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How Music Videos Portray Downtown Los Angeles

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The change in media was swift when MTV launched 34 years ago, on August 1, 1981. While film shoots were ubiquitous in downtown Los Angeles since the silent era, now music video production swept into the area, frequently showcasing the city's viaducts that arched over the river. Downtown's authentic mise-en-scène of concrete and sun gave directors instant realism for a low cost, offering a visual shortcut that exploited the city's on-screen reputation earned from the cynical independent films of the 1960s and 1970s, or TV cop shows of the 1970s and 1980s.

And there were also videos made by those who understood downtown and moved past a generic visual of every-city, just as we see in "Los Angeles Plays Itself," the Thom Andersen documentary that shows how film could scrape away Hollywood's attitudes toward Los Angeles. The shorter history of music videos shows that directors were quicker to reflect an understanding for downtown Los Angeles. Astute Angelenos can see the real city seep through the hyper-editing of those early videos.

Here are a few videos that feature downtown Los Angeles' urban environments:

Herb Alpert - "Tijuana Taxi"

Before MTV, there was Scopitone from France, a 1960s precursor to music videos, which were produced for special jukeboxes installed in clubs across Europe. For a brief lifespan, they even migrated to the U.S., and even featured downtown Los Angeles. One of those early 16mm films promoted Herb Alpert's "Tijuana Taxi" using the simulated Mexican town of Olvera Street as a setting that didn't burden viewers to seek an authentic Los Angeles. Rather, audiences were encouraged to marvel at the choreography, which reveals how 1960s popular dance was at the end of a clumsy transition from burlesque to TV variety show.

Madonna - "Borderline"

One early modern music video using downtown as a backdrop was Madonna's 1984 "Borderline." Featuring a strong visual direction, the video was a tale of rivalry for an urban American girl between her Latino breakdancing boyfriend and a photographer with a power Datsun and loft. It was directed by Mary Lambert, who attended Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1970s before moving to Los Angeles. She didn't try to fool the viewer that Madonna was in New York, or reduce Los Angeles to a generic city. Opening in slow motion at the Fourth Street Viaduct -- in what is now the Arts District -- the location is cast as a barrio. There are also scenes set in a photographer's studio, and in front of long-gone café and bar advertising Mexicano and Salvadoran comida. "She was going to be in L.A., so we decided to make it into a real L.A. video," said Lambert in Rob Tannenbaum's book, "I Want My MTV." "I knew the downtown L.A. area really well, because there were a lot of artist bars there."

The Stranglers - "All Roads Lead To Rome" (1982).

The Stranglers - "All Roads Lead to Rome"

The video for "All Roads Lead to Rome" -- the 1983 release by the Surrey, England-raised band, The Stranglers -- displays how downtown Los Angeles mirrors the majesty and flaws of European cities, perhaps a similar "empire" with a stagnant class system. In the video, the band is seen touring in a yellow Mustang convertible, peppered with quick cuts of street shots or cabs to emphasize the lyrics "yellow chariots race" past "peasants and their peasant smells / Hungry to touch your frightened face." The band mates stand at the base of the Central Library with heads fixed in a Mt. Rushmore pose with a stiff-upper lip aloof, in awe of being in an American city.

Los Lobos - "Will the Wolf Survive?"

There is a localized affection by Los Angeles musicians that archived Broadway of the 1980s and portrayed Latino merchants as people and not props, countering an outsider's view. Los Lobos' "Will The Wolf Survive" is a polished work of quick scenes showing the city as a trap of false promise, as two lovers escape to the desert. The high-profile "The Streets With No Name" video for U2, directed by Meiert Avis, had touches of reality when Latinos are seen peeking out of windows where garments were sewn, and is an observation of how Angelenos of the late 1980s were willing to invade downtown, only if a subversive event was happening.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Under the Bridge"

The authentic voice reached new heights with "Under The Bridge" in 1992. The song about souls lost to addiction, was brought to life in video form by director Gus Van Sant for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If you read the video as text, a telling moment is the cinéma vérité of Anthony Kiedis reconnecting himself in the streets. To Kiedis, it didn't matter which bridge the song was about. It was more about the darkness of Los Angeles, and how people on Broadway's sidewalk help him with self-healing.

