Do the hottest artists still need music videos? It wasn’t that long ago that it was nearly impossible to imagine a hit song truly taking root in our brains until we could “see” it. For a while there, a new Janet Jackson video was as exciting as a new Janet Jackson single, and bands like R.E.M. and Aerosmith used great music videos to maintain or even revitalize their careers.
Nowadays, though, a music video can almost seem like a cool extra. Yes, a great one can still advance a career—or even launch a career, in the case of someone like Psy—and they’re certainly an important part of an artist’s ongoing visibility. But they don’t seem quite so necessary anymore. Adele, for instance, has had three huge hits without music videos, while big stars like Ke$ha and Bruno Mars pimp their new songs for weeks before delivering a clip. There are probably a hundred reasons for this trend, but the end result is that music videos play a different role in a song’s life. These days, instead of introducing us to sings, they’re usually cool new spins on hits we’ve already grown to love.
And that’s exactly what’s happening with Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” which finally got a video yesterday after kicking around for six weeks. (The same thing happened with Ke$ha’s “Die Young,” whose video got reviewed by my pal Chris Spargo yesterday.) Millions of people, including me, have already downloaded “Diamonds” and rightly appreciate its awesomeness, so the mini-movie is just the cherry on top.
But is the cherry tasty? Does the video actually add to the song’s awesomeness?
Short answer? Yeah, it’s pretty damn tasty. It lands somewhere between the epic storytelling of “We Found Love” and “Love the Way You Lie” and the sexy, narrative-free imagery of “Rude Boy” and “Umbrella.”
On the storytelling side, there’s a vague sense that Rihanna is surviving an awful lot of disasters. She wanders through a burning city street. She sits in a room with a bunch of broken stuff on the floor. She cries on a deserted highway while the Northern Lights suddenly appear overhead. (Which has happened to most people. It’s all part of becoming an adult. The Northern Lights Moment is what Oprah called it.)
Literally speaking, those images don’t add up to much. Mostly, they give the song a sense of dread, which is pretty interesting, since the lyrics are about this epic love affair that shines like diamonds in the sky. Yes, the song has a darkly erotic sound—featuring a husky vocal from RiRi—but it’s still not a “burning the hell out of this building” kind of track.
However, I dig that twist on my expectations, and because they’re so elegant, those images make the dread feel palpable. Because you see, Rihanna’s not simply walking down Northern Lights Boulevard. That footage has this weird, herky-jerky quality that makes it a little scary. And that room with the broken stuff in it? The footage runs backward, so that shards of glass are falling up. It’s all very surreal, like the two horses that keep showing up as Rihanna wanders the desert, but a music video doesn’t have to make literal sense to make you feel something about a song. And when a clip can make me see a new darkness in a love song I’ve enjoyed for weeks, then it was definitely worth the wait. I may have already loved “Diamonds,” but now I love it just a little bit more.
Mark Blankenship has written about pop music for NPR and the New York Times. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship