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On the occasion of Britney Spears' new "Womanizer" video, APA recounts director Joseph Kahn's top ten music videos.
Music video directors don't seem to be as public as they used to be. A few short years ago, they were as prominent as the artists they directed. Hype Williams was to Hip Hop music videos what Timbaland is to Hip Hop beats. After directing groups like Korn and Sublime, McG debuted with some fanfare as the director of Charlie's Angels and later executive produced the television series, The O.C. Wayne Isham's work was on regular rotation on MTV's Total Request Live as well as Making the Video. And then there is Joseph Kahn, who is one of the few directors who could vie for Isham's frequent appearances on the two shows.
As one of the more prolific music video directors out there today, Kahn has been making videos for close to two decades. Like most directors, Kahn has his role models that paved his artistic growth. According to Director-File's Q&A with Kahn, he was inspired by David Fincher to look at music videos as a serious medium. Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) began making classic music videos such as Madonna's "Vogue" and George Michael's "Freedom 90." It wasn't until 1998 that Kahn gained mainstream notice with "The Boy Is Mine," which garnered a MTV Video Music Award nomination for Best Video of the Year. Though he had been steadily directing music videos until then, his visualization of Brandy and Monica's duet marked a point when familiarity of Kahn grew beyond industry insiders and hard core Hip Hop/R&B fans.
While Kahn is no longer a stranger to the music video audience, a glance at his videography reveals little at first of what could be his signature. Unlike Hype Williams, he doesn't retain a set of motifs that recur each time one watches his video. There are certainly elements Kahn may gravitate to. Yet, for every video like Janet Jackson's "Doesn't Really Matter" or Eminem's "Without Me" that makes a comic book reference, there is a video like New Edition's "I'm Still in Love with You" filled with sweeping shots of the original boys-to-men in what looks like a palatial Italian estate.
That's on a visual level though. The unseen thread that runs throughout these videos is how Kahn shifts with each artist he works with, framing or, in some cases, playing up to their public personas as put forth by their music. Janet goes from playful in "Doesn't Really Matter" to defiantly sexual in "So Excited" where she plays on public images of her post-Super Bowl scandal. For that, Kahn is an artist's video music director, less interested in promoting what a record company wants than what he sees in the music.
Kahn is at his best when the performer is as visual as he is. It has paid off as his works are consummate favorites among music video watchers. His videos are popular on YouTube and rarely receive overall rankings below five stars. For visually oriented performers such as Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Ricky Martin, 50 Cent and The Pussycat Dolls, having Kahn direct their videos almost always guarantees a strong reaction. --Christine Chiao
(in chronological order)
Ahmad, "Back in the Day" and "You Gotta Be" (1994)
A bonafide classic, Ahmad's "Back in the Day" narrates a childhood of bomber jackets and K-Swiss, and Kahn's video shows Ahmad (literally) reflecting on scenes of childhood and adolescence. But the haters who find Ahmad's laid-back reminisce a little too Will Smith might be surprised that the video ends with an ominous "To be continued..." that extends the coming-of-age narrative into the remorseless present of "You Gotta Be."
Brandy and Monica in "The Boy Is Mine" (1998)
This is a Kahn classic. It brought out him to the mainstream, and it launched young R&B princesses Brandy and Monica to a whole other level. They were so convincing in their fight for the titular boy (as played by Mekhi Phifer) that it fueled rumors of a real-life rivalry. Kahn would later expand on the usage of strategically timed set changes as a narrative technique in Destiny's Child's "Say My Name."
Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm" (1999)
Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm" is one of the best rap videos that Kahn has made thus far. It plays more like a short film with fleshed out action sequences narrated by the song's somber lyrics and incessant beat. Somehow it's only natural that partners Havoc and Prodigy are rapping along as they plan their escape.
Janet Jackson's "Doesn't Really Matter"(2000)
Though it was a single from the Nutty Professor II: The Klumps soundtrack, Kahn manages to steer attention away from Eddie Murphy to focus Janet and her fun, upbeat fantasy world of pet dog-bots and interactive dance floors. The special effects are incredible, but they come at a steep price of $2.5 million. The reward, however, is that it's a seamless soundtrack music video that shows Kahn's clear evolution from vids like Warren G and Adina Howard's "What's Love Got to Do With It" for the Supercop soundtrack.
U2, "Elevation" (2001)
Although Joseph Kahn has previously expressed disappointment over this video -- not because of its quality, but because after finally getting to direct a video with his musical idols, U2, he has to incorporate Tomb Raider film footage into it -- we still think he did a good job. The memorable freeze frame images of Bono and company are visually arresting and solidify their reputation as rock royalty. Rock royalty who are humble enough to walk the streets with see-through giraffes.
Enrique Iglesias, Hero (2001)
Talk about a video being perfect for its song. Melodrama to the maximum, with a complete narrative arc involving beanie-wearing Enrique and a very tan Jennifer Love Hewitt, both on the run from chain-smoking Mickey Rourke. Watch Enrique tremble at the piano at 0:50 as he sings "Would you die for the one you love?," barely able to get through the verse, and then compare it to Rourke treating the same keys with such casual dismissal at 1:48. Heartbreaking. In the original version, Enrique dies tragically, soaked in rainwater amidst Love Hewitt's gutteral screams, but MTV chose to circulate the more uplifting version where he lives, thinking their PG-13 audiences couldn't handle it. We can barely handle it ourselves.
George Michael, "Freeek" (2002)
Get lost amongst the futuristic outerworld, flesh-and-blood robotics, flying debris, and of course, the leather bondage dancers on leashes. In George Michael's "Freeek," we learn that no one sells infomercial toothpaste better than cowgirls, cheerleaders and Japanese nurses. Halfway though, it's hard to tell what's going on anymore. We just hope the blinking battery on the night-vision video recorder doesn't die, and that the pink embryo will be okay.
The Chemical Brothers, "Get Yourself High" (2003)
There are plenty of loony remixes of old Kung Fu movies, from the philosophical to the ridiculous. But out of that bunch, the Chemical Brothers' "Get Yourself High" might still be the trippiest, thanks to the lip-synced incantation of the song title and the druggy dissolves at the end. Most of all, the video teaches important lessons like: one must always rely on oneself, and there is no power greater than the boombox.
Britney Spears, "Toxic" (2004)
As a song, "Toxic" may have been too fly to be Britney, but Kahn proves in the video that Britney can indeed be a dashing diva baiting the world from the friendly skies and a Ducati 999, not just the all-American sexpot. Everything is amped-up and camped-up, from the flesh-colored body suit to the Tyson Beckford cameo to the super-heroine seductress whose Electra is more Freud than Jennifer Garner.
Ciara feat. Chamillionaire in "Get Up" (2006)
Ciara never disappoints in dance videos. Kahn shows a more playful side of her in a mostly black backdrop that not only diminishes little of her power as a dancer, but serves as the perfect setting to her moves. It's also another example of a soundtrack music video done well with brief cameos of Step Up stars Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan dancing in the rain sequence towards the end.
Mariah Carey feat. Cam'ron in "Boy (I Need You)" (2003)
A clear extension of Janet's "Doesn't Really Matter," though here, Kahn's awareness of Japanese pop culture is much more apparent. And Torque star Will Yun Lee makes a much-appreciated cameo.
Compiled by Christine Chiao, Brian Hu, and Ada Tseng
Date Posted: 10/17/2008