Looking through recent blog posts, I noticed that several of my classmates chose to write about music videos. Consequently, I got to thinking about music videos that I have seen which have left an significant impression on me. Although there are several videos that fit in this category, one video in particular that stands out is "Heart Shaped Box" by Nirvana. Coincidentally, this song was released twenty years ago today. Winning two MTV music awards, the music video for "Heart Shaped Box" is known for its beauty as well as its shocking and controversial imagery.
The opening scene of the video depict three men, the members of Nirvana, sitting around a woman in a hospital bed. What I especially enjoy about the opening shots is the lighting. By using only the natural lighting that appears through a small slit in the curtains, the director, Anton Corbijn, is able to establish the dark mood portrayed throughout the entire video. In the following scene, we are introduced to a frail, old man wearing a santa hat. This old man proceeds to walk through, and on top of, a field of flowers towards a cross. This man is eventually shown tied to the cross as crows pick at his body, clearly evoking Christian imagery.
As the chorus of the song begins, the band is seen playing their instruments in front of the cross. Interestingly, Kurt Cobain, who is the most prominent individual in these shots, is often out of focus. As we return to the verse of the song, we are introduced to a young girl wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume, as well as a woman depicting the angel of the cover of In Utero, reaching for fetuses that are dangling from trees. After giving up her attempt to reach the fetuses, the little girl approaches the man on the cross and begins reaching toward him.
After the second chorus, whose shots are similar to the first, we come upon an interlude. During this this short interlude, the little girl's KKK hat is blown off, flies with butterflies through the air, lands in a puddle, and becomes permeated with dirty water. It is easy to interpret such scenes as being symbolic of the loss of innocence. Disturbingly, the next scene depicts the little girl, whose KKK outfit is now entirely black, standing in front of the woman in the hospital bed, who now has a fetus in her IV bag. Again, it is not a stretch to extrapolate from such imagery that the women in the hospital bed has just lost her baby, and possibly her own life.
The final minute and a half of the video acts as commentary, not only on Nirvana, but on music videos as a whole. First, there is a 35 second medium-shot of all three band members. It is difficult to tell where they are, Dave and Krist are horribly out-of-focus, Kurt uncomfortably stares into the camera, and yet, in my opinion, it is an absolutely perfect shot. The final minute or so of the video consists of several shots of the band members, as well as the little girl, sitting in a red room underneath a large black heart. Unlike the beginning of the video, these shots largely lack variety. Finally the video concludes with a shot of the band members sitting around the woman in the hospital bed as one of them opens the curtains, allowing more light to enter the room.
What I appreciate most about the music video for "Heart Shaped Box" is its total disregard of convention. On the surface, this video appears to be supremely amateur. The shots are often out of focus, poorly framed, and much too long. Additional, most of the video is ambiguous and offensive. However, while this may seem like criticism to some, it is symbolic of what makes Nirvana so great.
In terms of music, Nirvana was born out of an era where many popular musicians cared more about their appearance than the quality of their albums. Mainstream music became formulaic and genuine emotion could scarcely be found. Then, in the early 1990's, Nirvana, as an integral part of the grunge movement, came on the scene and turned the music industry on its head. Instead of wearing make-up and using hairspray, the members of Nirvana wore flannel and had long hair. Instead of sticking to the popular trends of the time, Nirvana separated themselves by creating a raw sound that spoke to many people.
Such apathy towards popular opinion is clearly on display in the music video for "Heart Shaped Box." Instead of relaying on special effects and cheesy dance moves, Nirvana sought to shock and provoke people. While this in mind, Corbijn incorporates elements from two highly controversial subjects, the Ku Klux Klan and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Although ambiguity cannot sometimes be interpreted as laziness, the ambiguity in this video allows each individual to draw their own conclusions. As I said earlier, my favorite shot in the entire video is the 35 second shot of the band. Things like focusing and changing up shots are often among the first topics covered in the most basic production classes. However, by leaving such an awful, at least by conventional terms, shot in the video, Nirvana is sending the message that they don't care what anybody thinks about their music or their video, and that it what makes it so great.