Beyoncé Knowles' first solo outing, last year's soundtrack cut "Work It Out," a post-disco/funk work-out that positioned the curvy bottle blonde as an MTV generation Tina Turner, wasn't exactly a smash, but it hinted at what was to come. Enter "Crazy In Love": Armed with a horn-y Chi-Lites sample, several pairs of hot-pants and some neon Barbie Doll pumps (not to mention that voice, which puts Mariah to shame--almost), the lead single from Beyoncé's debut album was hands-down the song of the summer and easily the best single of the year. The bootylicious video, directed by newcomer Jake Nava--who went on to direct the baby-oil-logged follow-up "Baby Boy" and Kelis's "Milkshake" (see #6 below)--pairs the singer with thug-toy Jay-Z, who seemingly blows up Beyoncé's car…while she's still in it. Beyoncé rises from the flames like a pimped-out phoenix and closes out the clip with some inventive runway-inspired choreography in the hottest alleyway I've never seen. Beyoncé is allowed more room to experiment vocally on Dangerously In Love, the best mainstream R&B album this year, exploring softer registers and lathering on the coquettish persona that was only hinted at in her work with D.C. Added guilty pleasure points for a sexed-up, promo-only [insert sad face] redo of 50 Cent's "In Da Club" (see #7).


 The sad sequence of headlines went something like this: February 14, 2003, "Madonna Defends Her Violent 'American Life' Video"; March 28, 2003, "Madonna Edits Controversial 'American Life' Video"; and, just two days later, "Madonna Yanks Controversial 'American Life' Video." Sure, she's made better videos, and she's caused bigger controversies, but to release "American Life" during the lynch-mob mentality of Bush's war on Iraq would have required bigger balls than even Madonna has, and she knew it. The video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, juxtaposes images of war with the most capitalistic, materialistic, and seemingly superficial industry in the world: fashion. Models dressed in military garb and gas masks (one male model sports a half-shirt that reads "Fashion Victim") and three Middle Eastern children strut down a runway while Madonna and her troupe of decidedly unconventional beauties prepare for their fashion terrorism in a backstage restroom. Madonna carves "Protect Me" on the partition of a stall, giving the otherwise militant proceedings a sense of desperate humanity, before she and her disciples engage in some fiercely aggressive choreography (intercut with images of a detonated atom bomb), and crash the fashion show and pummel the photographers with an industrial-strength water hose. Madonna may have never actually been on the frontlines of a battlefield, but she's been spotted in the front row of more than a few fashion shows. It's this hypocrisy that makes the video so damn intriguing. It's the same contradiction that runs through the "American Life" song itself: the Material Girl is denouncing material things? You mean she was being ironic back in 1985? Madonna's made it clear she's not anti-American, just pro-peace: The new Madonna writes morality tales for infants, not bomb-making manuals for infidels. Disappointing for sure. In a time when most pop singers are too afraid to stand for much of anything at all, seeing the most famous woman in the world pull a grenade pin out with her teeth and toss the bomb into Bush's lap (the typical, Madonna-style twist is that the grenade is actually a lighter, the moral being, presumably, that something destructive can be turned into something useful) is nothing short of explosive.


 "We collide and divide, go swimming and trailblaze into the sunset," Queens Of The Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri told MTV earlier this year. That more or less describes "Go With The Flow," the award-winning video clip directed by visual artist collective Shynola. Inspired by the bold comic book images of Frank Miller's "Sin City," "Go With The Flow" is a combination of live action and rotoscopic animation (the kind made famous in a-Ha's "Take On Me"). Silhouettes of the band barreling down a desert highway in the back of a pick-up truck toward a rival gang of "skulls" are juxtaposed with a blood red sky and overtly sexual metaphors (including a slow-motion collision that results in an explosion of animated sperm cells and a squirting slurpee).


 Unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival in January, this Floria Sigismondi-directed clip won the Best Video trophy at the 2003 MTV Europe Awards (evidence alone that America has a long way to go--no offense, Missy). The video opens with the sullen faces of grade school children being inspected before rushing outside for recess. Donned in gas masks (a quaint new pop culture fixture in the wake of recent chemical warfare advances--see #2 above), the children play as if the scorched, red sky and falling ash are everyday occurrences (frighteningly, in Sigismondi's post-apocalyptic creation, they are). Because it was released just prior to the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the video has been criticized for being propagandistic, even manipulative--a symbolic dead white dove is seen rotting in the ash early on in the clip. In the end, though, the powerful "Untitled #1" (a.k.a. "Vaka"), from last year's ( ), adds another notch to Sigur Rós's impressive video belt and is easily Sigismondi's most evocative work to date.


 If the definition of "selling out" is changing your music to sell records, then Jewel has been guilty of the charge since her first album, a folk collection of coffeehouse recordings that were completely re-recorded for radio consideration. Jewel's fourth album, 0304, may have disappointed some of the singer's fans and confused much of the public, but the album presents one of the most startling--yet oddly fitting--transformations in pop history. In many ways, Jewel is simply fulfilling her destiny: she's become the pop tart her critics have accused her of being from the very start. But just one look at the cheeky music video for the hit "Intuition" and it's clear she's in on the joke. "Jewel's music sounds much better now that she's dancing!" reads a fake TRL crawl. What's more, if you're going to sell out, at least do it with an infectious pop song like "Intuition." She urges us to follow our hearts but then taunts, "Sell your sin/Just cash in." And that's exactly what Jewel did: you could hear the French accordion of "Intuition" in a commercial for a razor of the same name all year long. Ah, the sweet smell of contradiction.


 Though her second album wasn't even released in the U.S., Kelis scored an instant hit with "Milkshake," the lead single from her new album Tasty. Written and produced by The Neptunes, the kitschy, metaphor-heavy track (Kelis espouses the virtues of concocting the perfect blend of sweet and spicy) features the duo's standard minimalist beats, grinding bassline and a barely-there "la la la la la" pre-chorus. Kelis's pseudo-rap hook is downright irresistible: she knows she's got what brings the boys to the yard. Jake Nava's sexy video interpretation, set in an old-fashioned diner and featuring a cameo by Kelis's beau Nas as a short-order cook, is all freshly-baked buns and dancing waitresses with two cherries on top.


 And the award for best gunshot-wound-to-the-face slur goes to Eminem protégé 50 Cent, who owned the charts with “In Da Club,” the lead single from his debut album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (a fixture in the Top Ten of the albums chart all year long). Add to that his successful G-Unit side project and 50 Cent owned hip-hop in ‘03. Hey, 50: here’s hoping your son won’t outgrow his mini-bulletproof vest before you get a chance to cash that next royalty check.


 The electro-clash boom wasn't so much an explosion as it was--well, for lack of a classier metaphor--a fart, a burp, a blip on the landscape of popular music, and Fischerspooner's "Emerge" was its theme song. Okay, so that doesn't exactly sound very appealing, but when VH1 uses your song in their promo commercials you must be doing something right, right? Referencing 80s synth-pop, Eno-esque soundscapes and Giorgio Moroder basslines, "Emerge" is a sonic retro feast.


 The 1930s film noir-inspired clip for No Doubt's "It's My Life" finds Gwen Stefani doing her best impersonation of Madonna doing her best impression of Jean Harlow (whom Stefani portrays in the upcoming biopic The Aviator). In the video, Stefani plays a femme fatale who's on trial for killing off her three lovers one by one. Like "Don't Speak" before it, the David LaChapelle-directed clip could be a comment on Gwen's impending band-killing solo career. Culled from No Doubt's greatest hits collection (get it? Gwen plays a hit-woman), the band's cover of the 1984 Talk Talk hit is given some additional pop cult allusion thanks to a "Billie Jean"-style rhythm section.


 The smart and funky, highly stylized glitterball two-dimensionality of Cooler Kids' Punk Debuntante is undeniable (you may have already heard the lead single from the album, "All Around The World," in The Lizzie McGuire Movie). Cooler Kids' kitschy brand of dance music makes the standard pop of the past few years sound all the more insipid. Check it out if you like your dance-pop to come with a heart and a pulse.

Sal Cinquemani
© slant magazine, 2003.

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