Rock-and-Roll Vaudeville

THE FIRST VIDEO shown on MTV, or Music Television, when it began three years ago was a song called “Video Killed the Radio Star,”by the Buggles. The title was wishful thinking, a prophecy that rock-and-roll singers who couldn’t hold the camera’s attention would go the way of silent-movie actors with cartoon-character voices. Anyone who took the lyrics at their word and assumed that this new form posed a threat to pure music had only to look at the video itself, which showed the Buggies in an airless, all-white TV studio, surrounded by a lot of futuristic-looking synthesizers and state-of-the-art equipment, lip-synching their hearts out. Every now and again a girl in a tight skirt and spike heels (all the women in music videos wear spike heels) wandered across the screen. That was it. Radio stars had nothing to fear here.

Since then music videos have come a long way, though not nearly far enough. Videos now play a large part in selling records, and singers are under pressure from their record companies to make videos, just as fifteen years ago they were obliged to go on tour. Even Dean Martin has gotten into the act, sitting poolside in his tuxedo and singing “Since I Met You Baby.”

“Beat It,” made in 1983, wasn’t the first good video, but it may have been the first great one. Michael Jackson epitomizes the form at its best—intense and brief. “Beat It" is one of the few videos that actually improve on their songs, which is what a video ought to do, and the song is pretty good to begin with. But the music alone lacks the breakneck momentum that the video has. Where the song is merely agitated, the video is all worked up. The lyrics arc about macho pride and territorial rights, and Jackson grunts and whoops between the lines, accompanying himself. We watch members of two rival gangs leave their hangouts, a sleazy luncheonette and a pool hall, and head for the scene of a fight, a warehouse loading dock. The video cuts back and forth from one gang to the other to Jackson. He stops by the luncheonette, slams the doors openempty— does a little dance at the counter, a preview of what’s to come, and then heads on out. The camera cuts pick up speed and the suspense builds until we finally arrive at the big number. When Jackson comes bouncing down a flight of stairs, snapping his fingers double time, breaking up a knife fight like an agent of divine intervention through dance, we feel like cheering. He parts the gangs, steps to the front, and bursts out dancing, and the tough guys fall in behind, in a finale that goes to show howmuch better a place the world would be if everybody danced.

“Beat It” was a breakthrough. Slick and well made, dramatic, concise, it showed everybody how good music videos could be and inspired a long line of imitations. Suddenly all the people on MTV were dancing, whether they could or not. There was “Uptown Girl,” with Billy Joel and the Lockers, set in a garage. Stevie Nicks galumphed her way through “If Anyone Falls.” A big finale was part of the formula. Donna Summer belted “She Works Hard for the Money” from a fire escape overlooking the street, where a squadron of waitresses, nurses, cleaning ladies, and lady cops rolled their hips and churned a dance routine in unison. Bob Giraldi, who directed “Beat It,” went on to make Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,”another video with a miniature plot that culminates in a big dance finish. Benatar leaves home, in what looks like a small town in New Jersey, and rides the bus into Manhattan, where she walks 42nd Street and winds up a hooker—though you would think that she had joined a sorority: the other girls look on indulgently as she writes a letter to her little brother. The finale takes place in a bar, where a sinister-looking Latin type (Gary Chryst, formerly of the Joffrey Ballet) stares Benatar down and provokes her into dancing with him, to no real avail. Benatar is not what you would call a natural dancer. She’s concentrating so hard that you can read the choreography as it crosses her mind: shimmy two three four, walk, walk, turn . . .

Even Michael Jackson went on to plagiarize his own performance in “Beat It” with “Thriller,” in which he leads a phalanx of dancing ghouls. Weird Al Yankovic has done a “Beat It” parody, called “Eat It,” in which the tough guys wear Happy Face T-shirts and he reproduces Michael Jackson’s moves, verbatim.

Aside from “Beat It" and its sequels, there is a certain sameness to music videos. Most are set in a new-wave nevernever land, where logic and the law of gravity don’t apply. Now that acid rock has given way to coke rock, the corresponding images have gone from psychedelic to surrealistic. A sequence of pictures or events that makes no apparent sense teases the viewer, who keeps watching, waiting for the piece that will explain the entire puzzle; the piece is usually missing. Rooms furnished with a single chair, long billowing curtains, corridors with no exit, empty swimming pools, forests of old gas pumps in the middle of the desert—these are standard features of the landscape, typically lit by a single bare bulb, or a full moon, or the sun’s flat brightness.

