Social justice is “cool” now: political moves by artists are no longer seen as damaging to their brand, but can actively enhance it. As Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson put it in an interview with Vanity Fair earlier this year, speaking on feminism: “I feel weary of an obsession of celebrity culture masquerading as activism or as conversation or action.” That weariness is one I share, as a journalist who opens up an inbox full of PR pitches every day—when it comes to political subjects, I have to carefully unpick who is legitimately supporting a boundary-pushing artist, and who is just using a “hook.” It’s a path we’re all learning to navigate as consumers, too: is it possible to be truly radical in a field in which politics make people click, and clicking makes the cash? That question is especially pertinent in the realm of music videos, where promotional tool meets artwork.
However, some musicians this year proved it’s more than possible to provoke and call for change in a form as controlled and marketable as a VEVO clip. From powerful statements on police brutality to angry lashes against the U.K.'s Conservative government, here are nine music videos that mattered in 2015.
1. Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” is inherently political, a rallying anthem for black, poor, and otherwise marginalized people; it’s no surprise that the song has been chanted at anti-police brutality demonstrations across the U.S. this year. The video, directed by Colin Tilley, embodies the song’s directive to smile, dance, and rise through and above pain. There’s no more powerful image in music videos this year than that of Lamar’s grin in the face of violent encounters with police; even after being shot down in a darkly fantastical game of cops and robbers, he has this certainty that he’s gon’ be alright. “We really wanted to make sure that there is a positive message behind all this,” Tilley told MTV about the making of the video. “It’s taking something negative and putting a positive spin on everything that’s going on. It’s giving hope.”
2. Holly Herndon, “Home”
Much of experimental San Francisco producer Holly Herndon's 2015 album Platform dealt with the intimacy and physicality that’s possible online. But “Home” looks at the internet from a different angle—an angle from which you can see all the surveillance cameras glaring at your email inbox, and the NSA thumbing through your data. In the video, directed by Dutch collective Metahaven, Herndon makes her most frank and exposed appearance in a visual yet, singing straight to camera. And yet, her vulnerability comes with a bombardment (or “data rain”) of NSA logos, and a huge helping of awkwardness as she shifts uncomfortably under the visible camera’s prying gaze. This is the price of living life online.
3. Darkstar, “Pin Secure”
“I want to build a Britain where everyone feels secure. So our long-term economic plan is building a stronger, more competitive economy, and securing our country’s future.” These are the real-life words of British prime minister David Cameron, lifted from a speech and placed at the opening of Darkstar’s dystopian “Pin Secure” video. It’s grotesquely familiar rhetoric, emphasizing vague ideals of Britishness, hard work, and robust security. As the video goes on to highlight, speeches like this lay the groundwork for the exploitation of the working classes and demonization of immigrants: in the clip, a weary superstore employee shakes his head at fear-mongering headlines about Syrian refugees, even while it’s obvious (to the point of bleak humor) that the ones actually oppressing him are the giant koalas and lizards who, in the video, act as a stand-in for the upper classes. Evil koala bears aside, Darkstar’s dystopia doesn’t feel that far away from the Britain we live in right now, and that’s what’s so scary about it.
5. Future Brown f. Maluca, “Vernáculo”
Warp Records-signed production collective Future Brown borrowed the hackneyed imagery of the beauty industry for their important “Vernáculo” video, which—in its representation of a diversity of beautiful faces rarely seen in mainstream cosmetics adverts—feels like a peek into a parallel universe. A statement that accompanied the video’s release on PAMM put it this way: “Appropriating the advertising language of global beauty brands like L’Oreal and Revlon, ‘Vernaculo’ is an exercise in capitalist surrealism.”
6. Jam City, “Unhappy”
Also working with a kind of capitalist surrealism this year was London’s Jam City, who turned away from the hi-def digital curves of his debut album for a lo-fi, post-punk take on modern life. In the video for “Unhappy,” he faces the camera with a new sincerity as he demands radical love, backed by high street shop fronts and a dizzying montage of fashion adverts, porn mags, junk food, and other distractions we’re sold every day.
7. FKA twigs, “M3LL155x”
In FKA twigs’ recent 16-minute epic visual, created to accompany her latest EP M3LL155x, there’s one segment in particular that hits hard. To the fragmented, tip-toeing tune of her nightmare lullaby “I’m Your Doll,” the artist transforms herself into a inflatable sex doll, lying motionless on a bed, watched by a leering man who eventually has blurry, drooling sex with her, and leaves her literally deflated.
The British singer often finds sexual strength in “vulnerable” images—see her videos for “Papi Pacify” and “Pendulum,” where she illustrates that submission doesn’t have to equal a loss of power. But in this clip, her vulnerability is highlighted in a different way as she makes a comment on the world’s objectification of women. It’s in sharp contrast with other segments of M3LL155x, in which twigs demonstrates her fearsome skill as a dancer, and portrays bodily functions (i.e. giving birth to scarves and menstruating paint). She’s irreducible to a mere sexual object, and by pushing the viewer to extremes of discomfort, she won’t let them forget it.
8. Run The Jewels f. Zack de la Rocha, “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”
Run The Jewels’ take on police brutality is a difficult watch. Released in March of this year, the duo’s video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” focuses entirely on a one-on-one wrestle between a black man and a white police officer. It’s a fight that’s so visceral that the smashes and thuds of the scuffle crack through the audio of the song, and the combination of their exhausting altercation with RTJ’s aggressive track makes for a truly overwhelming effect—one that leaves you reeling at the end like the men in the video themselves, gazing around for answers that don’t come.
9. The Drums, “There Is Nothing Left”
This year, British pop star Will Young created a lot of controversy with his well-meaning but flawed “Brave Man” video. In the clip, Young’s song played over footage of a transgender man walking naked through a town. It was intended to shine a light on his courage, but as transgender activist and writer Paris Lees put it, skirted close to being patronizing, and “reducing trans people to body parts.”
By contrast, what’s so refreshing about Brooklyn band The Drums’ sweet video “There Is Nothing Left,” which stars major modeling agency IMG’s first transgender model Hari Nef, is that it does the opposite. The romantic clip is not overtly political, but Nef’s inclusion as a character akin to her IRL self—a fully-fleshed out, happy human being—as opposed to being used as a motif or message is powerful. As lead singer Jonny Pierce told Out magazine: "The Drums have a tradition of working with people who don’t conform to the norm. Our heart belongs to the outsiders of the world. These people with such courage! Hari is a trans actor, but we did not want that to be the focus of the video. We love the freaks and the outlandish, and there is room for everyone, but we wanted Hari to just play a normal girl. If there is any message in the video, for me, it is a focus on not exploiting Hari and girls like Hari but instead showing her for who she is — just a person like you or I."