As much as I am a child of the 1980s, I will not say that the music of the time is better than the music of today or any other era, for reasons I have noted before. However, I will maintain that there was one thing the 80s did better than any other era before or since, and that is make truly spectacularly pretentious music videos.
Take, as a representative sample, this video for “Alive and Kicking,” by Simple Minds, which I should note is a song I like:
Our pretentious ingredients:
1. Initial God-eye view of band with lead singer Jim Kerr in messianic/crucified position;
2. Rock band performing in the Rousseauian splendor of nature with full kit, far from maddening crowds or electrical outlets;
3. Band dramatically posed, staring into the far distance, photographed from below for extra iconographical goodness;
4. Lots of shots of Jim Kerr emoting like a latter day Byron;
5. Gospel singer inserted for musical credibility.
Just a simple glance at this video tells us: “This is a video made in a time when no one thought anything about the cost involved in hauling a Scottish band out to the Catskills and putting them in the middle of a bunch of arty crane shots.” Why do it? Why not? We’re going for mythology here, son. This isn’t just a band, these are masters of emotional grandeur. And if it takes posing them precariously on a cliff next to a waterfall without regard to the safety and well-being of the bassist to get that through your MTV-addled head, that’s just what we’ll do. Bassists are cheap and plentiful anyway (except for Sting, that posh bastard). This is a gorgeously pretentious video.
Now, sadly, it’s also a gorgeously pretentious video that fails miserably, for the following reasons:
1.The “crucified messiah” pose worked only for Bono, and even then only in 1987, and it certainly doesn’t work for a dude who looks like a leprechaun wearing his dad’s sport jacket;
2. If you put a rock band in nature, it should look like it might survive a night or two without access to hair gels;
3. Any mythological iconograpy inherent in dramatic posing undercut by 80s clothing and hairstyles;
4. In every closeup Jim Kerr appears dazed, as if he was clubbed in the temple just before cameras rolled, and his dancing style looks like what would happen if someone attached electrodes to his spine and zapped him at random;
5. The gospel singer in fact highlights the staggering inauthenticity (or at least, total goofiness) of the rest of the band.
But hey, pretty countryside.
They don’t make videos like this any more, not because musicians have run out of pretension — that’s really not ever going to happen — but because who can afford to anymore? The music industry has cratered and MTV doesn’t run videos anymore, and the idea that a band might spend a quarter of a million dollars on film crew transportation and crane shots for a video that’s going to be seen in a three-inch YouTube window is, shall we say, an idea whose time is past. It’s easier and cheaper to record something ironic using a $200 Flip video recorder. This video is as unlikely now as OK Go’s treadmill video would have been in 1987. This is not a bad thing — I prefer the OK Go video, personally — but it is a reminder that times change.
So reflect a moment on the great pretentious videos of the 1980s. There were some before, there were some after. But never as many, and rarely as pretentious in sum. Of course we didn’t know it at the time. You never know what you’ve got — and how ridiculously pretentious it is — until it’s gone.