The women are long-stemmed, with sexy bodies and baby faces. They wear lots of lipstick, leather clothes, and, when their clothes are off, lingerie that makes them look vaguely sadistic. The men are less attractive, but then they’re the ones who write the songs.

The vast majority of videos look as if they had been directed by the same two or three people, all of whom you would guess to be seventeen-year-old boys.

The screen is overrun with fantasies of wide-open spaces and wdeked girls. Parents get their comeuppance. Everyone drives sexy cars—stretch limos, Chevy convertibles, and Thunderbirds. “I’m in love with a working girl,” the Members sing, wearing sleeveless black leather jackets and jeans, as they guzzle champagne paid for by gorgeous, expensively dressed career women. In Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug” Lewis falls for a pretty fan in the front row, thereby staging his fantasy of what it’s like to be a rock-and-roll star and every groupie’s fantasy of what could happen at a concert.

Compare these predominantly male notions of a good time with Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” a Bye Bye Birdie—style romp in which she dances up and down the street, sings on the phone to her friends, and throws a party in her room, and men begin to look like an awfully self-important, dull bunch. Whether or not girls just want to have fun, they appear to be the only ones who know how.

VIDEOS DIVIDE FAIRDY neatly into two broad categories. The first is performances—either in a studio, where the director has more control and can devise some fancy effects with lights and cameras, or in concert, where the band is seen in its full glory, at the height of an adrenalin rush, in front of a sellout audience going wild. These are some of the dullest, most gratuitous videos on the screen, and they all tend to look alike, even when the monotonous frenzy of the performance is alleviated by intermittent glimpses of beautiful girls or exotic landscapes. Unfortunately, good singers are not necessarily interesting performers, and music videos consistently expose this in a way that concerts, which get by on being events, almost never do. Furthermore, there is probably nothing to redeem a concert video if you don’t like the song in the first place. While Def Leppard, a heavymetal band I am not fitted to appreciate, beats its music to a pulp, there is not much to look at, unless it’s the drummer dressed in briefs made out of a Union Jack. The Scorpions sing “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” a song that isn’t bad, behind bars, surrounded by an audience. This scene, with the fans getting carried away and shaking the bars in time to the music, is intercut with images of girls in cages. The video ends with the girls and the band members lying down in glass boxes and the lids slamming shut. Despite its use of such loaded images, this video does not purport to mean anything.

Prince and David Bowie are better in concert situations. In “Little Red Corvette” Prince curls his upper lip and half-closes his eyes, coming on to the camera in closeup. This is the kind of shot that a lot of singers attempt but few carry off, and the ones who don’t look ludicrous. (David Lee Roth, the lead singer for Van Halen, flexing his pelvis and crawling on all fours toward the camera, should have been saved from himself.) David Bowie, in “Modern Love,” doesn’t even acknowledge the camera, but he’s riveting to watch and sexy without trying to be. With his hollowcheeked, hungry look and his loosejointed restlessness he captures the song’s nervous energy.

Videos that aren’t performances are referred to as “concept" videos, which may be giving a lot of directors the benefit of the doubt. Nearly all concept videos include shots of the singer singing, but they differ from performance videos in that there’s something else going on and the goings-on dominate the video. Some concepts are better than others, and some are pretty obscure. You wonder, for instance, why there is a gymnast vaulting over and around video monitors on which Asia is seen singing “Only Time Will Tell.” A lot of the weakest videos on MTV seem to be the work of so-called visual people who are careful not to let their minds get in the way of their creativity.

The more successful concept videos are those that are based, however loosely, on a plot: there are characters, a situation is established, and something happens. Bowie’s “China Girl,” a fairly straightforward love story, is a good example. One of the most common devices is to follow two parallel plots simultaneously, cutting from one to the other, until they come together in the final scene. Elton John’s “That’s Why They Call It the Blues” does this, keeping track of a boy in boot camp and his girl back home; in the end the sweethearts are reunited. In the Rolling Stones’ “Undercover” the action alternates between a suburban rec room, where a teenage couple sits watching TV, and some Central American—looking country in the throes of violent revolution, where a truck drives into a cathedral and a man is marched onto a bridge and shot. These two stories converge in the rec room when the girl’s parents walk in on her and her boyfriend making out: the father is wearing an army general’s uniform. In the alternative version of this two-track plot the camera cuts from a story or a dramatic situation to the band playing and in the end the band steps into the plot. Even when there’s a story to be told, it seems, rock bands insist on being the stars of their own videos.

