MTV’s Video Music Awards were first broadcast in 1984 — the same year that Cybotron’s “Techno City” put a name to the electronic-music movement that had been bubbling up in Detroit since 1981, when Cybotron’s “Alleys of Your Mind” and A Number of Names’ “Sharevari” came out within weeks of one another. (Coincidentally, 1981 also marked the launch of MTV.) Somehow, though, it took 28 years for the VMAs to get around to adding the category of “Best Electronic Dance Music Video.”
The timing is hardly surprising: As you may have heard, electronic dance music, or EDM, as many of its American fans have branded it, is kind of a big deal right now. And the nominees for “Best Electronic Dance Music Video” are nothing if not representative of the pop-rave sound reigning over American tastes right now. Calvin Harris and Martin Solveig hold it down for electro-pop crossover; Avicii and Skrillex represent overground dance music’s twin poles of shiny tunefulness and amped-up aggression. A-Trak and Armand van Helden, a.k.a., Duck Sauce, are the lone outliers, with a song (“Big Bad Wolf”) more in keeping with classic American club music than the scene’s more newfangled permutations. Leaving aside the merits of the individual videos — which, I know, is kind of the point — it would be nice to see Duck Sauce take home the Moonman, if only for a sense of historic justice. Chicago house music, from which “Big Bad Wolf” heavily draws, kicked off in earnest in 1985.
Meanwhile, back to the videos: What else to say except that they reflect the current moment pretty well? Calvin Harris’ “Feels So Close” would work just as well as a commercial for mobile phones or soda pop, as would the clips for Avicii’s “Le7els” and Solveig’s “The Night Out.” (The latter is charming enough, but it’s not a patch on his 2010 video for “Smash,” filmed at Paris’ Roland Garros and featuring cameos from Gael Montfils and Novak Djokovic.) It’s left to Duck Sauce and the indefatigable Skrillex to come up with visuals as provocative as their music.
If it’s provocation that you’re looking for, there’s plenty more to be found burrowing a little deeper into YouTube. Here are five videos that shoulda, coulda been contenders. Or maybe not: A few are pretty out there. But isn’t getting “out there” what MTV’s Moonman symbolized in the first place?
ZTT “Vulkan Alarm” (Turbo)
We’ve had slow food, slow travel, slow parenting, even slow gardening. With the video for their song “Vulkan Alarm!,” Tiga and Boys Noize’s ZTT threw down yet another gauntlet in the slow revolution: Slow pyrotechnics. A world away from the flash-bang-thank-you-mang excess of your typical rave fireworks, their “Vulkan Alarm!” video turns the spectacle of a burning car into something almost Tantric. Drop-addled ravers might find the clip’s relative inaction intolerable, but the real-time imagery of a Mercedes self-immolating proves the perfect complement for a tune that revels in incremental modulations and painstaking oscillations, filters sizzling like blistering paint.
Nina Kraviz “Ghetto Kraviz” (Rekids)
There’s nothing terribly new about the video for Nina Kraviz’ “Ghetto Kraviz”; dimly lit dance videos seem to be the norm these days for electronic-music labels on a limited budget. But director David Terranova did it better than the rest with this clip, filmed inside the crumbling, post-industrial husk of Berlin’s Arena Club. Dancers Georgina Philp and Jon Hester bring the kind of moves all too rarely seen outside specialist subcultures, incorporating elements of breaking, voguing, and footwork, and Kraviz strikes a provocatively tough pose — a rejoinder to other female electronic musicians reduced to stripping down to their skivvies and rolling around in a bathtub full of milk.
KiNK “Hand Made: The Making” (Rush Hour)
Sure, the production values on this are basically nil, and it’s not even a “real” music video. (Then again, that hardly matters these days.) But at a time when store-bought sample packs and uncredited ghost producers are increasingly sucking the creativity out of commercial dance music, the Bulgarian producer KiNK’s behind-the-scenes clip of the making of his single “Hand Made” isn’t just refreshing; it’s practically a public service announcement for aspiring producers who believe that EDM can be DIY. Download all the Mega Tech House Bangin’ Loops ‘n’ FX, Volume 37 packs you want: You’ll never come up with something this exhilarating using canned loops and one-shots.
Objekt “Cactus” (Hessle Audio)
After I wrote about the “weird inversion of dance-music energies” in Objekt’s “Cactus,” the Berlin-based producer tweeted back at me that he considered the tune a “joke” — nothing more, he said, than his tongue-in-cheek attempt to replicate Rusko’s wobble. (In that case, he failed pretty spectacularly, but I’m not complaining.) The song’s video is perfectly in keeping with his sardonic attitude. Bearing the caption, “In Which I Try To Dismantle The Master’s House With The Master’s Tools,” the single-camera, single-take video features a young man in a sport coat who paints the word “patriarchy” on a plywood board, destroys the sign with a sledgehammer, and then hangs around a while longer in his suburban driveway, alternately reading (Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech, according to the filmmaker’s comment on YouTube) and chain-smoking. It reminds me of when I went to see a Christian evangelist revival show where body-builders and ultimate fighters ripped up phone books and karate-chopped blocks of bricks with their bare hands (and the power of the Lord) — except in the extreme inverse. Cynical? You could argue that. A comment on YouTube perhaps sums it up best: “the rudeness of this tune is making me want to punch the guy in the video even harder than i would have otherwise.” Mission accomplished, then.
WhoMadeWho “Running Man & the Sun (Pitfalls of Modern Man)” (Kompakt)
Part Office Space, part Fight Club, part Scandinavian Wes Anderson with a structure inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s interlocking narratives, WhoMadeWho’s short film “Running Man & the Sun (Pitfalls of Modern Culture)” is as smart (and stylish) as the Copenhagen band’s 2012 album Brighter, released on Cologne’s (incredibly stylish) Kompakt label. Anyone who has spent any time among European creative-industry types will be familiar with the sans-serif elegance that’s being lampooned here, right down to the name of the fictional agency in the film: Ümlaüt Creatïve. The pre-mid-life crisis at the heart of the story might not resonate with EDM’s underage masses — nor, in fact, the chapter headings of “Side A” and “Side B” — but who cares: Aging ravers turned corporate stiffs finally have their own generation’s equivalent of the Talking Heads’ “My God, how did I get here?” — a question that feels especially appropriate in the year that EDM officially came to the VMAs.