In stores this week is I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s excellent new oral history on the golden age of Music Television. In the book, Billy Squier’s career-killing “Rock Me Tonite” clip is cited as the worst video of all time. Below, Tannenbaum explains why, and the Grantland staff remembers 10 other videos that were almost as bad.
Billy Squier, “Rock Me Tonite”
Rob Tannenbaum: “I Want My MTV includes interviews with more than 400 people, and no two agreed on the best music video of all time. The options are too disparate: Do you prefer the physical comedy of “Hot For Teacher,” the unknowable symbolism of “Let’s Dance,” the dynamic grace of “Beat It,” or the demented junior-year-abroad absurdity of ”Total Eclipse of the Heart”? But when we asked about the worst music video, there was one unanimous answer: Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite.”
Squier’s 1984 video gets an entire chapter in I Want My MTV because it’s an MBA case study in How To Make A Bad Artistic Decision. When Squier’s manager saw the video, he told us, “I was speechless.” When Squier’s label saw it, an executive said, “The immediate consensus was that Billy’s performance was disturbingly effeminate.” Squier, who sat in my living room for three hours to recount the event in detail, said, “When I saw the video, my jaw dropped. It was diabolical.” Squier also said the video snuffed out his career, after two huge-selling albums. “How can a four-minute video do that? OK, it sucked. So?”
Joe Nichols, “If Nobody Believed in You”
Chuck Klosterman: This is not the worst video of all time, because the worst video of all time would undoubtedly be fascinating. This is more like the strangest video I’ve seen in the past 10 years, which probably has more do with the lyrics than any of the visuals. It’s called “If Nobody Believed in You,” by Joe Nichols, and it fall under the “modern country” rubric (just about every intriguing video since 1999 has either been a country song or a hip-hop song, because those genres are still obsessed with making Lifestyle Music, and that generates Lifestyle Videos). There are a lot of heavy ideas in this clip: The first verse is about how you shouldn’t scream at a small child for not swinging his bat on a 3-2 count, which seems like reasonable child-rearing advice. The second verse is about how it’s morally wrong to stop an elderly parent from driving a car, which seems a little more questionable. But it’s the third verse that really goes for the jugular; the third verse posits a capriciously apocalyptic possibility that is both supernatural and specific. It suggests a worst-case scenario that I didn’t even know was on the table. I totally didn’t see it coming, but maybe that’s my own fault.
ZZ Top, “TV Dinners”
Michael Weinreb: Back in the early ’80s, Salisbury steak meant a hell of a lot to me, because Salisbury steak was a symbol of my freedom from tyranny and oppression. I was at the age when my parents would start leaving me and my older brother to fend for ourselves in the evenings, and until the miracle of Domino’s came along, this meant nuking one of those Swanson frozen dinners with the gelid mashed potatoes and the molten cobbler and vegging out in front of the tube. That combination led to some of the most satisfying evenings of my childhood, until ZZ Top made this video about a guy in a jumpsuit who looks a lot like C. Thomas Howell and labors in a military bunker replete with Ouija boards and baboon hat stands and is victimized by a slightly cuter version of the creature that burst out of Kane’s abdomen in Alien.
By traditional standards, it’s not really one of the worst music videos of all time: There are no writhing long-haired singers and no makeup, and the band is wearing modest janitorial outfits. You may even find it sort of clever. But to me, “TV Dinners” was the most unforgivable video of ZZ Top’s career, because it forever altered my view of Dr. James Henry Salisbury’s greatest creation. Those dinners became associated with the fears of adulthood rather than the pleasures of childhood. No longer could I heat a Hungry-Man meal and not associate it with a noxious laboratory and a scaly reptilian creature who bogarts potato chips from a bowl while Soul Man wrestles with a video game. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of that aluminum foil?
MC Hammer feat. Deion Sanders, “Straight to My Feet”
Rafe Bartholomew: For a moment yesterday, I felt like I’d never be able to decide between MC Hammer’s “Pumps and a Bump” — in which Hammer thrusts his pelvis early, often, and with maximum force while wearing nothing but a white Speedo, a gold chain, combat boots, and a pair of fingerless leather gloves — and Deion Sanders’ “Must Be the Money” — in which Neon Deion gets a manicure, showers himself with greenbacks, and then has a seizure. These are two music videos that deposit very discomforting images in your head for a very long time (17 years and counting!). Then, recalling the teachings of the Buddha, I sought the Middle Path. In this case, that meant “Straight to My Feet,” a semiforgotten classic by MC Hammer, featuring Deion Sanders, from the Street Fighter (1994) movie soundtrack. The video includes a guest appearance from Jean-Claude Van Damme, who starred in the film as Guile and presumably didn’t read his contract closely enough to catch and excise its “Must appear in promotional music video with MC Hammer” rider.
Watching Hammer and Van Damme dance in their costume fatigues, I realized this was not merely a second chance to giggle while JCVD revived his awful shimmy from KickBoxer (1989), but instead the systematic annihilation of an era of popular culture. It took an iconic rapper and an action hero — both of whom I had worshiped at some point in my preteen years — and basically cremated them. (If the director cut in a quick shot of Chris Webber calling timeout in the 1993 NCAA championship game, he could have vaporized all my one-time heroes in a single 4½-minute clip.) Sure, I started to outgrow Hammer before ’94, and Van Damme made a couple of post-Street Fighter movies (Sudden Death and Legionnaire) that are worthy of his canon, but “Straight to My Feet” seems to capture the turning point when Hammer and Van Damme went from adolescent boys’ icons to VH1 punch lines who were willing to parody themselves in commercials and films about their own careers. I don’t remember when I learned there was no Santa Claus; it doesn’t matter, because “Straight to My Feet” ended my childhood.