The few exceptions are notable. Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” serves as the soundtrack for a series of desolate black-and-white scenes in which no one, not even Springsteen, appears. One of the most inventive music videos to date is Barnes and Barnes’s “Fish Heads,” an offbeat, amusing, unpretentious sequence of events that dignifies a silty song (“You can ask fish heads anything you want to;/They w’on’t answer, they can’t talk”). No description of these scenes of real fish heads dressed in miniature turtleneck sweaters, propped up in plush theater seats or gathered around a table at a birthday party, can do this bizarre gem justice. “Fish Heads” proves that imagination can take a video a long way, further than closeup shots of celebrity singers or an elaborate, highbudget production can.

Some videos are up to nothing more than entertainment, song-and-dance sales pitches to the camera. ABC, a band with a reputation for inventive video productions, is mastering this form: in “Look of Love” its members roam around a bright-colored fantasyland version of Central Park—steep rolling hills, bridges, and lampposts squeezed onto a tiny sound stage—with such ingenuous conviction that you expect Danny Kaye to turn up and join in.

After watching a lot of music videos, it’s hard to escape the conclusions that no one has the nerve to say no to a rockand-roll star and that most videos would be better if someone did. A lot of these people ought to be told that they’re not irresistible, or that they can’t dance, or that their concept is dumb. Culture Club, for instance, makes dopey videos that do its music, which is pleasant and intelligent, a disservice.

GOOD VIDEOS WORK for various reasons. Despite the conventions that exist already, there is no surefire formula, but the fact remains that dancing can make a video take off. This happens when the choreography is decent and well shot, the performance is good, and the images are edited according to the rhythm of the song. But it doesn’t happen often enough. Judging from most music videos, you would think that dance on television hadn’t come very far. Toni Basil is considered one of the best rock-and-roll choreographers, but her cheerleading routine in “Mickey” doesn’t look any better than my memories of Shindig and Hullabaloo.

The mystery is why music videos aren’t enlisting the best talents in dance today. We know that more interesting possibilities for choreography to rock music exist and that they are surprisingly varied, because we’ve seen them on stage, in works by Twyla Tharp, William Forsythe, Marta Renzi, Karole Armitage, and others. Twyla Tharp’s choreography for The Holden Section, set to the marked rhythms of David Byrne’s music, has a jittery lyricism. In Love Songs, at the Joffrey Ballet, William Forsythe lays bare the obsession and violence inherent in love relations, with highly dramatic choreography that alternates between tender gestures and brutal attacks, set to a score of songs by Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. By comparison the choreography in music videos looks tame and stale.

If this new form is going to justify itself, it might well be by giving us dance performances that we can’t see anywhere else. Though it looks to me as it there is more dancing in recent music videos, it’s astonishing how slow directors have been to catch on to the thrill of watching somebody like Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson cut loose to a good song.

In “Going to a Go-Go” Mick Jagger makes a spectacle of himself, and it’s the spectacle that is impossible to turn away from. You marvel at how he manages to look so magnificently peculiar and ridiculous. He slithers along, sticking his neck out, jerking his knees in a hyperactive, Egyptian-looking style of movement. It’s hard to believe that anyone can be so completely uninhibited in front of an audience. Jagger furthers his songs by losing himself in his music.

Michael Jackson never lets go the way Mick Jagger does, but watching him is a more kinesthetic experience. The audience gets keyed up, waiting for the dancing that is his release. Unlike Fred Astaire or Peter Martins, Michael Jackson doesn’t feign effortlessness. He has taken the concertgoer’s urge to tap his foot in response to good music and the willpower it takes to keep that urge in check and magnified the tug-of-war between them, so that you can see it all over his body: this is the basis of his performance. When he can’t contain the music inside him any longer, he blurts out the steps that have been building up for the past eight or sixteen bars.

It looks as if Michael Jackson has only ten or twelve steps in his repertory and the rest are variations on those. Even so, his ten steps are better than most dancers’ whole vocabularies. One is a staccato kick, a chest-high punch with his foot. Another is a special way of snapping his fingers, with a sideways flick of the wrist, as if he were dealing cards. Another is a high-speed spin: he crosses his knees, wraps one foot around the other, and turns to unwind his legs. His dancing owes something to break dancing, robotics, and mime, but his style is more sophisticated than any of these.

Performances like his are all too rare. You tune in to MTV for a few minutes and you’re still there two hours later, seduced by the rapid turnover into hoping that the next video will be a good one. It isn’t long before you’ve grown weary of the innumerable scenes that feature a rock-and-roll singer lying on a psychiatrist’s couch, intended as an excuse for the fantasies that follow. On the evidence of music videos, most people’s wildest dreams come down to the same few basic themes—vanity, greed, debauchery, retaliation, and sex—and the forms they take are disappointingly similar.