Reliving the ’90s Through 15 Music Videos

One of the major themes that’s emerged from our deep exploration into ’90s music is the link between music and film. Many of us first came to our favorite songs (or several Elastica songs) by hearing them used perfectly in a movie or TV show and, in turn, directors first made themselves noticed by directing some kind of calling-card music video. These intersections really stuck with us; just look over our ’90s song list and see how many of us couldn’t help but talk about the music video when writing about the song.

Now, that cycle is mostly missing a link. Music videos aren’t the cultural drivers they once were. It’s not that there are no videos anymore; it’s just that there are so many other kinds of videos, all vying to eat up our attention and go viral, that music videos no longer get prime placement. I mean, who can focus on them when there are cats vs. shadow cats? Now and then, a music video may break through to the public consciousness—I’m thinking something like the “Single Ladies” video, or “Fancy”—but it’s not like the days when people would come home and turn on TRL.

So, it’s worth going back and revisiting what the 1990s music-video scene was like. I’ve chosen 15 to look at here. I didn’t just want to go and pick out the videos from our Top 90 songs—you can see most of those right in that list. And I didn’t want to talk about the same videos that everyone talks about in the best-of video lists, basically the ones included in the Palm Pictures Director’s Label series. If you haven’t seen those, you definitely should watch all of them. They’re amazing. But you don’t need me to tell you, yet again, that Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are the best video directors out there, and no one needs another list that says that video where the dude is running and on fire is pretty boss.

To recap: These aren’t the best songs of the ’90s (at least according to this website) OR the best videos of the ’90s. But that’s the thing about that decade: You can lop off the top of the iceberg and there’s still so much left to talk about. So, let’s begin.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” – Sinead O’Connor

From the album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990
Director: Unknown

Let’s see: A mostly unbroken close-up of a woman with a closely shaved head singing an emotional song. Anyone think that Tom Hooper totally cribbed off this music video for his Les Misérables? Actually, for all I know, Hooper directed this video and is just stealing from his own bag of tricks. For the life of me, I couldn’t dig up who the director was. While the director remains a total mystery, Sinead O’Connor’s face is instantly recognizable to any ’90s kid, and this video is the reason why.

“Right Now” – Van Halen

From the album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, 1991
Director: Mark Fenske
This is exactly what I mean about the cultural impact of ’90s videos. It didn’t matter what you thought of Van Halen. It didn’t matter what you thought of this song. It didn’t matter if you liked this video or not (which I did). It didn’t even matter whether or not you liked Crystal Pepsi (which I also did). If you were around at the time, you just knew this video. It could be parodied, and everyone would get the joke. It was something we all shared, even if we didn’t want to.

“In Bloom” – Nirvana

From the album Nevermind, 1991
Director: Kevin Kerslake
Throwback videos were big in the ’90s. I know I said I wouldn’t talk about Spike Jonze, but his video for “Buddy Holly” put Weezer in Happy Days, and Kevin Kerslake’s video for “In Bloom” took Nirvana back even further, to The Ed Sullivan Show. Again, I think this says something about the monoculture: Both Happy Days and Ed Sullivan were both things that everyone watched, especially when Ed Sullivan broke the Beatles, which Nirvana is directly referencing. These videos are kind of a cheeky wink to their own popularity, or lack thereof.

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

From the album Ten, 1992
Director: Mark Pellington
I just learned researching this that this video is not about a school shooting; director Mark Pellington, who later went on to direct Arlington Road, says it’s about a suicide instead. So it’s never too late to learn trivia about ’90s videos. The cool thing about this is the way that only Jeremy moves in his scenes—his classmates, family, etc. are all frozen the whole time. I wouldn’t want to watch a whole movie like that, but it works for something short-form.

“Cryin’,” “Crazy,” and “Amazing” – Aerosmith

From the album Get a Grip, 1993
Director: Marty Callner
Ah yes, Aerosmith. This video trilogy is what gave us Alicia Silverstone, and for that I am forever grateful. I try to remember these as the videos where my friends creepily lusted after her, and not the ones where Steven Tyler creepily cast his own daughter as someone who has to win a striptease epic. Famous actors still appear in music videos—it’s one way to get people to pay attention to them over all of the cat videos—but it’s more rare that an actor is known as “that person from that video.” Now, if you want to be broken as a young actor, I guess you have to be on a CW TV show.

“Cut Your Hair” – Pavement

From the album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994
Directors: Dan Koretzky and Rian Murphy
If there’s one thing I’m gutted about, it’s that, more recently than you may think, somebody pulled all of the Pavement/Beavis and Butthead videos off the internet. (Beavis and Butthead themselves are symbols of the death of the music video as a popular cultural touchstone, since, when they came back for that random season in 2011, they disappointingly watched reality shows instead of videos.) “Cut Your Hair” isn’t the video that made Beavis and Butthead admonish Pavement to “try harder”—that was “Rattled by the Rush”—but, as you can see from this video, in the ’90s you didn’t really have to try all that hard. After all, what else were people going to watch? In the mid-’90s, you didn’t want your work to look like it, as said on The Simpsons “smacked of effort.” A couple dudes, a barber shop, and a silly lizard mask are all you need.

