Music Videos

The desert’s most iconic pop culture moments.

music video, u2, i still haven't found what i'm looking for, las vegas, desert, fremont street, alta journal

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” 1987

On a cool April evening more than three decades ago, Bono and the boys took to Las Vegas’s Fremont Street to serenade the largely clueless crowds. Bono hammed it up for the tourists; the Edge, on acoustic guitar, looked like he’d rather be anywhere but there. Two weeks later, U2 was the biggest band on the planet, its award-winning fifth album, The Joshua Tree, topping U.S. charts. This music video captures a long-gone moment when the Irish rock quartet could walk down a U.S. street unencumbered (and before Sin City’s second-most-famous thoroughfare was roofed and rebranded as the “Fremont Street Experience”).

music video, janet jackson, love will never do without you, herb ritts, dry lake bed, el mirage, mojave desert, california, alta journal

Love Will Never Do (Without You),” 1990

In 1990, fashion photographer Herb Ritts ventured to the dry lake bed El Mirage, in the Mojave, to direct Janet Jackson in this music video featuring gyrating, shirtless dancers; eye candy appearances by actors Djimon Hounsou and Antonio Sabato Jr.; and the typically covered-up Jackson in a midriff-baring top and jeans. For years, the pop singer had been pigeonholed as a child sitcom star (Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes) and the baby of the Jackson family dynasty. With the sexually charged “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” her public image was forever transformed. The song became a number-one hit, while Jackson’s time with Ritts would earn her an MTV award for Best Female Video.

music video, red hot chili peppers, give it away, mojave desert, california, stéphane sednaoui, alta journal

Give It Away,” 1991

The black-and-white images were unlike anything else on MTV: Anthony Kiedis in cornrows, glittery lipstick, and head-to-toe silver paint; guitarist John Frusciante whipping around an enormous silver ribbon, backward (in the video, much cooler-looking than it sounds); a nonstop panoply of filmed-from-below crotch shots—all set against the backdrop of the Mojave Desert. The weird look and feel, courtesy of French fashion photographer and video director Stéphane Sednaoui, concerned Warner Bros. execs because, well, watch it! Even so, the video from the quintessential SoCal band became a breakthrough hit on MTV, where it was nominated for six Video Music Awards, winning two.

music video, selena, amor prohibido, joshua tree national park, california, desert, alta journal

Amor Prohibido,” 1994

The title track from Selena’s fourth studio album would become the most successful U.S. Latin single of 1994. In the accompanying music video, shot against the granite formations and flora of Joshua Tree National Park, the Tejano superstar belts out a timeless song of forbidden love. In 2021, nearly three decades after Selena’s murder, the cast and crew of Netflix’s Selena: The Series re-created the making of the video for the show’s second season, replicating Selena’s wardrobe (oversize men’s shirt and blue jeans) and the set’s green door to nowhere. In the update, Baja California’s Valle de Guadalupe stood in for Joshua Tree.

music video, tupac shakur, dr dre, california love, california desert, victor valley, el mirage, alta journal

California Love,” 1995

In November 1995, two rap titans trekked out to the Mojave to create what would become one of the greatest tributes to the Golden State in music video history. In the nearly seven-minute video, Dre and Tupac extol the virtues of California (the parties, the fashions, the “bomb-ass hemp”), with nods to everything from “California Dreamin’ ” and The Warriors to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Chris Tucker and George Clinton show up, and there are shout-outs to L.A., Compton, Oakland, Watts, Inglewood, and Long Beach. Unheralded is the Victor Valley community of El Mirage, which doubles in the video as a postapocalyptic wasteland a century in the future.

music video, madonna, frozen, mojave desert, cuddeback lake, california, jean paul gaultier, alta journal
Warner Bros

Frozen,” 1998

The Material Girl initially considered Iceland for the shoot because, well, “Frozen.” Figuring that the Nordic nation might be too cold for her, Madonna opted for the Mojave’s sunbaked Cuddeback Lake, not realizing that even California deserts can get bitterly chilly in the middle of winter. Jean Paul Gaultier provided the flowing fashions, while masterful CGI transformed Madonna into a jet-black Doberman and a conspiracy of ravens. The eerie setting—the parched, cracked surface of the earth; the barren landscape—is pure Cuddeback Lake, an isolated spot popular with desert tortoises and off-roaders alike.

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Getty Images

Praying,” 2017

In her Grammy-nominated pop ballad, Kesha calls out an unnamed antagonist who “put [her] through hell”; many assumed it was Dr. Luke, a record producer whom Kesha had accused of sexual assault and emotional abuse in a 2014 lawsuit. For the video, Kesha visited two well-known folk art installations to the east of the Salton Sea: Salvation Mountain, created by outsider artist Leonard Knight, where Kesha goes to pray, and the art garden of East Jesus (think Watts Towers, except in the Colorado desert), where she fights a pair of pig-faced men. The song and video marked a major comeback for the star after a five-year hiatus, and “Praying” remains one of pop music’s most powerful diss tracks. •

Robert Ito is a journalist based in Los Angeles.
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