PRINT January 1991


Music Vids

WHY DO PEOPLE watch music videos, assuming they do? People I know watch them to pass the time, say, during the commercials of a network show, or while a movie vid rewinds. People I know don’t expect much from them, and they’re rarely surprised.

Very occasionally a roommate will shriek, “Terri! It’s Monie Love.” Or Queen Latifah or the Jungle Brothers. Someone whose music I like already. And I’ll come running, and we’ll watch intently for clues to personality, trying to flesh out our grasp of the music through knowledge of the artist: how they look, move, emote; whether they can dance. Is their image funny? Cute? Silly? Does it support or undermine what I like in their music? Probably like most music-vid watchers, I believe what I’m shown.

That means that if someone like Warrant uses a video to spew forth “she’s my cherry pie” with the usual connotations numbingly present, I swallow the bait and tag them ignorant dicks. If yet another full-lipped chanteuse tosses her hair back and presses her arms together for max cleavage, yeah, I assume she’s a witless bimbo, roll my eyes and switch off channel zero. I figure these performers are (at least) somewhat responsible for what I’m seeing.

Videos are expected to sell records. They’re advertising. To advertise means to sell fantasy. I got nothing against videos selling me fantasy; but whose fantasies are these anyway—these endless, multihued streams of fuckable women, these worshipping herds of dancers, these hard-faced men slaying audiences/cops/rivals with a single word (or guitar solo)? The sheen of “perfection” moves across my eyes: women with no body hair and not an ounce of extra fat; men bulging with overdeveloped muscle (yeah, including); cars and clothes gleaming with cost and desire.

And why are these dreams so easily pegged? I mean, if we’ve got a cult of personality going on here, at least provide a personality. The anonymity of all the pretty video boys and girls adds to nothing, for me. But perhaps there’s method there, and the malleability of the faces is the point: insert yourself here. The body of the Everywoman (red lips, big hair and tits) can be yours. You too can lick the hand that feeds you dog food.

In Wilson Phillips’ video of “Impulsive,” the camera avoids the bulk of one of the women, focusing instead on the precocious curves of her two slender bandmates. In one achingly obvious scene, she’s put behind a piano while the others cavort starkly against a white backdrop. Go ahead, suck what distinguishes this threesome away into some video vacuum: quirks like body fat do not exist on MTV except as comedy. And overweight girls can “do” (as in play piano) because they’re failures at “being” (being watched, that is). It’s all so tired it makes me yawn.

MTV can be a barren place if, like mine, your fantasies are gardens of the idiosyncratic. I can search for hours for an unself-conscious moment, a trace of vulnerability, an imperfection, even ugliness. More “unattractive” men than women do make it on the air (check out the guy in Snap—scary), yet having a penis doesn’t always protect against the style police: Steffan Chirazi in the 30 October 1990 Village Voice relates that MTV turned down Tad’s video of “Woodgoblins” on account of the lead boy’s unfortunate appearance.

I guess I appreciate a little risk, a little subtext to the formula. Sure, there are certain rules in creating an “accessible” video, but there’s room to comment on what you’re doing, opportunities to react to the code. We were watching A Tribe Called Quest’s vid for “Can I Kick It?” and a friend commented, “Look, everybody’s smiling.” And they were and just a bit too long, as if they were at some family function and the camcorder got rolling and everybody started feeling punch-drunk and silly. The Tribe even grin at each other—not the shit-eating grin of “man, they’re diggin’ us tonight” but a softer stretch that says “man, this is goofy.” In the same band’s “Bonita Applebum,” lead rapper Q-Tip beseeches the viewer for her attention, then gives her a lengthy once-over—in other words, he’s checking out the camera person, knees to nose. The screen blanks to the words “eh heh,” like a bubble of his thoughts, and a spirit of play underlines the dorky obnoxiousness of the stereotypical male come-on. The video further undermines Q-Tip’s verbal courting with a repeated shadow play: Q-Tip’s rap “ain’t no need to question the authority” is fast followed by a silhouette of a woman uppercutting the chin of a male shadow. In the end, Q-Tip is the only dancer without a partner.

