So, get this: I have reverence for the MTV Music Video Awards. If you check their history of winners (and ignore some key, depressing anomalies), they routinely honor the correct people. Since this year’s ceremony on September 6 is just a couple of weeks away, we’re celebrating with a new celebration of the VMAs’ past: a list of the best 10 winners of the coveted “Best Female Video” trophy. For a refresher course in the history of the category, check this out. For a definitive list of the best lady videos’ of the past 30 years, check below.
She’s so unusual, indeed — Cyndi Lauper whipped her block into a swishy, she-bopping frenzy in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and while her punky chutzpah certainly warranted MTV award credibility, she deserved every award for out-snarling Elvis and offering killer pipes, to boot.
Even for director Mark Romanek (who handled Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”), “Constant Craving” was a wild concept — a dreamy reimagining of the premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The evocative cinematography is cool, but I personally relish the camera presence of the incomparable and emotive k.d.
When I interviewed Lady Gaga in 2008, I was immediately impressed with her love of Madonna’s Erotica days, when Madge tested and quite apparently enjoyed the boundaries of taste, carnality, and desire. Just two years later, Gaga turned in “Bad Romance,” a creepy, throbbing, Rocky Horror-on-’roids explosions that recalls Madonna’s wickedest dares. But make no mistake: The warped combination of haute couture and Wendy O. Williams flamethrower antics is pure Gaga.
Hope Springs, a fine movie, nearly ruined Annie Lennox’s “Why” for me. Under the wrong circumstances, the Diva track can sound maudlin or melodramatic. But when Lennox covers herelf in furs, maquillage, and jewels to trill its contemplative tones, every word feels right because she’s an unflinchingly honest performer. The video is glorious and gorgeous, which are probably the best adjectives to describe Annie herself.
Madonna deserved Video of the Year for other efforts — “Vogue,” “Express Yourself,” “Open Your Heart,” take your pick — but in “Ray of Light,” her first and only Video of the Year clip and her third Female Video winner, she succeeded in mainstreaming her yogi-sanctioned ebullience with eye-popping, day-tripping visuals. “Ray of Light” is a sonically charged flipbook, and the ride was as much an adventure in old, “Sledgehammer”-type animation as it was the new Immaterial Girl’s reinvention.
The plight of Lauryn Hill is an unpleasant one, but let’s never forget to love her greatest and coolest achievement: this video, a slammin’ and perfectly realized fusion of ’60s and ’90s soul and finger-waggin’ tale-tellin’. The girl swayed, looking perfectly at home (and stylish) in both eras.
Paula Abdul is the rare case of a pop singer who is both an utter facsimile and a complete original. No bones about it, she was a post-Janet, post-Lisa Lisa, post-Pebbles, post-Jody Watley confection fabricated from their purrs and whines, yet she was also such a vaudevillian, Fame-y throwback that a video like “Straight Up” is fabulous thanks to her distinct talent: The editing and stark monochrome are iconic, but it’s Paula’s self-possessed, hyperkinetic sauciness that makes the edgy visuals so apropos. She was cutting edge — a vibeological vamp with the guts to clack in tap shoes and serve up a weird Arsenio Hall cameo.
It’s always bugged me that the gifted songwriter Sinead O’Connor’s greatest (and only smash) hit was a Prince cover, but who can deny such a poignant and naked rendition? “Nothing Compares 2 U” contains one of the most pained vocals of the ’90s, and the gorgeous video conveys her romantic alienation with contemplative moments, stone set pieces, and that icy closeup. And that climactic tear? That chilling moment of devastation? It’s so moving, spiritual, and tragic that the Catholic church should install it as a new Station of the Cross. I consider it Generation X’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
We’ve already discusssed Alanis Morissette’s merits as a gay icon, but the wise-beyond-her-yowls songstress is underrated in another key area: music video performance. From “Ironic” and “Hand in My Pocket” through “Thank U,” “Unsent,” and “Precious Illusions,” she’s a committed and vulnerable actress whose unpretentious screen presence sells her confessional message. “Ironic” is director Stephane Sednaoui’s brilliant examination of one woman’s hidden (or barely concealed?) selves as they enjoy the same rollicking car ride together. The concept was so good, Morissette again played multiple versions of herself in different jackets with her equally fabulous video for “You Learn.”
I’m concluding this list with my favorite activity: commending a homosexual. Director Herb Ritts worked his signature Guess Jeans aestethic to transform Janet Jackson from a blazer-clad teenybopper to an ethereal, catwalking hottie. Every visual is a stunner: Janet’s Mentadent grin is flawless, Antonio Sabato Jr. is unbeatable in his undershirt, and Djimon Hounsou’s stunning physique is explored in intimate detail. It’s sexy, it’s commercial, and it’s the moment when Janet proved her individual flair beyond the influence of her family and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.