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So—who'd have thunk it? Despite the best efforts of the streaming internet, the humble dance music video made a comeback. In AD 2018. But is it that much of a surprise? Eighteen years into the new millennium and we've yet to produce something that doesn't hark back to the past somehow—be it fashion, music, dance, or opinions. The past, we dig it truly so is it really a surprise that we returned to the synchronised visual movements (new pet term for dance video, FYI) of the days past?
When MTV first plugged itself in in 1981, the absolute boom of the mighty dance video began—bold set pieces, an unrelenting concept and a crane shot or two were common. The more your video was played on the TV Set the higher your tune grossed. Though he was churning out hit after hit before the sharp-shouldered, mulleted 80s, this was Michael Jackson's time. Massive set piece after set piece played on the channel from a very Fosse inspired "The Way You Make Me Feel" to the Ancient Egyptian moves of "Remember The Time" (that's how good the videos were—why the Pharaohs, Michael? Doesn't matter, this is catchy AF). Madge got in on the action too, of course, and along with a slew of long-lasting one hit wonders, the 80s and 90s were the music videos' hayday.
That pesky millennium again, ruining our fun—well, maybe that's a bit too soon. I'm sure children of a certain generation remember Robbie Williams trying to get the attention of a beautiful female disc-spinner by any means necessary in 2001's "Rock DJ" or what he got up to with Nicole Kidman in a 1950s snow covered Christmas for a "Somethin' Stupid" video during his crooner phase (less said, the better) but it wasn't until 2006, when Top of the Pops, a British Institution that survived the polyester and bad dancing of the 80s aired for the last time, and the music video was left to float downstream and out of sight for another twelve years.
But leave it to the internet to make a killing. It may have failed with Napster, but around the time of Top of The Pops popping its clogs, everyone I knew started quietly hooking up the AV cords of their iPods (yes, iPods—remember those massive white blocks of media) to a secretive media platform called Limewire (why it's called that, we'll never know) and for a short time Limewire was the wire from the charts straight to the cool kids.
Again, the internet's evil plan to entice you to listen to music you don't pay for was foiled, with LimeWire forced to pack up shop. That is, until 2009 when Spotify came on the scene. At first hush-hush, it tip-toed successfully onto the scene and was allowed to flourish. As the first decade of the new century shifted to the second, the only naysayer of Spotify was Taylor Swift. Every single other pop starlet, grizzled rocker, indie pixie, or hip hop gangster raised a glass of the fizzy stuff to the (mostly free) streaming database.
In all this flurry of tech, the visual went purely out the window—that is until 2017/18. YouTube, that addictive, ten-minute-at-a-time TV station, started slowly uploading MTV's golden years to its channels. They knew. They must have known that that would be catnip to the modern songster. "That could be me!" they thought wickedly: "I could live forever on the internet, and no one would be able to stop me and my residual check!"
Well maybe it didn't go exactly like that. A lot of the modern boom doesn't offer anything opposing the norm—a 4 minute gangster film with a ride, lots of money, lots of butt, and champagne. Here, after my meandering intro, I want to share the five best music dance videos of 2018 that truly honoured the creative spirit of summer '81. To be clear, it's not at all about the performer or even the song—it's about the choreography, pure and distilled, odd or funny or surprising, or used in a different way—the dancing is the thing. Enjoy.
5. Moonchild - "The List"
YouTube is a beast that has grown somewhat. It's got algorithms too. Ha. It's got algorithm—the fact that rhythm exists in a situation that is based solely on data and deep maths, ha. Anyway. I have algorithms to thank for putting me onto Jazz-funk three piece outfit Moonchild and their charming, self-deprecating jazz loop of "The List"—an infections, cute, happy tune about feeling insufficient in pining. I know, but it works fabulously. The tune itself is a beautiful journey in itself, but it's the direction of the video that puts this on my list. The music, if you listen carefully has a tap tap rhythm that counts the eight beats in a bar of music, continuously, something reflected in the performers tapping in the video. This modern day Germaine Kelly elevates the often mundane shop into a classy, effortless, tap routine that reflects the infectious beat of the jazzy refrain of Moonchild's resident siren listing listlessly her failings to get over her crush "when you were talking I was listening/and I still can't win." Never mind, there's a fantastic tap dancer going at it next to the bake beans. That would cheer me up. Bonus points for the tie-dye.
4. Christine and The Queens - "Girlfriend"
Ah, Christine. Or Heloise. Or just Queen of All. She captured Britain when she was extraordinary in a spotlight with her amazing four male dancers somehow making music with their bodies to the electric "Tilted." Admit it, when she goes into that verse in French, you were hooked. After much appreciation, video tributes in dance studios, awards left and right, Heloise had to follow up, and follow up good. Quietly, on her YouTube channel, this anthem to the 80s funk emerged out of nowhere, and it was... perfect. Dancing on a roof reminiscent of many a movie musical number, instead of Bernstein, we have a fantastic Quincy Jones style backing track full of a plethora of culture and diversity dancing in tandem with her. This dance, while restrained, exudes power and confidence: she squares up with boys and girls alike, and shimmies as much as she flexes—here is a guiding light for LGBT, multi-cultural representation in modern music. And it's catchy AF. Allez, Christine!
3. Half. Alive - "Still Feel"
Ooh now. For all the complaining, sometimes YouTube gets it right, and even manifests a sleeper hit. This big tune from a little known band, especially in the UK, half.alive, are just, purely fascinating in this tightly choreographed video. Is it isolations? Is it contemporary? Is it jazz? I don't care, 'cause I'm dancing and/or staring stock still in wonder. What's great about the choreo here is you can tell they aren't dancers (sorry guys, the tune is a banger, don't forget I said that) so the choreo has been specially created to sit in their wheelhouse, and the timing is constantly knife-sharp perfect. Sitting on a sofa making shapes (and who hasn't done that), walking through a clothes rack, and coming out the other side wearing stuff from said rack (er... no, haven't done that) in an existential garage with a low ceiling and a penchant for changing light cues on beat... I mean, it's mental, but brilliant! Part study, part gig, part dance fest, a song about possibly the limbo state between life and death, that semi-consciousness as a groovy tune, and in all one take—it's just fantastic. And with 12 million views, an album they are now getting to tour, and more and more word of mouth—this might just be their year.
2. Jungle - "Heavy, California"
Despite the title of the song, Jungle is a London band that has been underground for some time, until this tune, and this video. The band aren't in it at all, but their presence and autonomy is still felt with the driving rhythm of the music in direct juxtaposition to the high, drifting vocal. It's incredibly percussive and has a driving reference of a three note riff on the guitar the dancers mercilessly press upon as if it's a Happy Button—it just hits that dopamine centre in your brain every time. The start, with the main male dancer MJ-ing on his own in the grass is enough, but then the shot widens, and this cult of beautiful, presumably Californian dancers wittily, astutely, and funkadelically elevate your plane, somehow. Mostly in one shot, the cross sections of dancers melt in and out of shot, all cooler than cool in beige, sunglasses, with toned skin and muscle on show. The main guy backflips casually around them as the sun on the beautiful lawn fades—that shot at the end with the sunset shining through their moving bodies is pure art—and our main guy gives us a deliberate nod, quite literally to that three note lick and then they all get in a yellow sports car and drive home at sunset. I mean. And on grass too! Do you know how hard it is to get traction on grass? My god! The struggle paid off. Guest appearances on Ellen and Jimmy Kimmell followed, as well as a home-turf turn on Jools Holland. Jungle's future is looking brighter than the sun over the surf. If this is what California is like, sign me up.
1. Childish Gambino - "This is America"
Well. It had to be number one didn't it? The music video equivalent of E=MC2, War and Peace, and the invention of the atom in one video just over four minutes long, Donald/Childish released this while everyone was busy watching him triumph in his first go at hosting Saturday Night Live. There was then a rare occasion where there were waves of reaction - those who don't watch SNL who got a notification, and those who do watch/were busy, learning something was going on and slowly finding out, going "Oh my good....!". He pulled off the impossible—the ability to surprise this jaded, thick-skinned new generation, and a few of the older ones, too. And honestly, what a thing was going on. Many inches of newspaper column, internet paragraph, and interview have taken apart every shot of this masterpiece, every rich seam of comment and reference has been deciphered, every riddle solved—but at the heart of it, there's some epic dancing happening—made even the more with the comment Gambino slaps on it, making the shadows it casts longer, deeper, more frightening, somehow.
In it, Sherrie Silver references modern dance moves that evolve in the black community from the floss to traditional African dances, turning the relentless millennial referencing on its head and making it both new and old—and in Silver, we have the first name choreographer of the decade—following in Fosse, Pina and Thwarpe's footsteps. When receiving the award for the video on Childish Gambino's behalf, London born 23-year old Silver introduced herself as the choreographer not only on the world stage, but also in front of music stars from every corner: R' n'B, Hip Hop, Country, Pop—and she had to pause for their applause. Choreographers and dancers, considered one a penny in this new decade of making the star look good, finally had a name on the roster—and for a video like this, it couldn't have come at a better time.
So there we have it: a lengthy, slightly silly, not terribly well informed look at five of the best choreography in dance videos of 2018, just before the New Year rings in—excited to see what '19 has got for us. For a little perspective, in '99, the decade of "Oops I Did It Again," "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" and "Spice Up Your Life," we're already doing ok.
Special mentions go to: the ever effervescent and brave Janelle Monae with her Prince tribute, "Make Me Feel," where she only needs to step a toe on time and it looks like pure dance, a surprising and epic return to the music scene for Chaka Khan with "Sugar," a print clash of funk and soul in an abandoned petrol station, where the editing is as much a dancer as the cooler than cool dancers themselves—watch it, you'll see and finally the evergreen J-Lo and Dinero with Cardi B and DJ Khaled—honestly—the woman doesn't age—and proves she's on top of the modern game with a group dance that's full of swagger and isolations as she sings about having money to spare. The true boss of 2018.
So. That should be enough to start. Enjoy!
And remember—if you get drunk this NYE, and think you can dance, don't worry, you totally can.
Till next time,