‘I Want My MTV’ Authors Pick 1991’s 10 Best Videos
Experts go deep on clips by Nirvana and Madonna from a year of "Good Vibrations" and Color Me Badds
Nineteen-ninety-one was maybe the most chaotically diverse year in MTV’s history, the real story being that that multiple stories were being shouted simultaneously. Despite the myth that grunge killed hair metal, the shiny suits and elaborate sets of Nelson’s “After the Rain” sidled up next to the rusty monochrome minimalism of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Guns N’ Roses were trashing cars for “Don’t Cry” and Extreme didn’t need “More Than Words.” More than ever before, MTV’s pop playlist was being crashed by hip-hop (via Naughty by Nature), metal (via Metallica) and “Rico Suve” (via Gerardo). Madonna, Chris Isaak, Marky Mark, Public Enemy and the Chili Peppers made black-and-white videos cool again — though Hammer was still blowing bazllions to dance with the Addams Family. No one knows more about music videos than former SPIN editor Craig Marks and SPIN contributor Rob Tannenbaum, the authors of I Want My MTV, the definitive, exhaustive, hopelessly readable oral history of the music video revolution (find it in our holiday gift guide!). We had them follow us down our nostalgia wormhole and pick the 10 best clips from a year of “Good Vibrations” and Color Me Badds. Come on join the joyride.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Give It Away”
Marks: Directed by Stéphane Sednaoui. He actually did some photo shoots for SPIN back in the day. Frankly, and I’ll speak for Rob here, neither of us are huge Chili Peppers fans, but I think it is a great video. It’s the first one where they really got it right… Flea admits they really didn’t know what they were doing as far as videos go. They just sort of jumped around and acted like west coast frat boys, punk rock frat boys. Stéphane really gave them an aesthetic: he put them in a desert, spray-painted them, and let them do their hippie, weirdo-glam thing… Interviewing Flea was like interviewing Ad-Rock in that he was very earnest. The kind of goofy thing has been long exorcised from his personality, at least in an interview format.
Tannenbaum: I think once you reach middle age, being known as the guy who head-bangs wearing only a tube-sock on your dick is something you want to distance yourself from a little bit.
Marks: At least I do.
Guns ‘N Roses – “Don’t Cry”
Tannenbaum: “Don’t Cry” is part of the Use Your Illusion trilogy, which everyone involved just absolutely fucking rolls their eyes at. The group’s manager Doug Goldstein said, “To be honest I blank on what the Use Your Illusion videos cost because they all seem like the same video to me.” There’s so much shit going on in “Don’t Cry” that it almost begins to feel like a joke. There’s all this ominous symbolic imagery that races by so quickly it just can’t mean anything. There’s a baby and then there’s a black crow, and there’s Axl marching through a snowstorm, then there’s a gun, and a cemetery, and helicopters, and a cat-fight between two women, which everyone in the band finds hysterically funny.
Marks: Weren’t these based on a book he read?
Tannenbaum: He wanted to do something with a friend of his… It’s not Josh Richman, although he is credited at the beginning of “Don’t Cry” as a co-writer. Which is another funny thing about “Don’t Cry.” It has opening credits? Which is just so fucking pretentious. This was the part where Axl becomes an auteur, and it probably is the beginning of the end of the band. Not only is he spending all of the band’s money — he’s spending a million dollars per video — he’s showing up late to all of them.
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Marks: That is a no-brainer. We couldn’t interview Kurt, obviously, but what was interesting was interviewing Sam Bayer, who directed the video. He explicated the fact that he and Kurt did not get along at all. Kurt hated him.
Tannenbaum: I mentioned to Dave Grohl that Sam Bayer had felt that Kurt hated him, and Grohl laughed and said, “Welcome to the club.”
Marks: This was Sam’s first-ever music video, which is kind of amazing, if you think about it. [Bayer] recruited the cheerleaders from various strip-clubs in L.A., and Kurt found them to be too pretty. Bayer was shocked. The strippers all had bruised knees and yet Kurt thought that they were too standard… When the video was shot and ready to be edited, Sam Bayer was obsessed with the janitor and the other sort of ancillary characters in the video. Every time he gave the label and Kurt a cut to look at, there wasn’t enough Nirvana in it. They fired him from the job and gave it to this editor that David Fincher works with all the time [Angus Wall], so an Academy-Award-winning film editor is the one who actually edited “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” For a year all Bayer got were calls from people who wanted the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” look. And he made an Ozzy video that looked like it, he made a Ramones video that looked like it. As Bayer puts it, all the videos of the time had been in this sort of “Fincher blue,” that dusky blue and green lighting. Then Bayer came along and his video was all yellow and brown like a dirty couch.
Public Enemy – “Can’t Truss It”
Tannenbaum: A difficult video to watch. Public Enemy’s videos were always counter-programming what was going on in other hip-hop videos. I think “Cant Truss it” is specifically a reaction against MC Hammer. Hank Shocklee, who was a producer in Public Enemy, talked about how rap was on an affluence kick, so he wanted to remind rap fans not only what the roots of hip-hop were, but what the roots of the black experience in America were. They made a video that was about slavery. It’s the only video I know of that alludes to rape, and there is whipping, and it ends with a lynching. A little bit like Madonna, they were daring MTV to play it or not play it. Chuck said, “We learn about slavery in every high school, but they don’t repeat it like a video. You learn it, you take a test, and you move on. But videos repeat over and over again.” So he had this very canny idea that music videos were a good way to teach history to kids by virtue of the fact that it wasn’t just, “we’re going to spend a week talking about Alex Haley.”
