Ten Harrowing Music Videos About Addiction

By Paul Fuhr 06/08/17

Henley's "The Boys of Summer" video reminds me that sometimes we’re best at remembering things we’d rather forget.

Screenshot of Fiona Apple in video for "Criminal"
10 music videos that powerfully and accurately depict addiction.

As a child of the 1980s, I suppose music videos tangle their way through my DNA in all the same ways alcoholic drinking does. I can’t overstate the magical sway MTV had on me at a very early age, with indelible imagery that’s carried its way well into my adulthood: the magic sidewalk lights following Michael Jackson’s footsteps in “Billie Jean”; the menacing cartoon sketchmarks of a-Ha’s “Take on Me”; the high-gloss sheen of yacht life from Duran Duran’s “Rio.” As a kid, the videos awakened all kinds of things inside me: places I should go; people I should know; lives I could aspire to, no matter how shallow they actually were. From the far-flung countryside of Men Without Hats minstrel dancing to the sultry black-and-white cloudscapes of “Wicked Game,” everything seemed heightened and alive.

Music videos perfectly package feelings in quick, bite-sized ways that my alcoholic brain can process. After all, I wasn’t into things for the long haul; I wasn’t interested in anything that required commitment. When it’s all said and done, a slickly produced Whitesnake video starring Tawny Kitaen accomplished more in three minutes than any of the books and high-minded literature I surrounded myself with. But as music videos evolved into a genuine art form, propelled by as many high concepts as high-minded directors, so too did their messages: political rhetoric in DJ Shadow's commanding “Nobody Speak” (featuring Run the Jewels); child-trafficking in Radiohead’s “All I Need”; Tom Petty dancing with Kim Basinger’s bride-corpse. (Okay, maybe not the last one.) Here are ten music videos that do much more than showcase a song—they haunt me as much as they reveal a great deal about addiction.

#1. Sigur Ros – “Óveður”

If you’re an “Icelandic post-rock band,” you’re practically obligated to create a nightmarish, unnerving video about the depths of alcoholism and addiction. “Óveður” (translation: “storms”) is a slow-motion fever dream that follows a homeless woman as she drunkenly inches from one moment to the next. The video’s final plunge into madness is disturbing, yes, but not quite as disturbing as the unapologetic queasiness of her broad-daylight oblivion.

#2. Fiona Apple – “Criminal”

Just watching this 1997 Fiona Apple video makes me feel complicit in some sort of voyeurs-are-welcome way, but that’s the entire point: the addiction, whether it’s substance or sex, is laid bare (literally and figuratively) for anyone to see. The video itself looks alternatively strung-out, sleek, and positively sexless in its sexiness. “Criminal” reveals itself slowly and deliberately, with electronica appearing from hidden places as much as the video’s characters appear in various stages of undress. Very often, Apple is framed like a creature caught in a sexual spiderweb, uncertain how to get herself out of it.

#3. Massive Attack – “Voodoo In My Blood”

Terrifying, erotic, devastating. As if torn from a William Gibson nightmare, this video follows Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike into a subway platform where she’s menaced by a mysterious, floating orb. The setup sounds silly, but it’s a highly effective parable for literally trying to outrun an addiction that knows you better than you know yourself. My alcoholism, like Pike’s menacer, had plugged itself deep inside my brain, lighting up pleasure centers, fears, and anxieties in all the ways that Pike beautifully conveys: a zillion emotions playing across her face as she writhes and contorts and is thrown across the room in choreographed chaos. It’s haunting and hypnotic by equal measure.

#4. Point Point – “Life in Grey” 

Point Point’s video starts off innocently enough, with its loving shots of lithe ballet dancers and a choreographer academically studying her subjects. It’s all a façade, though. “Life in Grey” quickly reveals that we’re not actually watching ballet lessons: we’re watching that same choreographer arrange her “dancers” not in a studio, but at a drunken, drug-fueled party. She’s manipulating and obsessively arranging them, just like I did with every single person in my life. I was always trying to reach a state of perfect, endless bliss, no matter the cost. And in the end, that pursuit of perfection doesn’t just claim you. It claims everyone around you.

