July 23, 2019

The Evolution of Spike Jonze Through Every Single One of His Music Videos

Jonze’s 60+ music videos span three decades and showcase the dynamic development of both the medium and its maker.

In assessing such a prolific music videography, Spike Jonze’s background in BMX and skateboard culture can’t be underemphasized.

A telling segment in "Video Days", one of his earliest and most widely revered skate videos, intercuts footage of skateboarder Mark Gonzales with scenes from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 

This hybrid of the gritty and the fantastical encapsulates his contradictory style, a contrast that threads throughout Jonze’s entire oeuvre.

1992-1993: Whimsical Grit

Sonic Youth: 100% (1992, co-directed with Tamra Davis)

Grunge lore has it that Mark Gonzales passed Kim Gordon a VHS of "Video Days", which is what led to Jonze co-directing Sonic Youth's “100%” video, brought in to serve as a “skate footage” specialist. 

The journey in contradictions began there, with classic black and white skate footage repurposed as expressionist memory, infusing a sense of longing within imagery typically depicted as flippant and fun.

Beastie Boys: Time for Livin' (1993)

Jonze’s first collaboration with the Beastie Boys marks another direct lift of skate footage cut with fuzzy, mosh pit-heavy live performances of one the Beastie’s most punk sessions.

Chainsaw Kittens: High in High School (1992)

His video for Chainsaw Kittens utilized a similar skate treatment: wobbly wide angles of the band performing and hanging out, interspersed with randomly applied color tints and energetic cross-cutting.  

Wax: Hush (1992)

Jonze continued this style in videos for Wax, X, and The Breeders, all heightened by touches of visual fancy: 

The overflow of playing children in “Hush”... 

X: Country at War (1993)

… stop-motion toys and a singing puppet in “Country At War”... 

Breeders: Cannonball (1993, co-directed with Kim Gordon)

… and the eponymous and autonomous spherical object of “Cannonball.” 

Teenage Fanclub: Hang On (1993) 

Jonze’s flourishes of whimsical grit were more concretely formalized in his videos for Teenage Fanclub and Luscious Jackson. 

In “Hang On” his once chaotic use of tinting and color became more theatrical and composed. 

Luscious Jackson: Daughters of the Kaos (1993)

“Daughters of the Kaos” experimented more overtly, adding an amusing 60’s mod/spy component to typical skate video elements.

The Breeders: Divine Hammer (1993)

For The Breeders' “Divine Hammer” performance, footage is literally uplifted by the band as flying nuns hover over a mundane suburban sprawl. 

Here Jonze moved beyond embellishment into a commanding visual motif that defined and drove the entire video. Previous strands coalesce...punky comedy and playful fantasy with the textural DNA from Jonze’s earlier “video days.”     

1994-1995 Contemporary Retro and Jackass Rising 

The following two years saw Jonze emerge as an MTV staple, resulting in some of his most iconic work. 

Weezer: Undone - The Sweater Song (1994)

Jonze’s flair for whimsy and farce congealed in Weezer’s nerdcore embodiment of ideal vintage boy band power-pop. “Undone (The Sweater Song)” subverts its single-take simplicity with an absurd burst of released hounds. 

Weezer: Buddy Holly (1994) 

“Buddy Holly” superimposes the band into Happy Days, distilling Weezer’s retro impulses with uncanny precision.

It’s a Russian doll of nostalgia: Weezer’s 90’s geek-chic conflated with a 70’s youth culture sitcom that was itself an allusion to goofy 50’s wholesomeness. It's a half-sweet, half-ironic evocation of a past that feels both oddly contemporary and subversively populist.

Beastie Boys: Sabotage (1994) 

A similarly playful and sarcastic nostalgia served as a guiding principle in “Sabotage,” fusing Jonze’s skate video aggression with retro sketch comedy.  

Björk: It's Oh So Quiet (1995)

Björk’s Betty Hutton cover is a contemporary re-arrangement of a pop culture artifact, so Jonze’s framing of it as a classic musical number evoking The Umbrellas of Cherbourg feels as intuitive as it was inevitable.

That Dog: Old Timer (1994) 

Jonze’s anachronistic approach continued in That Dog’s “Old Timer,” capturing both band’s Riot Girrl raunch and their 70s mall teen sweetness. 

R.E.M.: Crush with Eyeliner (1995)

For R.E.M.’s “Crush with Eyeliner” Jonze inverted retro as futurism, replacing the band with J-Pop analogs against a smeared hyper-modernized Tokyo.  

