Pavement is my favorite band. When I bought the 2002 documentary about their career, Slow Century, I was especially excited that all of their music videos were included on the disc. This was before YouTube, so it was my first chance to see them.
It has taken me nearly a decade to recover from the disappointment. But now that the North American leg of the band’s reunion tour is in full swing, my therapist thinks I’m finally ready to reopen those old wounds, discuss the videos’ many failings, and let the healing process begin. To keep me company in this dark time, I’ve included quotes from frontman Stephen Malkmus, taken from each video’s “band commentary” track.
How could this go wrong? Start with the prettiest song Pavement ever wrote — a slow lamentation, so wistful they played it to close out their final show (the reunion doesn’t count) — and combine it with some grainy super-8 film of the band live in London in the early ’90s. Simple, easy, awesome. But this is a Pavement music video, and as we’ll see, that means it has to be ruined by some inane concept. So while most people would probably show the band performing the same song viewers are hearing (because of, y’know, logic), instead this director used footage from different songs. And since “Here” is by far the gentlest Pavement song of that era, the shots of Malkmus lunging at the mic like a frenzied cobra clash horribly with the tone of the music. I mean, I guess the video’s fine, but it’s unnecessarily jarring just for the sake of lazy stylistic contrarianism. Not a great start, and it’s all downhill from here.
Malkmus: “As far as I’m concerned I look like an idiot.”
“Cut Your Hair”
Now we’re talking. Pavement had a little buzz going at this point, so the first single from their second album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, got the deluxe treatment, complete with a professional music video. And that professional apparently hired his five-year-old to come up with the concept for this video.
DIRECTOR: Okay Timmy, a rock and roll band asked daddy to make a little movie for a song they wrote called “Cut Your Hair.” What should the band do in the movie, Timmy?
TIMMY: They go to the barbershop!
DIRECTOR: And what should they do at the barbershop? Get their hair cut?
TIMMY: No, stupid! The first one sits down and sneezes but he sneezes a cat not boogers and then the second one is a gorilla but then the barber makes him a person again and then the third one can’t stop drinking daddy juice like you daddy and then the next one is the king but he’s the sad king so he cries and the last one is a lizard and he can’t get his hair cut because lizards don’t have hair.
DIRECTOR: This is brilliant.
I guess I should thank them because this dumb video is probably why “Cut Your Hair” never became a hit on MTV, and so Pavement never became the next Nirvana, and so I can still pretend to be cool and indie when I say they’re my favorite band.
Malkmus, apropos of nothing: “I think Max Weinberg is a total prick.”
The first of several videos that try to work the “guys being goofy and candid” angle. Here’s why that doesn’t work: These are not interesting or exciting people, so they’re not gonna do anything crazy or cool, and they don’t like each other very much, so the chemistry is forced and inorganic. And “Gold Soundz” is really the worst of both worlds because it combines this lousy candidness with some idiotic “Santas bow-hunting a dead chicken then driving a convertible” thing. Do these fucking directors even listen to the songs? What part of “you’re the kind of girl I like/because you’re empty and I’m empty” screams “goofy antics” to you?
Malkmus: “That guy Dinger stole my sunglasses. They’re Ray-Bans.”
In the commentary the guys say the whole “hot chick digging up a lunch box” intro only exists because the director was trying to sleep with the actress, so we’re off to a good start. But hey, maybe since we got that out of the way this video won’t have a lame concept with zero visual appeal. Oh wait, they’re walking backwards through the crowds for no reason. Never mind.
I can almost give this video a pass because some of the footage is pretty nice (especially the slow-mo shots of the band on stage with the surging crowd in the background). But I can’t let my standards slip that low. This song really meant something to me in high school. I still think it perfectly evokes the detached suburban Americana of my youth. And we get the guys kinda screwing around at some European festivals? The song deserves better.
This video is also Exhibit A in the case of “for god’s sake don’t show Stephen Malkmus lip-syncing.” Exhibits B, C, D, E, and F forthcoming.
Malkmus, when he throws a beer on some guy in the video: “Why did that have to be a real beer? I feel bad, doing that to that kid. Why couldn’t I have just used water?”
“Rattled by the Rush”
Pavement rushed out their third album, Wowee Zowee, because the “Pavement could be the next Nirvana” sentiment was apparently plausible after the mild mainstream success of Crooked Rain (how anybody actually let themselves believe that is beyond me). So they went all-in with the lead single, filming an energetic video that made the band look cool. Except the violent camera movement gave people motion sickness. And the only solution was to key the entire video onto a tiny bathroom tile as the tub slowly filled. That should tell you, in a nutshell, everything you need to know about the band’s eternal struggle with the music video format. The song didn’t take off, and Pavement stayed relatively underground. Oh, and you can check out the original video if you want, but it’s seriously nauseating. I’m not kidding; don’t watch it if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.