#5. Don Henley – “The Boys of Summer”

Hear me out. This classic-rock staple of nostalgia and summer days, appropriately told in black and white, is about addiction in all the ways the song has become something akin to sonic wallpaper. But there’s an aching and melancholy in Henley’s face here as he drives through empty city streets, never finding what’s long since passed. It’s a video that reminds me that sometime we’re best at remembering things we’d rather forget. The famous “don’t look back—you can never look back” lyric is good life advice for me—especially in my desire to occasionally move back to the good times my brain keeps trying to convince me I’m capable of experiencing again.

#6. Girlpool – “123”

Girlpool’s clip takes place at a party where the main character—an awkward, shy woman—tries to connect with other people. No matter who she talks to, she starts oozing rivulets of green blood from her scalp. Despite her best attempts at hiding it—escaping to the bathroom to clean herself—the blood keeps coming. In recovery, I know exactly how she feels: shame, fear, and being uncomfortable in my own skin. Eventually, she gives up trying to disguise the truth, which allows her to find acceptance and peace.

#7. Harrison – “Right Hook”

This is the simplest yet most complex video on the list. A jogger is suddenly drawn to a fellow jogger’s ponytail, which is syncopated to the beat (much like an old VW Jetta commercial I loved). Before long, she’s chasing one ponytail after the next with growing obsession and jealousy. For me, it recalls the crazed, needless feeling of competition I had between others when I started drinking. Everyone seemed to have a simpler, more peaceful life than me. When I was drinking, life was always dealing me one “right hook” or another. It’s only when I became confident in my recovery that I gained all the same peace I saw in other people.

#8. Broken Bells – “The Ghost Inside” 

The “super duo” of Danger Mouse and James Mercer, the lead singer of The Shins, was bound to create something special. The video goes to the next level. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks is an android pilot who keeps hitting one space tollgate after another, quickly running out funds and fuel. Before long, she literally has to take herself apart to go forward—offering up a wrist as payment—only to discover she’s not who she was in the first place. It’s a gut-punch twist that’s at home in science fiction as much as it is in reality. It reminds me that most of who I was as an alcoholic was artificial. All of her happiest memories—nostalgic and perfect in ways they never actually were—haunt her to the point where she can’t escape the addiction that’s carried her there. Before finding sobriety, I was willing to sacrifice every single part of myself to keep moving on.

#9. Radiohead – “Daydreaming” 

The endless Russian nesting-doll approach of this video, as directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, finds us pursuing lead singer Thom Yorke through one doorway after the next after the next. This is the parable of addiction itself: the sad, sorry pursuit of trying to find something better, or someone better, on the other side. And in the end, you’re alone. Even alone in the vastness of a mountain spectacle, it’s still quite what Yorke expected as he’s just as lonely as he was in the beginning. And all of it is lost on you in the mad, hurried rush that is addiction—sweeping past details or how everything in life is interconnected.

#10. Boxer Rebellion – “Diamonds”

This UK group’s track “Diamonds” isn’t just a personal favorite of mine—it’s a video that recalls two distinct moments for me. For one, it reminds me of the panic attack I had in a corporate lobby, collapsing in front of dozens of co-workers. Secondly, it articulates the literal freefall my life was in. I may be “no good next to diamonds,” as lead singer Nathan Nicholson intones, but I also wasn’t good to anything or anyone in my addiction. The main character’s collapse happens in the matter of seconds, but it’s smartly drawn out in epic slow-motion: a simple handshake between co-workers that goes horribly wrong. I know all too well the feeling of barely keeping it together in front of others. Before he knows it, he’s plummeting toward uncertainty. When he recovers at the end, coughing up water, it’s revealed that his imagined plunge is as real as it was transformative.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.