Elastica: Car Song (1995)

“Car Song” uses Tokyo as yet another near-future backdrop (a production design technique he'd later utilize in Her) while Elastica sneaks through the city as a kind of alt-rock I, Spy. 

Velocity Girl: I Can't Stop Smiling (1994)

As a direct proponent of the rise of Nerdcore with Weezer, Jonze was a natural choice for Velocity Girl’s “I Can’t Stop Smiling,” a grotesque goofy riff on department store family portraiture

Rocket from the Crypt: Ditch Digger (1994)

In videos for Rocket from the Crypt and Marxman Jonze undercut straight-faced music video formulas with oddball locations: a matador ring and an endless elevator, respectively. 

Marxman: All About Eve, B&W Version (1994)

Beastie Boys: Sure Shot (1994)

His next round of work for Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth echoed their earlier collaborations: “Sure Shot” is as classically skate-influenced as ever, with the Boys taking to the streets, rapping directly into a roving fisheye perspective. 

Sonic Youth: The Diamond Sea (1995)

“The Diamond Sea” is a pure editing and collage exercise, overlapping various live performances with murky video art effects. 

Ween: Freedom of '76 (1995)

Jonze found strange but effective bedfellows for his surrealist tendencies in projects for Ween and The Pharcyde. 

“Freedom of ‘76” marks his first attempt at music video as narrative short: a format that gained popularity around this period and blossomed into one of today’s standard packages.

The Pharcyde: Drop (1995)

For “Drop” Jonze had The Pharcyde walk backward and lip-sync a phonetic breakdown of the music in reverse. This method yielded strange physics: The Pharcyde jaggedly floating against the grain of a backward world.  

MC 900 Ft. Jesus: If I Only Had a Brain (1994)

This period also brings in an embellishment of Jonze’s skate-style and humor that evolved (or devolved) into Jackass. 

In videos for MC 9000, Wax, Dinosaur Jr. and, once again, the Beasties, the Jackass aesthetic emerges: goofy costumes, exaggerated characterizations, and the invasion of public spaces, mixed a heavy dose of adolescent sketch comedy.  

Wax: Who Is Next? (1995)

Dinosaur Jr.: Feel the Pain (1994)

Beastie Boys: Ricky's Theme (1994)

Wax: California (1995)

Jackass as a cultural notion, however, is most fully crystallized in Wax’s “California.” The single-take, 300 fps slow-motion footage of a man on fire jogging past oblivious pedestrians is both pure Jonze and budding Jackass at its most realized: destructive, daring, playful, and psychotic.

The video’s simplicity is hypnotic and elevates a simple stunt to a near-mystical vision.

1996-1998: Elastic Reality

Throughout the late 90’s Jonze pulled together various loose threads into more interlaced creations. 

Beastie Boys: Root Down, Version 2 (1998)

The skate video aesthetic gave way to Jackass stunt comedy, and persisted only in his latest Beastie Boys collaboration, “Root Down.”  

R.E.M.: Electrolite (1996)

In videos for R.E.M., Pavement, and Sean Lennon, Jonze employs a grab bag of abstract visual vignettes:

An inverted camera and scale-toppling expanding drummer in “Electrolite”... 

Pavement: Shady Lane (1997)

… a headless singer in “Shady Lane”... 

Sean Lennon: Home (1998)

… gravity-bending walks in “Home”...

Fatboy Slim: The Rockafeller Skank (1998)

… all feel like ideas that could have dominated earlier work. But as the apex of the 90’s indie sensibility waned music videos began to corporatize into higher and higher concepts. Loose experimentalism was usurped by slick production values, and Jonze’s skate kid exuberance diminished. 

His first two videos for Fatboy Slim, however, represent a last gasp: “The Rockafeller Skank” is pure Jackass Jonze. Shot on a whim, Jonze plunders Hollywood Blvd with spazzy amateur dance moves for a procession of apathetic tourists. 

Fatboy Slim: Praise You (1999) (as Richard Koufey)

More of the same is refined and perfected in “Praise You,” which contrasts Jonze’s prat-fall physicality with the flawless synchronicity of a trained dance troupe, grounding goofiness amidst banal reality.  

Mike Watt: Liberty Calls! (1997)

This embedding of single surreal elements within bland environments culminated in the late 90’s, defining the second act of Jonze’s career:

Longshore fishermen cruising their boat through stop lights in “Liberty Calls”...    

