of 4 minutes or less is about as much of this shit as I can take.

Hole – “Celebrity Skin”

Look, this isn’t popular to admit, but I’ve always been extremely attracted to Courtney Love. I have no idea why and I’m not thrilled about it, but we like what we like. I fully admit I think she’s hot when she looks like she just came off a 3-day bender and got doused by a huge puddle from some 18-wheeler on Colfax, which is probably the most common way people picture her.

I choose to picture her in this video looking glamorous, dolled-up, and shredding that big ol’ distorted riff over and over again. The whole thing takes place in an elegant ballroom with fancy curtains, an opulent stage, and dancers on wires twirling from the ceiling. This is DEEPLY my shit. I love videos that take place in large, weird, fancy rooms like “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers or on fashion runways with bright, severe lighting like “Up All Night” by Unwritten Law or “Too Funky” by George Michael. I also like… you know what, I’m going to stop now because we’ll be here a month of Sundays if I start down that road.

Suffice to say my current favorite medium of artistic expression is the music video. It can be pretty much anything you want it to be for 3-7 minutes, and I feel fortunate that I have a bunch of friends who love them as much as I do. I can’t wait for them to see my crazy, opulent choice for the next Music Video Theatre. It put me on my ass…

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