Science fiction themes have been intertwined with popular music since the days of Ziggy Stardust, early Yes album covers, and Parliament’s Mothership Connection, to name but the tiniest handful of examples. Continuing along that evolutionary path, modern science fiction’s technologically oriented, frequently dystopian edge is well represented within today’s popular music scene in the form of the modern medium of music videos. I frequently hear, “People still make music videos??” as though the loss of the original MTV programming format decades ago signified the death knell of the medium, but the fact is that music videos today are a frequently outstanding creative outlet, often featuring top notch production values and innovative storytelling, and science fiction has a very credible hold in this format (overwrought Muse videos notwithstanding).
Here are five science fiction themed music videos that take a look at unfolding, futuristic societal dilemmas, using five entirely different aesthetic approaches to get their messages across:
Janelle Monáe — Many Moons
Choosing a Janelle Monáe video to highlight in a list of five is a tricky endeavor, particularly if your self-imposed constraint is to avoid choosing five Janelle Monáe videos and calling it a day. Her most recent endeavor, the fifty-minute long “emotion picture” called Dirty Computer, co-starring Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok, Annihilation), spawned a series of fantastic videos set in a dystopian future where individuality is scrubbed from rebel youth by a fascist state. If you want to see a breathtaking, hopeful vision of what the population of America will look like someday soon, invest the fifty minutes in this experience. (The video for “Crazy, Classic, Life” is a good trailer if you need further enticement.)
But even back in 2007, her dystopian vision felt fully realized in the story of her alter ego, the android Cyndi Mayweather, in danger of being disassembled for the crime of falling in love with a human. Mayweather occupied the protagonist role in an EP called Metropolis: The Chase Suite (an overt nod to the film of the same name) and an album, The ArchAndroid, a second part to Mayweather’s story in which she became a revolutionary figure to an android underground.
“Many Moons,” published to YouTube in 2009, takes us on the scene of an android auction where multiple variations of the Mayweather model are for sale. Monáe’s vision and execution as an artist seem as flawless even that early in her career as they are today, nearly a decade later.
LCD Soundsystem — oh baby
LCD Soundsystem’s videos prior to its dissolution back in 2011 often had an edgy, boisterous vibe. The video for “Drunk Girls,” for instance, saw the band actively harassed across all corners of a soundstage by an anarchist crew dressed as pandas, who sprayed them with fire extinguishers, shot fireworks at them, doused them in champagne, and duct taped them together—you know, “for fun!” (Sadly this video disappeared from YouTube, although you can still see a thirty second trailer for it.)
But the band’s first video since reuniting in 2016, “oh baby” (from the album american dream), is a big step narratively, and the personnel on hand are impressive. Directed by Rian Johnson (who previously directed a small independent cult film called Star Wars: The Last Jedi), “oh baby” stars Academy Award winning actress Sissy Spacek (currently starring in Castle Rock) and David Straithern (who recently guest starred on season three of The Expanse) as a pair of married scientists who devote their waning days together to unraveling a major scientific discovery.
I had the pleasure of watching this video for the first time without understanding more than that, and I’d encourage that experience, with one exception: as the video comes to its surprising resolution, listen for the closing lyric of the song—“There’s always a side door / Into the dark”—for maximum emotional impact.
Massive Attack — Voodoo In My Blood
Massive Attack emerged onto the music scene as an integral part of the trip hop soundtrack of the ‘90s, innovators helping to invent a style of music that seemed archetypically cyberpunk. In 2016, they released an excellent record called Ritual Spirit, featuring the return of Tricky to the band’s fold for a release, and on this track, a guest appearance by Young Fathers.
The video for “Voodoo In My Blood” is a striking piece of work, jarring to watch, evocative of the underlying menace of technology’s sway over both society and the individual. Starring Academy Award nominated actress Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), this sci-fi horror video pulls together two major influences of the director, Ringan Ledwidge. The structure of the video mirrors a scene from the 1981 film Possession, in which that film’s unfortunate protagonist finds herself alone in a subway station as she’s rapidly losing her sanity. But Ledwidge also inserts a direct homage to the 1979 sci-fi horror film Phantasm, in the form of a creepy floating ball that hijacks control of Pike’s autonomy.
Lorn — Anvil
Lorn is an electronic musician who has released music on the Ninja Tune, Brainfeeder, and Wednesday Sound labels, remixing for the likes of Amon Tobin and Eskmo, and producing video game soundtrack music for Killzone Shadow Fall and others. I first experienced Lorn’s video excellence with the “Acid Rain” video, a South by Southwest official selection in 2016, in which a car crash results in zombie cheerleaders dancing in dynamic formation.
“Anvil” features a considerably more ambitious narrative. In a heavily overpopulated future (the directors of the video, the duo known as GERIKO, state the year is 2100, which is optimistic for imagining overpopulation on this climate challenged planet but go with it), civilization has developed Anvil, a networked afterlife. The dystopian black and white video introduces us to Ana Cassini, as she reviews her life during her final moments as a person in a physical body, before her mind is uploaded into Anvil. It’s a chilling, disturbing piece, described by GERIKO as “a fusion of both Japanese and Belgian comics inspirations and sensibilities, such as Ghost in the Shell, Akira, or Peeters & Schuiten’s work.”
Chage & Aska — On Your Mark
I generally have a rule that I don’t recommend videos if I don’t like the songs that are featured, but I wanted to make an exception here because the provenance of this video is fascinating. In this case, the song is by a Japanese rock duo, Chage & Aska, and the video, released in 1995, is by none other than Hayao Miyazaki. It’s an official Studio Ghibli production, appearing on Laserdisc and DVD collections before vanishing from print. The video also featured Ghibli’s first experimentation with computer animation, as the studio learned techniques that would be applied in films beginning with Princess Mononoke.
Miyazaki wrote and directed this sci-fi/fantasy video to distract himself from writer’s block while working on Princess Mononoke. The result is the tale of two honorable police officers in a futuristic Japanese city, who discover a young mutant girl with angelic wings in the custody of a cult-like organization. Against orders and protocol, they proceed to break her out and help her escape. But the story is nonlinear, and repeats sequences to different narrative effect across multiple loops through various scenes. The final images of the video are ultimately bittersweet and hopeful at the same time.
Scotto Moore is a Seattle playwright, whose works include the black comedy H.P. Lovecraft: Stand-up Comedian!, the sci-fi adventures Duel of the Linguist Mages and interlace [falling star], the gamer-centric romantic comedy Balconies, and the a cappella sci-fi musical, Silhouette. He is the creator of The Coffee Table, a comedic web series about a couple that discovers their new coffee table is an ancient alien artifact that sends their house shooting through the void. He is also behind the popular Lovecraft-themed meme generator, Things That Cannot Save You (“a catalog of your doom”), and the not popular music blog, Much Preferred Customers. Scotto is the author of Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You—available now from Tor.com Publishing. He tweets @scottomoore.