Katie Baker: I should note up front that I’m interpreting “Worst Music Video” to actually mean “Best-Worst Music Video,” just so we’re all clear. Anyway, the first time I heard that Katy Perry song “Firework” it really nagged at me: I recognized part of it from some other song. After a lot of annoying humming to myself and lyric-Googling, I realized the song was Erasure’s “Always,” which led me to see this video for the very first time. And I’m so glad-traumatized that I did. I don’t know what’s best-worst: the gold skull cap (reminiscent of that one episode of Game of Thrones, right?), the part when he fondles her hair while looking menacingly at the camera, the Scary Beast that is as well constructed as the bear at the end of Legends of the Fall, the magical sparkle bombs, or the fact that you can basically see the strings holding the guy up every time he does a back flip off the ground. When I recently read an article about a “paint whisperer” in the New York Times that was so insane that it bordered on parody, and saw that one of her clients was “one half of the synth-pop band Erasure,” everything just made sense, in the best-worst kind of way.
Carly Simon “My New Boyfriend”
Molly Lambert: The history of MTV is the history of culture in the second half of the 20th century: ’60s idealism and ’70s hedonism blur into the cash, coke, and crack-fueled all-night video party that was the 1980s. Musicians become actresses. Images overrule sounds. Money for production flows like it’s endless, and, meanwhile, Cleopatra’s barge sails off a waterfall. Robots bring flowers to the future as Carly Simon torches herself on a pyre of designer jeans.
Lane Brown: “Hi, Prince? This is Tim Burton. I’ve got a job for you. Do you think you could poorly choreograph a tumbling routine set to a tuneless seven-minute sound collage of the Joker’s dialogue from my new Batman movie? Don’t worry too much about the costumes. Or the knowing who the Joker is. In fact, why don’t you just invent your very own half-bat, quasi-Jokerish Batman villain, an inadvertent rip-off of Two-Face? Anyway, as long as you take extra care to be sure that the video is completely incoherent, I predict the song will be a bigger hit than ‘Purple Rain.’”
Patrice Evans: This video, because:
- “I think his name is Kwamé.” A genuine prodigy from rap’s Mesozoic Era. He could rap, produce, and wear polka dots fashionably before fashionable even existed in hip-hop.
- I believe it’s the last single/video that sets up one of the most famous lyrics in history: “Your life is played out like Kwamé and those fucking polka dots.” The Notorious at his most prescient.
- Even with a polka dot bandana/eye patch/scarf thing, Kwamé still manages to steal Vin Diesel’s girl.
- It’s about doing the nasteeee.
Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip to Be Square”
Daniel Silver: The absurdly paradoxical title of the song aside, the video for Huey Lewis and the News’ 1986 hit “Hip to be Square” is one (of the many) painful reminders that in the ’80s, single-minded and uni-style videos sprouted like weeds with the advent of new technology or software — “Hey, this camera has a function called sepia tone!” The entire video for “Hip to Be Square” was shot on what appears to be a single fiber-optic scope/camera. The fish-eye images are both disturbing and hilarious (at 1:13, 1:21, and 2:47, we get an excellent glimpse of Lewis’ tonsils).
Dog Police, “Dog Police”
Amos Barshad: In an alternate, dystopian universe, things have gotten so nightmarish that an elite unit known as the dog police must chase down and capture runaway-dog-like humanoids — even though, they, themselves, are dog-like humanoids. This is messed up.
Sisqo, “Unleash the Dragon”
Rembert Browne: How this video was pitched:
“OK, here’s what should happen. Sisqo’s gonna walk out onto this balcony with all his adoring fans below, very Pope-like. There will be news crews everywhere, obviously, covering the Sisqo show. He’s going to walk out with his dragon microphone and start performing and everyone’s going to go bonkers. Then a rumble will start, and everyone will freak out because they don’t know what’s happening. The commotion will be so bad, we’re going to cut away from the song randomly every 3 to 4 seconds just so the viewer knows how serious the situation is. Everyone thinks it’s an earthquake or something. But no. NO. Around the corner from the concert will come a dragon. A 12-story dragon.
“Then there will be a full minute of no singing and people running from the dragon, including multiple people looking up at it and saying, ‘Oh, shit.’
“After about a minute and a half of chaos, we will strategically place Tatiana Ali in harm’s way. Sensing what the dragon could potentially do to the Fresh Prince star, Sisqo will softly yell ‘Hey’ at the dragon, getting its attention, and then will proceed to talk it out, reprimanding him for the millions of dollars of damage he has caused and scolding him for ruining his show. This plan, surprisingly, doesn’t work, so after almost two minutes, Sisqo will start singing again. The Sisqo vs. Dragon fight will continue while two no-name rappers give their verses.
“Sisqo will taunt the dragon, narrowly avoid death by doing his best Eddy Gordo impression, and then will FINALLY defeat the dragon by running through its legs, causing it to casually fall to its demise.
“Some final key points:
- This video should cost more than $10 million
- Sisqo should say the N-word more than 70 times
- Make sure the video is at least seven minutes long
“I hope you see it my way. —Sisqo”
Previously: The Deleted Scenes Hall of Fame
YouTube Hall of Fame: When Sitcoms Got Dark
YouTube Hall of Fame: Tom Hanks on Late Night, Pandas on a Slide, and Helen Hunt on Crank
YouTube Hall of Fame: Howard Cosell, R.E.M., and Two Men Hit With Footballs
YouTube Hall of Fame: Stevie Nicks Combs Her Hair, a Comedy Film From Nigeria, and the Least Sexy Video on the Internet