Video killed the radio star in 1981. By the end of the '90s, though, 120 Minutes was dead; MTV had discovered, via The Real World, that reality doesn't bite so much as addict viewers; and the music video had become irrelevant to everybody but the Total Request Live crowd. Thanks to Apple, though, it may be making a comeback. The new iPod supports videos, which means you can now watch everything from TV shows to porn on its tiny 2-1/2-inch screen. In the coming months, iTunes will be expanding its music video store, and you'll be surprised to know that the major-label acts aren't the only ones with something to sell: Your favorite indie bands have also blown their T-shirt money on promotional films, which you can find on their Web sites or at services like iFilm, Rhapsody, and AOL Music. Some are hilarious, some are hilariously cheap, and some are just genius. Here's our take on a few standouts:
Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Rebellion-lies”: Arcade Fire does not fuck around when it comes to videos. The “Neighborhood #2” and “#3” entries feature intricately animated worlds, one like a water-stained children's book and the other a digitally animated caper that stars little dudes who look like Jawas in Santa outfits and ends in a climactic battle at a power plant. But don't bother watching “Rebellion-lies” on a computer or an iPod: The footage of the band shooting bolts of lightning at kids undoubtedly looks cool on TV, but the effect is lost on a Post-it-size window.
Spoon, “Sister Jack”: Love the song, like the '60s rock knockoff, but can't stand the video, which all too literally follows the track's title by showing a dude walking around in a nun's habit. Britt Daniels, you're lucky the chicks dig your narrow little face, 'cause there's nothing else to look at here.
Bright Eyes, “Lua” and “Lover I Don't Have to Love”: Bright Eyes is king of the cheap music video. In “Lua,” Conor Oberst sits in a thrift-store parka at a bus stop and just plays the song on his acoustic, with two cameras filming him (one of them gets in the other's shot). If you're a member of the “It's Conor OMG!” club, you can just gaze at his face as he plays. I'm not, so this just made me realize how damn long “Lua” is. By contrast, in “Lover I Don't Have to Love” you never even see the boy wonder: This one's produced like a karaoke video, with the song's lyrics running across the screen. That sounds lame, but it's actually a great gag. Have you ever downed a few Pink Slippers and given a crowd your best impression of Oberst's cracked vocals? Believe me, it's liberating.
The Fiery Furnaces, “Tropical Ice-Land”: No matter how zany their tunes get, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger are two of the stiffest people in indie rock, and in this video — where they're surrounded by arctic scenes drawn in crayon by somebody's grade-schooler — they don't even crack a smile at their own sight gags. Eleanor splits the difference between childlike and sexy by just staring blankly at the camera, and Matt acts hung over as he slouches around batting at things. If they make a video for a song off the newly released Rehearsing My Choir, a concept record inspired by octogenarian relatives, I vote to have Grandma run the show; compared to these two, I'm sure she can still shake a leg.
50 Foot Wave, “Clara Bow”: When I hear Kristin Hersh flay her throat in front of this band, I imagine her bristling with scales and bathed in lava, so it's a letdown that she smiles so much in this black-and-white video, with the lyrics running by in a Vogue magazine font over stylish images of Hersh and the band members playing their instruments. Here's an idea: Why not film her at a basement hardcore show, with the sweat flying and scrawny kids flinging themselves off the stage around Hersh, and at the end, it turns out that she's playing a birthday party — for her own children?
Deerhoof, “Dog on the Sidewalk”: At less than a minute long, this one's just a series of photos of dogs on sidewalks. Thanks, but I already have that screen saver.
Laura Veirs, “Galaxies”: In the same way that the song's pitch-bending synth line doofs up a perfectly good Lucinda Williams impression, the video for “Galaxies” makes the plain seem precious: She's sad, so she sheds a tear, but it turns into a book — because, you know, Veirs reads books — and then she dances with a deep-sea diver. Symbols, symbols, symbols: I would love to see the handmade journal in which she storyboarded this video.
The New Pornographers, “All for Swinging You Around”: I saved the best for last. This unbelievably great video shows a bunch of incredibly cute and wholesome Canadian girls decked out in camisoles and PJs, dancing to this song, sometimes in slow motion. It's so hott, they don't even need to tickle each other! But not only do I enjoy the video, it sums up the genius of the New Pornographers: They write pop songs that make teen girls want to dance. Isn't that why we invented music in the first place?