“1979” – The Smashing Pumpkins

From the album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, 1995
Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
First off, let me say that Smashing Pumpkins’ video for “Tonight, Tonight” is vastly superior to this one, but that song was popular enough to make the big list, so you can go watch it over there. Instead, here’s the video for “1979,” from the same album and by the same directors, the husband-and-wife team behind Little Miss Sunshine. This video reminds me of our collective second-favorite way to fall in love with a ’90s song, which was to sing it with your friends while driving to nowhere in particular.

“Scream” – Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson

From the album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I , 1995
Director: Mark Romanek
According to my own rules, I shouldn’t include this, because director Mark Romanek—director of Never Let Me Go—has a DVD in that directors’ series I mentioned earlier. But I wanted to mention it briefly because it holds the record as the most expensive music video of all time. Forbes reports it had a budget of $10.7 million. Today, nobody spends that on videos. That is the price of a low-budget movie. Nobody spends more than that on mid-budget movies, so all of the mid-budget directors have migrated to TV. And movie studios spend 20 times that for blockbuster movies. Since videos don’t have the same cultural cachet they once had, to become a blockbuster movie director, you have to make an awesome movie for the price of one “Scream” video. The economics of the world have become very weird.

“6th Avenue Heartache” – The Wallflowers

From the album Bringing Down the Horse, 1996
Director: David Fincher
Obligatory Fincher video! (I would’ve done “Vogue,” but that made our list of best songs.) For a middle-of-the-road band doing a middle-of-the-road song, this video’s got some panache. I think this Fincher kid might be going someplace. Actually, it’s weird, because you think of Fincher’s movies as being macho to the extreme, like Se7en or Fight Club, but then you like at his music videos and it’s mostly for artists like Paula Abdul.

“Sugarcube” – Yo La Tengo

From the album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, 1997
Director: Phil Morrison
This video, from the director of Junebug, is one of my favorite music videos of all time. Still, I guess the Mr. Show elements makes it a product of its time. Well, it’s not just Bob & David who make it especially ’90s, it’s the way that the band plays off the tensions between big, hair metal showmanship and shoegaze indie personas. So long as they can both agree on the Foghat Principle, both sides can get along, right?

“Smack My Bitch Up” – The Prodigy

(NSFW, y’all)
From the album The Fat of the Land, 1997
Director: Jonas Åkerlund
Twist ending! It’s the same twist ending to Metroid, which came out for Nintendo a few years earlier. I don’t know if people would be able to get away with a surprise-it’s-a-woman twist today. So, while we still have a ways to go in terms of gender equality, at least we’ve come far enough so that the ending to this super-explicit Prodigy video now seems quaint. (PS: Speaking of quaint, one of my friends in high school thought the lyrics to this song were saying “snap my picture.”)

“Hypnotize” – The Notorious B.I.G.

From the album Life After Death, 1997
Director: Paul Hunter
It’s Paul Hunter by way of Michael Bay. Boats! Helicopters, plural! Cash money! Hummers! Motorcyles! Mermaids! I meant it when I said that people spent money on music videos at the time. I guess they’re not exaggerating about being so paid, since most of the “story” parts of this video—the parts that they actually stop the song to show—are hilariously absurd. Their only purpose is to burn money. But if I could afford a mermaid, I would do it, too.

“One Week” – Barenaked Ladies

From the album Stunt, 1998
Director: McG
Nostalgia can be a powerful amnesiac, so it’s important to remember that not everything was so rosy in the ’90s. Hence, this collaboration between the Barenaked Ladies and McG. Yes, the same McG behind 3 Days to Kill! To me, their sensibilities do not mesh at all. The Barenaked Ladies (and their fans) are more the type to sit home and play trivial pursuit than slide across the hoods of muscle cars or hang out with sexy dancing lady devils. And yet, under McG’s wing, that’s exactly what they’re doing, but not in a goofy, self-aware way. Even when I was a big fan, I found this video too awkward to watch.

“…Baby One More Time” – Britney Spears

From the album …Baby One More Time
Director: Nigel Dick
I remember where I was the first time I saw this video. I went to visit my sister in college for the first, traveling from the New York suburbs to her college town in Allentown, Pennsylvania alone by bus. She came with a friend of hers to pick me up at the bus station. They told me that we were going to get hoagies at Wawas, then go back to her dorm and watch a Britney Spears music video. I didn’t know what a hoagie, a Wawa, or a Britney Spears was, so I thought college was where you got to learn some kind of secret moon language.

Buried in the ’90s somewhere is the blurry line between Gen X and the Millennials; its exact location is something those of us on the cusp of both generations (ahem) often argue about. This video might be a good point of demarcation for some. If you hit puberty before this video, you’re probably not a Millennial. If you hit puberty because of it, you probably are.

“Coffee and TV” – Blur

From the album 13, 1999
Director: Hammer & Tongs
This is another one that should be disqualified, because I think that Hammer & Tongs has a Director’s Label DVD (possibly), but I just love it so much. How much? Jesse bought two onesies for our soon-to-be-born child related to this video, one with Milk on it, and one with Strawberry Milk on it. Also, I got to meet Milk once. I hope that, for the next decades and beyond, we all absorb some of his determination and pluck.