The nominations for MTV’s Video Music Awards were released this week, and amongst the usual shower of nondescript commercial bilge, there was the reminder that some artists are actually using their videos as a medium for something more than rump-shaking and product placement: the curious, three-year-old “Best Video with a Social Message” category, for which nominees include noted political commentators Beyoncé, Macklemore, and Kelly Clarkson. Although we can’t guarantee that any of this year’s crop will make any great impact on you, here are some excellent music videos — past and present — that just might.
TLC — “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg”
Remember this video? Apart from the fact that it accompanied TLC’s first single and features the trio looking terrifyingly young, it’s chiefly notable for Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes pioneering the idea of condom-as-fashion-item. “It’s our fashion statement,” she explained at the time. “When kids see the condoms, they ask why do we wear condoms and talk about condoms? That brings up the issue of safe sex. The point is to make condoms something kids aren’t afraid of or ashamed of.”
U.N.K.L.E. feat. Nick Cave — “Money and Run”
One of the best videos of last year, and a terrifying fable about the unpleasantness that can lie beneath the mannered façade of the people who populate our upper classes. It’s a representation of the brutality of the class divide and of judging people by their socioeconomic status, and to be honest, it’s pretty hard to watch. (And NSFW, too.)
Public Enemy — “Fight the Power”
A suitably incendiary video for an incendiary song, drawing on a heap of old civil rights-era footage and then contrasting it with a rally in Brooklyn. “We ain’t goin’ out like that ’63 nonsense,” proclaimed Chuck D as conservative radio hosts everywhere quivered in anger and fear.
Suzanne Vega — “Luka”
The child abuse-centric narrative in the song was heartbreaking enough, but it was rendered even more sad and distressing by the accompanying video, wherein child actor Jason Cerbone acted out the role of Luka in a manner that was all too convincing.
Pearl Jam — “Jeremy”
On a similar note: don’t bully your fellow students, kids. Especially the quiet ones.
Radiohead — “All I Need”
An examination of the parallel lives of two kids the same age in two very different parts of the world. One of them lives in a comfortable middle-class Western environment, the other works in a shoe factory in an unnamed third-world country — and the twist is that the latter is making the shoes that the former ends up wearing. The video was made for MTV’s EXIT campaign, to raise awareness of child exploitation and trafficking, and while the concept is simple, the execution is effective and powerful.
Anti-Flag — “1 Trillion Dollar$”
The eponymous sum is the amount of money that the US has spent on the war in Iraq, and this video devotes itself to discussing the various other things one could buy with that cash. It’s pretty depressing, to be honest. (Feel free to mute the song.)
Soul Asylum — “Runaway Train”
A song about kids who run away from home, intercut with posters of kids who have actually run away from home. The sentiment was entirely laudable, and probably fairly effective, too, given how popular this song was on its release in 1993 — apparently. (Even if, in your correspondent’s native Australia, half the kids in the video turned up buried in the Belanglo State Forest, the victims of backpacker-stalking serial killer Ivan Milat.)
Concrete Blonde — “Joey”
From a similar era, this video makes explicit the meaning of the song it accompanies — it’s about the emotional and social destruction wrought by alcoholism. It’s rendered all the more moving by the fact that, as discussed on Flavorwire a while back, it’s almost certainly about Johnette Napolitano’s real-life lover Marc Moreland, who died of alcohol-related liver failure in 2002.
M.I.A. — “Born Free”
Love it or hate it, this video hammers home its point about racism and discrimination with all the subtlety of an emotional sledgehammer.