With new technology on the rise and the millennium looming, late 90s music videos were a hub of futuristic thinking – we look at some of the most iconic dreams of tomorrow
Every era thinks about what will come next, but in the late 1990s, visions of the future seemed to have a unique intensity. With globalism on the rise, the internet connecting people around the world, and a new millennium looming, the future seemed closer than ever – and artists were electrified by the possibility of what might happen. Their visions of the future were often manifested most clearly in the era-defining music videos released in the final few years of the decade.
Utilising the latest technology in the burgeoning field of computer graphics, these videos offered a very particular insight into the excitement and anxiety that the artists were feeling about what was on the horizon. Twenty years later, as geopolitical fears have resurfaced and technological advances have led to renewed discussions about what’s coming next, the vision that these videos portrayed could offer a meaningful insight into our own.
DAFT PUNK – “AROUND THE WORLD”
In Daft Punk’s “Around the World” video, four skeletons dance with creaky jolts, robots with insect-like antennae bump into each other like clumsy robot vacuums, and papier-mâché mummies synchronize to the fluid beat. The inventive costuming comes courtesy of Florence Fontaine, who also provided costumes for music videos by Radiohead, Paul McCartney, and the Chemical Brothers, as well as “Around the World” director Michel Gondry’s subsequent film The Science of Sleep.
But the characters aren’t the futuristic element here. Instead, this feeling comes from the music and how it ties together everything on-screen. The flashing, multi-coloured circles in the backdrop sync magnetically with the beat – equal parts disco flair and postmodern warning signal – while the platform that the various characters dance around represents a vinyl record, their disparate moves and styles all coming together and rotating around the musical core. Futurism is what unites the unconventional and makes it feel conventional: much the way that the lyrics repeatedly draw a circle bringing the whole world together, the dancers all join, celebrating the increasingly interconnected era around the world.
MARILYN MANSON – “THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE”
Not all visions of the future are bright and cheery. In the video for “The Beautiful People”, Marilyn Manson and director Floria Sigismondi take a post-apocalyptic longview, with Manson’s band performing in a decrepit distillery full of monstrous spectres and menacing machinery. It’s a space full of severed limbs and piles of worms, rather than flying cars and alien visitors. There are similarities to the aesthetic of Mad Max – the mortification of flesh, the way old technology is patchworked together, body modification – but rather than finding inspiration for fear in climate change, fossil fuels, and humanity’s brutality, Manson envisions a new world just as bleak and grotesque as the one he feels in the moment. “If you live with apes, man, it’s hard to be clean,” he sings. And apparently, Manson sees turning himself into a giant, looming, twitching apparition leading the people through a bombed-out city as the cleanest future.
RADIOHEAD – “NO SURPRISES”
When artists dream up visions of the future, they tend to think big – and Radiohead’s music videos during the 90s were nothing if not big. Unlike “Just” and “Street Spirit”, however, “No Surprises” uses small nuances to evoke a bigger aspect of that future. As the video begins, the fluorescent lights rise and Thom Yorke wakes up in a glass case – or at least, his head does. It could be a space helmet, a diving helmet, or some sort of trap. Lights twinkle like stars – or are they laboratory sensors? The song’s lyrics display on the glass, rolling up in front of his face like a heads-up display. Depending on the viewer, he could be an explorer or a science experiment. Soon, water slowly rises to cover Yorke’s head, each breath a gasp.
The claustrophobia feels incredibly violent. Yorke’s face is the only special effect needed, every odd angle and skewed tooth on full display, somehow expressive in its placid affect. His desperate gulp of air in the face of a drowning world echoes the fear so many had at the time for the rapidly changing world. And no wonder it felt so painfully real: per director Grant Gee’s documentary Meeting People Is Easy, Yorke legitimately nearly drowned several times in the video’s filming.
RUPAUL – “A LITTLE BIT OF LOVE”
Futurism has always been fertile ground for identity politics and queer artists, particularly science-fiction authors of the 60s and 70s like Samuel Delany, Thomas Disch, and Joanna Russ. For “A Little Bit of Love”, an interstellar bonanza befitting RuPaul, directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey draw from the golden age of pulp science-fiction film to express identity in their own way. The RuPaul vision of the future includes a phallic spaceship driven by three fierce Amazon alien warriors, the gorgeously phallic raygun ready and beaming at its helm. The trio strut and pose, play up the movements of the ship with classic Star Trek cheese, and show off their bouffant hair, gorgeous glitzy leotards, and thigh-high boots. It’s a dominant uniform for a future powered by drag and love in equal measure – a fitting setting for a song this empowering: “You’re gonna shine.”
BJÖRK – “JOGA”
Björk is always a step or seven ahead of the rest of the pack, and her magnificent Homogenic is no different. Two videos from that album in particular display her expressive vision of the future: both “All is Full of Love” and “Hunter” temper cutting-edge CGI and digital animation with Björk obscuring her identity to become RoboBjörk. In a world where the internet was only beginning to reach into our lives, she examines its potential extension.
Those singles were released in 1998 and 99 respectively. 1997’s “Joga” meanwhile uses slightly less advanced technology to showcase Björk’s connection with her homeland and the perils of the future. Director Michel Gondry explores soaring, twitchy landscape shots of her native Iceland, eventually cracking them apart with CGI, the animated earthquakes and tectonic shifts marking it as surreal, even apocalyptic. The clip pulls out at its conclusion to show that the melting digital landscape was inside Björk’s chest the whole time. The “state of emergency” detailed in the lyrics was remarkably personal, embodying the entire weight of the changing world – an at once subtle and gigantic, unnerving and necessary dimension.
MISSY ELLIOTT – “SOCK IT 2 ME”
Missy Elliot has always felt out of this world – the music she makes sounds so ahead of its time it doesn’t fit into our concept of what can come from this planet. On “Sock It 2 Me”, Missy Misdemeanor asks Lil’ Kim and Da Brat to channel their inner Mega Man and fight off menacing anime clay robots. In a profile in The New York Times during the production, video stylist June Ambrose summed it up perfectly: “She has lost her mind, and that’s a good thing.”
Together with Ambrose and director Hype Williams, Missy reflects the increasingly global world by adapting the Japanese animation style for an American audience. She continues to push her futuristic fashion throughout the sci-fi epic, taking lead over a camo-clad paramilitary dance troupe in bright red wigs. The intercontinental/interstellar vision is a clever interpolation of traditional and futuristic – much like the way Timbaland’s quirky production relies on a sample of the Delfonics’ 1968 song “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can't Hide from Love)”. Missy has always been larger than life – accentuated by the fish-eye lens bringing her right into your living room.