Malkmus: “I was smoking so much grass I thought this was gonna be a big radio hit.”
“Father to a Sister of a Thought”
Okay so it’s like regular Pavement but cowboys.
Malkmus: “Finally we actually look good in our video. Or at least I think I do.”
So you’re the director of Pavement’s “Stereo” video. Tasked with capturing the tone of their most erratic song to date, you get footage in which the band’s wardrobes and energy levels make them look like middle-aged alcoholics, filmed against a bland set that doubles as the world’s worst “green” screen, and you bag plenty of close-ups of Stephen Malkmus contemptuously half-assing his lip syncing. It’s a strong start, but it needs something more. Then it hits you. Cereal! Of course! It’s so obvious! How better to visualize this song’s irreverent, riotous spirit than to stitch in a half-dozen slow-motion porno shots of milk being poured over cereal? Why, you can even throw it up on that shitty green screen! Sometimes you amaze even yourself.
Malkmus: “There really just isn’t much to say.”
Here it is. The big one. In one corner, “Shady Lane,” the best song from the best indie band ever. In the other, Spike Jonze, the best ever director of indie music videos.* A match of epic proportions. A duel that will live in infamy. A super-heavyweight title bout that CANNOT POSSIBLY MISS.
But no. Pavement’s anti-quality aura was too strong. The video is just as boring, incoherent, and conceptually boneheaded as the rest of them, only purtier because Spike shot it. What a waste. Well, at least it carries on the tradition of useless shots of breakfast foods. I can find some comfort in that.
Malkmus: “Doesn’t seem so bad to me now after all the others.”
* Yeah, okay, I know Michel Gondry is way better. But you have no idea how pumped I was when I first saw this pairing. I felt like I was about to watch the extended, unrated, too-hot-for-theaters version of the Scarlett Johansson/Penelope Cruz make-out scene from Vicky Christina Barcelona.
This is my favorite Pavement video. Not because it’s any good (it’s definitely stupid) but because the whole band hated Steve by this point. I mean, his oversized talent (with arrogance to match) meant that they were never really going to get along, but for their fifth and final album, Terror Twilight, Malkmus basically jettisoned his bandmates. Only his songs appear on the record, where before he’d let the others write a track or two, and he recorded almost all of the instruments himself (with Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich, no less). So while in the previous “Pavement goofing off” videos the band’s camaraderie simply feels flat, this time antagonism is thick in the air. Malkmus tries to carry the weight, flailing about with gangly limbs, but he’s too stiff and cynical to do anything compelling. And everyone else just seethes with repressed resentment, forced to act silly under the weight of naked loathing.
Malkmus: “Anyone have anything to drink in here?”
“Spit on a Stranger”
I won’t even acknowledge something so boring.* Instead I’ll tell you why all these videos stink: Pavement has no visual identity. They look, act, and ultimately are just like regular suburban dudes, if regular suburban dudes had weird indie bands. Further, they don’t even have a solid musical identity. They’re hailed as the progenitors of indie rock and lo-fi, but that phase only lasted one album. Their tone and style shifted constantly under Malkmus’s mercurial guidance, and while that made for some uniquely impressive music, it also meant that an image of the band never had the space to crystallize. The only constants through their five records are a detached attitude and abstract lyrics, which aren’t exactly the strongest starting points for interpretive art. So none of their album covers, concert posters, merchandise, or music videos ever came close to capturing their elusive character. Even the most talented people charged with visualizing Pavement’s music were faced with an impossible task.
*Neither will Malkmus, apparently. He just eats chips through the entire commentary.
The nadir. A video so bad they scrapped the whole thing and replaced it with a completely different, Pavement-free version. (In retrospect, they probably should have figured that one out before their last video.) The artistic vision this time involves filming five boring guys playing mini-golf. Riveting. But then we get to Malkmus’s, erm… solo performance? Which makes sense because he’s been so good in all those other ones? I… I just don’t know. I’m left with the impression that nobody involved in the production of these videos ever had any enthusiasm for the job, but compelled to make them by some force of cosmic mediocrity, they went about their work slowly, poorly, and wearing a big pouty frown, like a child set to his chores by a stern mother.
Malkmus: “Such a fruity song. Embarrassed I made it up.”