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Ken Tucker on MTV's Best and Worst Music Videos

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When was the last time someone asked whether you’d seen so-and-so’s new video, that it was a mind-blowing revelation you just had to check out? Can’t remember? Me neither, which leads me to suspect that music videos are the pop- culture revolution that never happened — this despite the fact that an entire generation of rock & roll fans has now grown up with the darn things.

Of course, it takes a great music video to inspire such gloomy thoughts, to make you wonder why there aren’t more good ones. The one essential vid around right now is for Arrested Development’s hit single ”Tennessee.” It’s a pretty terrific piece of music to begin with: Over a thudding, shuffling beat, group leader Todd Thomas and his colleagues sing, chant, and talk about getting back to the country and revitalizing family values in a manner that rings a lot truer than Dan Quayle’s rhetoric. Thomas has an idealized dream of rural Tennessee that’s depicted in the video: a place where African-American families live in peace and (literal) harmony — where, Thomas says, in a phrase at once triumphant and chilling, children ”climb the trees my forefathers hung from.”

In the gorgeous ”Tennessee” video now in heavy rotation on MTV, that’s just what we see: scenes of those trees, as well as a utopian black community painting pictures, making food, playing games, washing clothes, alternated with glimpses of Arrested Development’s performance of the song. Shot in black and white, the video climaxes with a scene of two little children lying on the tar-paper roof of an old shack,listening to the music being made — it’s a lovely, lyrical image. ”Tennessee” is the rare video that stands up to repeated viewings; its editing is so fluid yet so rapid that there always seems to be something new to discover watching again.

If ”Tennessee” is the best music video around right now, what’s the worst? My vote would go to the one Michael Jackson has created for ”Jam,” the fourth single from his tame Dangerous album. The song is an inconsequential bit of pop-funk; its video is expensive-looking kitsch: shots of Jackson singing and flitting around in an abandoned building, contrasted with scenes of people going about their lives in a poor urban area. This material, as directed by David Kellogg, is pretty, if banal; it’s the video’s long coda that’s annoying. Jackson is joined by the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan, and the last 90 seconds of ”Jam” consist of music — Michael showing basketball — Michael how to do the moonwalk and other moves we’ve seen 40 million times. The tone is playful, but Jackson’s overbearing and by now nearly pathetic self-absorption ends up making him seem condescending to his great athlete guest star.

Being exhilarated by ”Tennessee” (a solid A creation) and bothered by ”Jam” (a D) has led me to watch music videos on MTV, VH-1, NBC’s Friday Night Videos, and The Nashville Network with renewed concentration recently, leading to this quick list of current highs and lows.

The Beastie Boys, ”So What ‘Cha Want?”:
It looks as if the camera is sitting on the ground, pointed up at the Boys, who hop and cavort around, thrusting their homely mugs at it. They’re in a park or a forest — trees and bushes all around — and the colors in the video bleed into each other, like a psychedelic dream (or night-mare) that suits the intensity of their rap. A- Billy Ray Cyrus, ”Achy Breaky Heart”:
Creaky, weaky dance instruction is more like it; Cyrus makes his muscles hard and bouncy in this performance vid, as fans squeal and do the clomping Achy Breaky Line Dance that’s already become the country version of the lambada. C-

Wilson Phillips, ”You Won’t See Me Cry”:
A rare example of a song actually enhanced by its video: The tune is pretty, well-sung twaddle; the video is sexy twaddle, as the pop trio trills in gauzy outfits and trembling-lower-lip expressions. If your Victoria’s Secret catalog had a soundtrack, this would be it. B

Nirvana, ”Lithium”:
Good song, mediocre video: As the band mumbles and bellows with entertaining intensity, we’re put to sleep by endless slowed-down shots of Nirvana and its audience in concert. You’ve heard of slow-motion? This is slow-moshing. C+

Megadeth, ”Symphony of Destruction”:
Over lots of screaming about apocalyptic evil, we’re shown scenes of corpulent businessmen stuffing their faces in an expensive restaurant. This is contrasted with shots of impoverished street people and demonstrators being chased and beaten by policemen on horseback. Duh, could Megadeth be Saying Something About the Gluttony of Capitalism? And I thought these guys were supposed to be the thinking kid’s metal act. C-

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