The Beastie Boys - "Sabotage"

Downtown is the star in famed director Spike Jonze's "Sabotage" video for the Beastie Boys, which parodied 1970s shows. The story was conceived by Adam "MCA" Yauch and has the band members dressed as fictitious cop characters with bad mustaches and wigs.

Run-DMC vs. Jason Nevins - "It's Like That"

This video showcases dance warfare from hip-hop and suburban break-dancers. The rivals make use of the empty shell of the Santa Fe Depot as schematic background before it became the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Exene Cervenka and The Original Sinners - "Whiskey For Supper"

Exene Cervenka dances with her ex-husband Viggo Mortensen and her other ex-husband/bandmate John Doe in the dirt near the railroad tracks before the city's grit became gentrified soul.

Booker T. Jones - "Progress"

During the transition of downtown Los Angeles, the city is seen in conflict when the Gold Line started operating and the promises of better days were ahead, as the LA Times wrote in 2011. "They were snapshots of things that were real and unaffected while simultaneously being filmed with the idea of hope and progression," said director Aaron Hymes in the interview. "I wanted to capture that upbeat, positive vibe and re-create those feelings with a contemporary twist. Downtown L.A. was the perfect setting," he continued. "It's a city that's still changing, still moving forward, and has a uniqueness and sunny positivity you just can't find anywhere else."

Chicago - "Stay the Night"

Downtown will never completely lose its offhand code that feeds a fetishistic pop culture of epic danger, which in music videos is just another version of a romantic backdrop. Chicago's "Stay the Night" was directed by Gilbert Bettman Jr. to be a Hollywood-influenced car chase with stunt work. Filmed around the Sixth Street Bridge and Los Angeles River, lead singer Peter Cetera fails to get the girl while caught in the hostile world between driver and pedestrian.

Bob Dylan - "Duquesne Whistle" (2012). | Director: Nash Edgerton.

Bob Dylan - "Duquesne Whistle"

The downtown male failing to attract his love interest and suffering brutal conditions is also in Bob Dylan's "Duquesne Whistle" from 2012. After the romantic lead's unsuccessful attempt to catch the affection of a girl during the day, the video cuts to Bob Dylan strutting down a nighttime Broadway with an entourage of cholos toting music cases. It can be presumed they are carrying instruments and not firearms since Dylan's entourage also has two females made up for clubbing or singing backup, and another person dressed to do KISS covers. The walk down Broadway inter-cuts with the main story of boy chasing the girl, boy gets accosted in a Tarantino-like kidnapping; boy gets dumped on a sidewalk later that evening. Then we see Dylan and posse deftly step over him -- the only scene that connects the two storylines. It says the old cool is still new cool and there's no time for those who can't maneuver the city with rhythmic swagger.

Pharrell Williams - "Happy" (2013). | Directors: French team We Are from LA.

Pharrell Williams - "Happy"

"Happy" by Pharrell Williams has upbeat residents dancing with glee in streets and buildings, which has one think that the Weird Al parody, "Tacky," is also a poke at downtown hipster fashion.

Marilyn Manson - "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles" (2015). Director: Francesco Carrozzini.

Marilyn Manson - "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles"

But there will always be artists who will not allow downtown to escape the clutch of darkness and evil. Released in May, "The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles," directed by Francesco Carrozzini, has Marilyn Manson rounding up the mascots of evil, lingering in a parking lot, and using a dark foreboding alley for a baptism of the downtown damned.

Kendrick Lamar - "Alright"

There's also a mix of downtown as myth and nefarious in Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," directed by Colin Tilley. Also in black and white, a cinematic Lamar floats above all of us (production was noticed when he was doing his own stunt work suspended over Figueroa and 11th Street a few months ago). In the closing scene, he is again perched on a light pole with downtown in the background and shot down by rogue LAPD. He falls and hits the ground. After he lands, he smiles to the camera, as to say that myth and reality can float together. Downtown Los Angeles is a music video location where that is a believable trope.

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Top image: Kendrick Lamar rides the Sixth Street Bridge in "Alright" (2015). | Director: Colin Tilley.

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