A willingness to appear ridiculous definitely screws with the star-making video machinery. Of course, if your image as a musician rests on being zany—as does Mojo Nixon’s, say—more of the same becomes merely annoying. (And if you’re only inadvertently ridiculous, like George Michael, well, sorry.) Cure videos almost uniformly cast leader Robert Smith as a doltish, pathetic character, which is amusing in that Cure music takes melancholy very seriously indeed. In the video “Never Enough,” the five members of the Cure perform within a three-foot-square boxlike stage. Appearing as raggedy and repugnant giant mutants, the band fits right in with the video’s gothic-freak-show trappings. Smith pushes his despair- and lipstick-smeared face into the camera and drags a ball and chain around, moaning all the while. Meantime, the band boys try to squeeze star moves into too little space, acting out a swell metaphor for the arena-wide gestures of ego rock.

Which is not to say that emotion and meaning have to be undercut in a good (or at least interesting) video. Both metal granddads Judas Priest and Los Angeles rapper YO-YO come off pretty serious in their respective recent clips. When a roommate walked in on the Priest’s “Painkiller,” she said wryly, “I can see why parents would be afraid of these guys.” In strobe flashes of white, black, and almost metallic gray, Judas Priest play. There are no “sexy” women, no exotic locations, not a lot of posing. There is this: faces and bodies portraying the strain of performing this fast and this intently. The camera pretends no objective distance, but comes in close and quick like a kid pressed to the front of the stage, her gaze swinging from musician to musician, tense and dazzled. The video’s hyperreality, its Emotion Writ Large, is the rush of performance. Unlike Love and Lust and Betrayal, this is a meaning not yet sucked dry through numbing repetition, not yet needy of a winking subtext.

Ditto for YO-YO’s “Stompin’ the 90’s,” which puts a gender spin on Public Enemy’s shock-troop mannequins, the Security of the First World. Wearing T-shirts stamped “Intelligent Black Women’s Coalition,” the female dancers around Yo-Yo sport a militaristic attitude recalling the women in Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames. The calisthenic movements of their strong, straight limbs weave a message: prepare. Be ready. In the context of YO-YO’s confident militance and the dancers’ vigor, the stray butt-shake I catch is charming, playful, a notice that passion belongs here too—and humor. The subtlety of the shot, and the context of that fluid movement, keep those emotions lowercase and valid.

MTV in general is not a friend to nuance. Its videos, p.s.a.’s, commercials, and veejays bludgeon the viewer with swollen signs: believe this, be hip to this, buy this, fall in love with this. With the exception of Yo! MTV Raps, the channel’s chief feeling toward its audience seems to be disdain: “normal” people show up to be ridiculed on the Remote Control game show, and to be patted on the head by the very vacuous “Downtown” Julie Brown on Club MTV. As in the Clearasil commercials sprinkled liberally among the videos, any blemishes or unsightly distinguishing marks should be blotted and smoothed out, just as any queer and quirky obsession/fantasy should slowly succumb to the bulldozing, paralyzing clichés of hot babes, cold beers, and a bitchin’ ’mobile. The easier to sell to you, my dear.

The question for the artist is how to make a video (for it seems you must) without video form and function bleeding you lifeless in the process. The answers lie in the endearing Laurel and Hardy interplay of Doctor Dre and Ed Lover on Yo! MTV Raps. And in the textural sensuousness of Neneh Cherry’s vid for “I’ve Got U Under My Skin.” And in Q-Tip’s eyes, lively and knowing. I watch MW seeking signs of complexity, near winks and imperfect smiles and emotions sketched subtle and small, some kind of proof that I’m not yet alone in treasuring difference and its corollary, beauty.

Terri Sutton is a writer who lives in Minneapolis.