The Recording Academy’s taste in music videos skews in favor of showy cleverness, blunt homage, and expensive grandiosity. Despite those interlinked tendencies, the Grammy Award for Best Music Video tends to spare its public gross embarrassment. Its most telling failure of judgment remains the 1991 loss of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” with its spare depiction of sorrow and longing, to Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract,” with its animated feline, MC Skat Kat, who is made to bravely grin through choreography saluting “Anchors Aweigh.” The Academy has rewarded the burgeoning talents of David Fincher and Spike Jonze. And you can do much worse than Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which won the prize in 2017, or Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” which won the year before.
There is a lone point of contact between this year’s field and the most recent nominees for MTV’s Video of the Year award: Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.,” which collected the channel’s moon-suited statuette in August. The song is a boast rap that enriches braggadocio. Its self-exalting rhymes flow into a self-implicating admonition against pride; Lamar checks himself before he wrecks himself while giving every assurance of his capacity to wreck you. The director Dave Meyers makes a lively effort to translate this tenor of thought to moving images. He plays the sacred off the profane, with an opening shot of Lamar, theatrically radiant in liturgical robes, giving way to a shot of him flanked by buxom women as they lovingly feed hundred-dollar bills through counting machines.
Where the “HUMBLE.” clip advertises energetic verses, Beck’s “Up All Night” video supplies a product for a song that is, in fact, a jingle in search of one. “Up All Night” was released as a single in September, after a year-long run both on the soundtrack to a soccer video game and in an ad for a mall-brand smartwatch. Here it makes itself useful to the demo reel of its production company, Canada, by playing over a four-minute action film. A quest is set amid the wreckage of a raging party attended by young people, none of them any older than Beck was upon the release of “Mellow Gold,” in 1994. The heroine, gleaming like a space-age Joan of Arc in fantastical armor, vaults a sofa, battles past a beer bong, wades through a make-out room, relaxes with a tequila on ice, and crowd-surfs down a hallway to rescue a fellow we presume to be her boyfriend. The viewer remembers the lad from the start of the clip, where he collapses prostrate on the pool table, sloshed into incontinence. Beck seems not to appear on camera, understandably shy.
Though I have neither the data nor the stomach to handicap this field, it is tempting to predict a victory for “1-800-273-8255,” by Logic, featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid. Directed by Andy Hines, its seven-minute narrative is the tale of a boy seen first as a baby, in the arms of Don Cheadle, then as high-school track athlete, coached by Luis Guzmán. After discovering his homosexuality, the boy is serially ostracized, and he puts to his temple a gun that Don Cheadle’s character forgot to lock up. The disaster is averted. The boy grows into a man with a husband and a child of his own. He and Cheadle, reconciled, embrace. The song’s title is the toll-free number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The Grammys may not be able to resist the deployment of Hollywood production values and “This Is Us” dramaturgy in the earnest service of public health.
Measured for art and audacity, the most compelling of the clips is “The Story of O. J.,” performed by Jay-Z, who shares the video’s director credit with Mark Romanek. (Romanek is the master of this form because of the intensity with which his best videos expand the senses of their songs, for instance, Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” with its visual rhythm operating as a kind of concrete-jungle-gym apparatus to match the song’s scrapes of hard rock.) The “O. J.” clip is a riff on race, animated and monochromatic, which scrambles vintage racist caricature into something altogether other. Jay-Z’s S. Carter Enterprises has sought to trademark the rapper’s wise-eyed video avatar, named Jaybo, for use in film and television, which would be astonishing to see: Jaybo springs from a piece of social commentary that plays like a remix of a Little Black Sambo cartoon drafted by Kara Walker.
The fifth video is “Makeba,” by Jain, who is a twenty-five-year-old French singer-songwriter with a preference for Peter Pan collars. “Makeba” is Afro-pop by way of the Eurovision Song Contest. The clip, by the directors Greg & Lio, suits the tune with able editing—cuts that pulse and flutter to the beat as dancers move and, in a computer-generated play of perspective, a soundboard merges with a cityscape. The bright, clean lyricism of “Makeba” distinguishes it among the Grammy nominees, where the company it keeps tends to lunge for the epic.