I haven’t watched MTV in years; the last time I tuned in, the programming schedule didn’t include many music videos. Inane game shows and morbidly fascinating reality shows were about it. Any actual videos jarred my psyche like a fingernail dragged down a chalkboard. It wasn’t the various forms of gratuitous vulgarity that disturbed me – it was bad art. The lyrics were ridiculous. The music wasn’t what I would call “creative.” The choreography was repetitive and boring. Were they singing anywhere near on pitch, or was it all Auto-Tune matched to a pretty face? With very few exceptions, I was convinced that the music video as art was doomed.
But one evening three years ago, as I wrote and listened to the music streaming from my husband’s computer in the study, I heard a melody so haunting and beautiful that I stopped typing, my fingers frozen above the keyboard mid-sentence. I just sat there, all ears.
“Sweets,” I yelled, “Who is that?”
An unconventional melody from an Icelandic band, surely far away from the musical-visual shores of MTV. I bolstered my artistic reserves and walked into the study. Did my eyes behold a music video? I was floored by stark, quiet, light-suffused melancholy scenes and the wide-open geometric Nordic landscape. It looked more like a short film. This telecine magic was directed within three days by natives Arni & Kinski and captured on 35mm film by cinematographer Chris Soos. But the video would not be what it is without a band of überphotogenic children found in Reykjavík.
The story of “Glósóli” – a childlike rendering of “Glowing Sun” – opens to a little towheaded drummer boy sitting by a lake. He looks down at the drumstick in his hands. He taps his boot to the slow rhythm of a bass drum and a music box. He stands and slings a drum over his shoulder. Lead singer Jón Birgisson softly wails in his mournful, ethereal voice:
Nú vaknar þú (Now you are waking up)
Allt virõist vera breytt (Everything seems different)
Ég gægist út (I look around)
En ég sé ekki neitt (But I see nothing at all)
The boy hikes over black lava rock, pauses, and beats his drum. Two girls emerge from behind a stone tunnel, one wearing a fuzzy-bear hat. The drummer gives them a kind, knowing smile, and they skip a step to follow him. As the light grows, he continues to attract and collect those with whom his path crosses – a boy and girl kissing in the shelter of tall grass; a hesitant freckle-faced boy; two misfit boys about to torch an old car; and two girls building a stone altar.
The children follow the leader through night and day, until he rouses the ragtag lot to charge with abandon toward a cliff, seemingly toward a certain plummet. But Sigur Rós’s otherworldly music soars and sails and their story comes to a surprising close.
I suppose there are many subjective takes on the visual story set to “Glósóli,” but I can’t help to see the Gospel narrative. The little drummer boy never says a word, but his eyes speak, “Come, and follow me.” The children drop what they’re doing and obey, and trek behind him without looking back. Sigur Rós’s frontman, Birgisson, plays a part in the story, too, as the voice of the Other who sings the way for the drummer and his short motley crew to go. Most songs I listen to are nonfiction, or poetry, but “Glósóli” is fantasy. As each child takes that last step off the stone cliff toward the Other, the unexpected and miraculous occurs – optimistic, in our often nihilistic society.
I cannot stomach MTV to this day. For me, “Glósóli” was the redemption of music video. Music and cinema are fused creatively in the hands of Sigur Rós. Most music videos are obviously a commercial advertisement for an album, when a song should be able to stand alone as a work of art. Sigur Rós accomplished an exquisite piece of non-commercial art with magical visuals deep enough for a big screen, and even a redemptive melody. Between bookends of music box chimes, the intellectual, post-rock song quietly, steadily crescendoes to a climax – Birgisson’s ethereal voice like another instrument – perfectly matching the pace of the video. The melody makes the ache of melancholy beautiful. I love the entire album (Takk), but I both listen to and watch “Glósóli” repeatedly and never grow weary. From comments I’ve read online, I’m not the only one mesmerized by the video – it’s as if we all recognize that there is a song of the Other guiding us on our pilgrimage; we are a people acquainted with sorrow, yet also with triumph.
But in the end of the video, one lone little boy cannonballs off the cliff instead of following the others. Does he live? Was he just doing his own thing? Did he take a leap of faith, then follow his friends after the camera wasn’t looking? Is the conclusion real, or was it merely a dream? One really doesn’t know, and it’s that element of unanswered mystery, even possible tragedy, that makes art good and true – it reflects those parts of our lives that will never line up with logic. The “Glósóli” video is not so much ambiguous as it is a contemplation of mystery and transcendence.