Puff Daddy: It's All About the Benjamins, Version 2 (1997)

… Puff Daddy’s takeover of a school prom in Jonze’s alternate version of “It’s All About The Benjamins”... 

The Notorious B.I.G Feat. 112.: Sky's the Limit (1997)

… a Honey I Shrunk The Gangstas take on Biggie’s “Sky the Limit”...  

Daft Punk: Da Funk (1997)

Naturalism ceases to exist in Jonze’s music videos around this time; only gradations of comedy and surreality remain.

Daft Punk’s short film, “Da Funk,” features a ‘new-in-town’ dog-man awkwardly interacting with strangers. It’s so committed to its own casualness that one ceases to perceive the situation as bizarre by the end.  

The Chemical Brothers: Elektrobank (1997)

For “Elektrobank” Jonze endowed a high school baton-twirl recital with supernatural gravity. The visual embellishment holds back just enough to walk a thin line of mundanity and madness: not fully a cartoon world, but an elastic reality.

2000s: Cutesy Absurdism

A defining feature of Jackass is its lo-fi spontaneity: a sense that a miscreant crew just grabbed a camcorder and stormed the streets. It’s a signature of Jonze’s that transformed in the new millennia, finding only an occasional foothold.

Fatlip: What's Up Fatlip? (2000)  

In “What’s Up Fatlip,” the rapper trudges through urban L.A. in sad clown make-up...     

Beck: Guess I’m Doing Fine (2002)

…in “Guess I’m Doing Fine” Beck floats around Echo Park, haunted by an acoustic guitar almost as mopey as himself...

Phantom Planet: Big Brat (2003)

…and in “Big Brat” Jonze attempted the same, but in layers, both portraying and documenting Phantom Planet’s staging of an amateur zombie film. 

Weezer: Island in the Sun, Version 2 (2001)

This period’s slicker efforts see the surreal and the silly coming together with even more childish abandon in videos all connected by what’s now become Jonze’s stamp of cutesy absurdism:

Weezer cuddling ferocious offspring in “Islands in the Sun”...      

Tenacious D: Wonderboy (2001)

… a fantasy epic rendering of Tenacious D’s “Wonder Boy” whose laughs come purely from their solemnity...

Ludacris: Get Back (2004)

… and a cartoonish embellishment of Ludacris’ biceps in “Get Back” (which was later repeated nearly wholesale in the Jonze-produced, Kanye West-directed video “I Love It.”)

Björk: It's in Our Hands (2002) 

Rounding out his partnership with Björk were two videos which played up the kookier, arts-and-craftsy aspects of the icon’s expansive pop-persona. 

Björk: Triumph of a Heart (2005)

Fatboy Slim: Weapon of Choice (2001)

By far the most compelling of this cutesy absurdist period was the instantly canonized “Weapon of Choice:” a droll, straight-to-camera dance vehicle for an airborne soft-shoe-ing Christopher Walken...

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Y Control (2004)

Jonze always played to his strengths and never strayed further from his own contradictory formulas than in his two attempts at strobe-lit dollhouse gothica for Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Asdsska.  

Asdsska: 25 (2009)

Kanye West: Flashing Lights, Version 1 (2008)

Jonze’s first two collaborations with Kanye West were also digressions but still resembled earlier projects. “Flashing Lights” recalled the hypnotic singularity and sludgy slow-motion of “California” and “Undone,” albeit in a sexy neo-noir context.  

Kanye West: We Were Once a Fairytale (2009)

In the musical narrative short “We Were Once a Fairytale,” a prophetic portrait of Kanye emerges as a drunken nightmare egotist psychedelically confronting his bizarre inner child, represented by a felt puppet rodent prone to hara-kiri. The disorienting juxtaposition of adult tragedy and children’s show giggles is pure Jonze. 

U.N.K.L.E.: Heaven (2009)

By the end of the decade, Jonze had broadened into features, commercials, live performances, and media entrepreneurship. Certain projects felt like bidding adieu to his root inspirations.     

The Lakai-sponsored feature-length skate video Fully Flared (the introduction of which was later re-cut into a music video for U.N.K.L.E.) is a fitting visual crescendo to Jonze’s relationship with his most foundational genre.

2010-Present: Experiments in Sentiment

Music videos in the post-internet age became more widely exposed and, hence, more disposable. The corporate approach shifted. 

To distinguish themselves, videos needed to not only stand above the indie fray but also evolve the format itself. Music videos became momentous, sky-high-concept channels of promotion.    