Tom Petty – “Into the Great Wide Open”
Marks: Petty, out of all the people I interviewed, was the most surprisingly enthusiastic about music videos. He really loved making music videos for the most part. His daughter now is a video director; she did the Beyoncé video, “Countdown.” “Into the Great Wide Open” had a lot of stars in it. It was possibly the first time a lot of MTV viewers were introduced to Johnny Depp, who plays the lead, Eddie Rebel. The video is loosely based on Axl Rose, who Petty knew through MTV when he and GN’R played “Free Fallin’ ” together for the VMAs.
Tannenbaum: I find Petty to be really interesting in the larger history of MTV, because he’s a guy who, a lot like ZZ Top, was not really great looking or particularly young, but figured out his own place on MTV. Like Phil Collins, or Huey Lewis. They did it by being goofy. It’s hard to say how Petty did it.
R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion”
Tannenbaum: “Losing My Religion” is a great story because it was almost a huge failure. The guy who directed it, Tarsem Singh, said the first eight hours of the shoot were just dreadful. He ended up in the bathroom vomiting because he was so upset with how it wasn’t working out. And it wasn’t unusual for directors to be vomiting, but it was usually because of drugs, not because of stress. He had some really elaborate ideas for the imagery. It was a mix of Russian Constructivist imagery, Caravaggio paintings, and this Indian ideal of angels and gods. But the thing that comes to my mind first is Peter Buck, and what a fucking horrible time he’s having in this video. No rock star has ever looked so unhappy in music videos than Peter Buck. And Stipe talked about that with us too and said it was kind of a joke within the band.
Marks: I also think it’s a total star turn on Stipe’s part. That’s one of the things the video did, it really made him one of the most charismatic people in music. What those who cultishly knew before, the video brought out in front of everybody across the country. And he was a good dancer.
Tannenbaum: Though he admits he basically stole that from David Byrne.
Metallica – “Enter Sandman”
Marks: Directed by Wayne Isham, who did all the famous Bon Jovi videos. Basically the story is they wanted the video to be about things you had nightmares about, so the band, Lars, James, Wayne and Wayne’s production partner all sat in a hotel room and came up with all these different nightmare scenarios… There’s good stories in the book about the kids who sort of played stuntmen in the video. There’s the stuntboy at the end who is chased by a Mack truck. He’s the son of a super famous stunt man who just died not too long before.
Tannenbaum: The kid was Troy Robinson and his dad was Dar Robinson.
Marks: When the kid makes that move where he jumps out of the way of the truck at the last second, which all actually happened, all his dad’s stuntman buddies were there to high five him and cheer him on. It’s kind of a beautiful story.
Chris Isaak – “Wicked Game”
Tannenbaum: Chris Isaak, “Wicked Game” is the pinnacle of “let’s put a hot chick in the video,” which I’m convinced REO Speedwagon invented before MTV. There’s a video where they have a hot female psychiatrist, and it’s absolute tokenism that the psychiatrist is a hot woman. It’s also an interesting landmark because of who directed it, Herb Ritts. Especially in the first few years of MTV, directing a music video was not something you were proud to have done. If you were directing music videos it was because you were essentially unemployable at anything else. Herb Ritts was one of the two or three most famous fashion photographers at the time, and it was a career move for a fashion photographer… People always talk about this being one of the sexiest videos of all time. Chris Isaak had an interesting perspective on it. He said the theme of the video is that Helena Christensen is just totally ignoring him throughout the whole thing. So It’s interesting that people find a beautiful Danish model ignoring a man to be sexy.
Marks: Well, it’s a little sexy when they’re topless
Tannenbaum: Well, yeah, they’re both great looking. I don’t know about Craig but I’d probably have sex with either one of them. But they’re not staring lovingly into each others eyes. She looks so fucking bored that at one point she just starts staring into her chipped fingernails. It’s like, “Hmm… Kiss Chris Isaak, or go get a manicure?”
Geto Boys – “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”
Marks: One thing about Yo! MTV Raps specifically and MTV’s late-but-still-important adaptation of hip-hop, that’s when people found out that Seattle hip-hop existed, when you saw a Sir Mix-A-Lot video, and the first time you found out there was hip-hop in Texas when the Geto Boys. Scary video, I think. Especially the Bushwick Bill scene at the end when he’s the evil trick-or-treater. It’s a very literal video; If there’s a line in the song you see it visually represented in the video. It’s not elegant. It’s dark and dank and you imagine that’s the way those dudes sort of lived, a little bit. It’s about paranoia, and that’s the feeling you get after watching it.
Madonna – “Justify My Love”
Tannenbaum: My favorite quotes about “Justify My Love” came from [actor] Tony Ward, who’s in the video and was dating Madonna at the time. He talks about them spending a lot of time watching old Italian movies. Fellini, Rossellini, and that Pasolini movie that’s got the shit-eating in it. He also says the idea of “Justify My Love” came from him, which, uh, hmmmmm, not so sure about that. Maybe, although I’m not sure about how large his other body of video work is.
Marks: He was fantastic in one of Belinda Carlisle’s videos.
Tannenbaum: One of the cool things about “Justify My Love” is that it’s in black and white, and ’91 becomes a big year for black and white in MTV. Just because, as in a lot of pop music, if you want to be cool you have to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. So huge Technicolor videos had become really significant with intricate lighting, and Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who directed this, went back to black and white. The video is just pure provocation. There’s no plot to it, there’s no relationship to the song, and in fact it’s a pretty lousy song… I remember seeing it and even though I was way past the point of being 13 years old at the time my reaction was really like a 13 year old, like, “They’re really doing it!”
Marks: There’s no Madonna quotes in the book. There’s no great mystery, she just declined to be interviewed. We didn’t rent a plane or anything and skywrite, but she doesn’t do a lot of press these days.
Tannenbaum: We offered to make out in front of her in spirit of the “Justify My Love” video.