The Lost Art of the Pretentious Video

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.

57 Comments on “The Lost Art of the Pretentious Video”

  1. Your first several criteria sounds like every Creed video. Especailly the messianic crucified pose part. Creed was a band that, though fairly talented, were so pretentious that I couldn’t enjoy their music because they were SO DAMNED ANNOYING.

  2. I always enjoyed the “Rescue A School Child” videos, wherein a rock band enters a school by blasting a hole in the side with the power of song. Then they use the same destructive power of Rock to turn the child’s geriatric teacher (who we are subliminally supposed to believe is also a feminist lesbian) into a young hot woman of salacious character. Then all chaos breaks out in the school as the children run wild and the sprinkler systems goes off.

  3. “Leprechaun wearing his dad’s sport jacket”. Ha! When you first mentioned the video that’s the first thing I thought of — how can the pretentiousness get past Jim Kerr’s goofiness? — although not in such beautiful language.

    p.s. You’re great with a turn of phrase. Have you considered professional writing?

  4. Say what you want about Jim Kerr, he got to nail Chrissie Hynde, one of the sexiest women to ever rock.

  5. Oh, and the video for “Close To The Edit” by The Art Of Noise is still awesome, and completely unpretentious.

  6. Somehow, John, I sense Spandau Ballet in your near-term future, as your own personal Ghost of Christmas Past.

  7. I always thought the Duran Duran videos of that era suffered from that problem. Especially, say, the video for Rio, complete with its creepy stalker vibe and ejaculatory imagery at the beginning, and with things like the Sax player out on the boat. It’s certainly a video that couldn’t be made today.

    But there are probably many other examples.

  8. Jim Kerr in that video looks like a cross between Rick Moranis’ Keymaster in Ghostbusters and Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick…

  9. The great thing about pretentious high-budget 80s videos was that they would apparently let anyone make them, no matter how marginally popular or of dubious artistic talent. Case in point, Dio’s awesomely awful The Last in Line.

  10. When it comes to pretentious 80’s videos, nothing, but nothing, can beat the awesome awfulness of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

    I recently saw this priceless version of the video with subtitles literally describing the action. I almost wet my pants laughing.

  11. COOP @6…LOL.
    What you already stated was *exactly* the reason I came to comment… You beat me to it. : )

  12. Tom Negrino @12:

    That (Total Eclipse takeoff) was a WONDERFUL take on that video! Hysterical!

    I especially liked the desperate dash to the restroom.

  13. The thing about the Duran Duran videos of the era is that they were at least vaguely related to the story that the song could be vaguely telling. The video above is *literally* coming from nowhere.

    (And yes, I literally mean “literally”.)

  14. It may not quite reach the heights of the 1980s aesthetic, but I have to say the video for the Killer’s “Human” (a song I know you’ve covered before, John) makes a heartfelt stab at reaching such pretentious summits.

  15. Hm… I’ll submit New Order’s “True Faith” for consideration. Still love the song, but now I wonder which is greater: The location shoot budget for “Alive and Kicking” or the combined costuming and choreography costs for “True Faith.” Our valued destiny, indeed.

  16. I kept waiting for the white horse to continually and painfully fall down. But then I realized I had this video mixed up with The Fixx(??) Stand or Fall.

    When I was a little kid, I always thought it was awful what they made that horse go through.

  17. I’ve always wondered about something else. Men Without Hats’ video The Safety Dance. Pretentious, or merely freaking weird?


    Medieval setting
    Dancing dwarf
    Odd movements
    Person wearing a chicken mask
    Nuclear bomb imagery at the end

    Just freaking weird:

    See above.


    “It’s such a fine line between stupid, and clever. ” — David St. Hubbins

  18. John,

    In the spirit of pretentiousness, did you mean to type “maddening crowds” or “madding crowds”?


  19. Last decent spectacularly pretentious video I saw was Marillion’s “Dry Land” from 1993, which was off the second album with Fish’s replacement Steve Hogarth.

    They can’t do it today. Nor could they do “Kayleigh” and “Lavendre,” which made them briefly famous. H doesn’t look like an eighties avant-garde heartthrob (his previous occupation before joining Marillion) and Fish has only slightly more hair than Phil Collins (whom he almost replaced in Genesis). And Phil’s pretty much given up on hair.