LCD Soundsystem: Drunk Girls (2010)

This new era was theoretically a mismatch for Jonze’s spontaneous Jackass whims. His video for LCD Soundsystem is a final aftershock of his earlier impetuous, improvised quality. 

Beastie Boys: Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win (2011)

But it’s clear a new day had dawned in Jonze’s final partnership with the Beastie Boys. The in-the-streets rap-to-camera skate-vid formula that had never fully run dry finally crested. 

Nevertheless, with a Team America-style toy action sequence, Jonze landed on a concept to maintain both and his and the Beasties’ comic, youthful verve. 

Arcade Fire: The Suburbs (2010)

A perfect example of this new media era was Arcade Fire’s "The Suburbs", which was released in conjunction with a narrative short film, Scenes From The Suburbs, directed by Jonze. 

The video for its titular track was essentially a re-appropriation of the short: a soaring, sad coming-of-age narrative set in a vaguely militarized dystopia.

Jay-Z & Kanye West: Otis (2011) 

Kayne and Jay-Z are such massive pop culture conduits it’s hard to imagine any video overwhelming their dual presence, so Jonze kept it simple with “Otis” staged as stripped back as the video’s Mad Max-esque car creations.    

Kanye West Feat. Paul McCartney: Only One (2015) 

Even more bare-bones and personality-driven was “Only One,” loosely sequenced vérité images of Kanye cuddling baby North on an overcast country road.

Lady Gaga: Dope, (Live at YouTube Music Awards, 2013)

Easily the most unusual content experiment of this period are Jonze’s three “live” music videos commissioned and designed for the 2013 YouTube Music Awards. 

Lady Gaga's "Dope" was less a music video than a peculiar performance film composed with an intimate, cinematic flow. 

Arcade Fire: Afterlife, (Live at YouTube Music Awards, 2013)

“Afterlife” stepped up the format with narrative: Greta Gerwig as a sad romantic rediscovering her childish sense of play by spastically dancing through various set pieces.

Avicii: Hey Brother / You Make Me / Wake Me Up (Live at YouTube Music Awards, 2013)

But by far the boldest undertaking was the Avicii-scored, Lena Dunham-penned story of romance in a nightclub, which implodes into a fourth-wall busting choose-your-own-adventure game show smirkingly hosted by Jason Schwartzman.  

Karen O & Danger Mouse: Woman (Live for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) (2019)   

While the live music video hasn’t become a standard, it makes sense in the current landscape. The feat of the performance reproduces the experiential quality of a concert: something more personal and impressive to dazzle overwhelmed and distracted eyes.

In this sense it’s an innate fit for Jonze. His most recent effort, for Karen O and Danger Mouse filmed live on Stephen Colbert, revives some of his more free-spirited qualities.

Post-Script: Riding The New Wave

Like so many directors whose careers span the millennial fault line, Spike Jonze’s work separates into pre-2K and post-2K eras. 

Being John Malkovich (1998) and Adaptation (2001) are essentially distillations of Jonze in the 90s: bending reality, embedded with spunky comedy and melancholy, seeking a unique fusion of the silly and the tragic.

Where The Wild Things Are (2009) and Her (2013) are reflective of his later videos: overt sentimentality expressed through a gentler strain of surrealism. 

Having produced so much work in such a tumultuous era of media development, Jonze’s videography is the story of a director...and a format. From “100%” to “Woman” not only has the style changed, but the venues and modes through which music videos are produced and consumed are completely different.

Today, Jonze continues to ride the wave of the new media frontier. Veering away from features and music videos his current focus is hybrid content, as evidenced in the viral, kaleidoscopic, and dance-centric Apple ad “Welcome Home.”

This sort of deeply-branded multi-platform creation is unquestionably the format of tomorrow, and one wonders what Jonze’s unique fusion with the future will yield.         

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1 Comment

Dang there in the 90s un-knowingly I really liked all of his music videos. It's funny how well his Fat Boy Slim videos mix in perfectly with the other ones like Gangster Tripping.

Had no clue he was involved with that skating video, but my friends that were into skating more so than I were super impressed with the real explosions that happened and the technical skill on the skaters to hold on while all that wood was getting shot everywhere.

Sometimes I live too much in a box, and I would love to see more Spike Jonze material even though Where the Wild Things Are was not so great for me personally.

July 24, 2019 at 9:32AM, Edited July 24, 9:32AM

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Kyle Dockum
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