Musicians love to buck conformity. And what better metaphor for fighting social pressure than a good dystopian music video? Here are 9 of our favorites.
"Express Yourself," Madonna
It's no secret that many of the visuals we read as dystopian — giant gears, conspicuous shift whistles, subterranean workers—are straight out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Madonna and director David Fincher borrowed heavily for the "Express Yourself" video, but filtered it all through her aggressively sexy image. So she fights the power by jumping into bed with one of her industrialist husband's brawny workers.
"Radio Ga Ga," Queen
Freddy Mercury and the gang also liked the imagery of Metropolis. But rather than simply model the look of their video on Lang's work, they apparently decided to save time and peppered the "Radio Ga Ga" video with actual footage from the silent film. Mercury even recreates one famous image, posing as the worker in front of the infernal, clock-like machine. Naturally, at the end, Queen rallies the oppressed populace with what looks suspiciously like an arena rock concert.
"Sunglasses at Night," Corey Hart
Sometimes music videos depict oddly whimsical dystopias. Take, for example, Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night." It's a police state with garden-variety Orwellian imagery. Only... the authorities seem to use their vast power to demand that citizens wear their sunglasses at night.
"Back In Your Head," Tegan and Sara
Indie-rock duo Tegan and Sara stumble unwittingly into a dystopian scenario in their video for "Back in Your Head." Everything seems normal enough as a red curtain draws back and the twins launch into the song. But then we see the crowd. It's an entire auditorium full of people in white jumpsuits and face masks. Things get weirder and weirder, and Tegan and Sara look more and more nervous, until they finally make a break for it—only to be chased into a mysterious factory and finally back on stage. Clearly, their manager needs to be more careful about where he books these two.
"Bop Til You Drop" Rick Springfield.
Talk about adding insult to injury. In this Rick Springfield video, the repressive state isn't even human. Instead, it's been imposed by conquering alien slavers. The video opens on some sort of factory, where sad-looking Earthlings roll rocks around for some mysterious purpose. To show you just how evil these ETs are, the overseer shoots his poor, nervous-looking flute player. So he needs new musical entertainment, and that's where he makes his fatal mistake. He brings in Rick Springfield, whose singing naturally inspires the workers to rebel.
"Alejandro," Lady Gaga
At first glance, "Alejandro" looks like a straight-up ripoff of "Express Yourself." But take another look. She's actually stripped out most of the overt Metropolis references, retaining only the vaguest industrial outlines. Instead, Gaga's dystopia is militaristic and strangely religious. She uses the same color palette, but it suddenly evokes violence instead of drabness. What does it all mean? Please. Lady Gaga cares not for such pedestrian matters as explanation.
"Feel Good Inc.," Gorillaz
One giant smokestack codes pretty effectively for dystopia in this Gorillaz video. It's labeled with the song's title, which takes on ominous, Brave-New-World-like implications as the name of a giant corporation. It brings new meaning to the term "mass entertainment," and makes you wonder how the band really feels about their record label.
"Born Free," M.I.A.
Typically, these dystopian videos feature musicians heroically clashing with the social pressure to conform. Not M.I.A. The Sri Lankan artist often makes waves with her bluntly expressed political opinions. And this spring, she really kicked up controversy when she released this graphic, deeply upsetting video for "Born Free," which depicts a genocidal, totalitarian society. Cops in full riot gear storm a drab apartment building and break down every door until they find the man they're looking for, an angry-looking redhead.They shove him into a bus full of other gingers, and then the video gets even darker. The state police drive them out into the desert and shoot everyone. M.I.A. never appears, and no one steps in to start a revolution. It's horrifying-but certainly thought-provoking.
"Tightrope," Janelle Monae
The video opens with a rather ominous title card, announcing that dancing has been forbidden in the asylum The Palace of the Dogs, "for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead illegal magical practices." As a rule, if a society has a problem with either dancing or magic, it's not especially open and doesn't like effusively creative people. Well, Janelle Monae isn't going to let Nurse Ratched and a bunch of mirror-faced fascists stop her from cutting a rug.
Top image comparing Madonna's "Express Yourself" and Lang's Metropolis via Aisha Music.