  20. For sheer 80s ludicrousness (I’m not sure if they’re pretentious or simply very, VERY silly), any video Bon Jovi made before…um…you know, skip the “before” bit. Don’t get me wrong; when they just stuck to performing, their videos were OK, but then they’d go and do something like Bed of Roses…

    Also: eviljwinter @ 26
    Not QUITE sure, but I think the Guns’n’Roses video for Estranged post-dates Dry Land (if it doesn’t, it certainly ties with it!) and you really don’t get much more pretentious than Axl Rose swimming with dolphins…

  21. You forgot the shoulder pads. I definitely saw some shoulder support there in a couple of his arm thrusts.

  22. Since I can’t link pics in the comments, everyone take a side trip to google image search to do a side by side of the lead singer here with Merry and Pippin and tell me which one YOU think he looks just like? I think he looks like a fool of a Took myself.

  23. The art of film clips is not completely dead I worked on this one (below) and think that is still harkens back to the 80’s… probably because the Director did several Bauhaus clips in the 80’s…
    Which I mention as like any good film clip, there’s a smoke machine, over-lay shots of water and sky, beach scenes and even a messiah shot at the end… although in this one the singer is floating in freezing cold water… We had to have a bath waiting for her to get into… fun times…

  24. First: “masters of emotional grandeur” is the single funniest phrase I’ve read in at least two months.

    As for 1980s videos, my favorite is really outside this discussion but certainly must have cost a lot of time and creative effort: “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel, which featured the work of the Aardman Animations studio.

  25. “In general, I think pretentiousness pretty much defined the 80s as a whole.”

    Well, you have to understand they were still coming down off the 70s.

  26. Let’s not forget Billy Idol’s video for Dancing With Myself.

    Matte paintings are a definite sign of excessive pretension.

  27. Tom@#12. I saw the Bonnie Tyler literal video the other day and was ROFLing. I sent it to all my friends who grew up in the 80’s. (I’m a decade older.)

    IN the Alive and Kicking video, I noticed they backed away from the cliff before the ‘dancing’ started. I kept having visions of Jim Kerr falling off the edge — it would have been a shorter video.

  28. Rachel@27

    Lose your illusions.

    (For the uninitiated, go find that video on YouTube to get that joke.)

    (And what can be more pretentious than Axl Rose pitching a tantrum because someone dared to upstage him by having a near-fatal pyrotechnic accident?)

  29. Say what you will about the video, I think the song is great and the guy could wail. I’ll take a big brick of cheese and some extra silly pretentiousness any day. Check out Green Day’s “… September Ends” video or pretty much anything coming out of the rap-hip hop world and you’ll see pretentiousness is “alive and kicking” on MTV.

  30. Simple Minds, eh? At first I thought that was the Sibling Band, with Rick Moranis’s younger brother, Grace Jones’s older huskier sister, and Dolph Lundgren’s cousin on keyboard….

    – yeff

  31. Hey, the latest in pretentious video, imnsho, would be the video for 30 Seconds To Mars last big hit. It was a shame to see actually, I liked the music up until the point I could no longer that the musicians might be guys worth having a drink with at the bar. The video dispelled any thoughts of that sort.

  32. I also thought of Bonnie Tyler first. Second choice would be “November Rain”

  33. If you want a modern example of a pretentious video try Lily Allen’s “The Fear.” Then again, she’s about as hot commercially as anything out there right now.

  34. “Internet killed the video star. Internet killed the video star.”

    Except maybe for Rick Astley. He got back into Time magazine one week courtesy of the Rickroll.

  35. Another overlooked gem may be Tears for Fear’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” which features a puzzling storyline of co-singer Curt Smith tooling around what appears to be the area surrounding Austin, Texas in a small European convertible, replete with various crane shots.

    Curt drives around, gets out of the car to make a phone call while the locals gawk at his quasi-androgynous wardrobe. Then there are the two African-American gentlemen in bluesman suits performing synchronized dancing in front of the gas pumps. This is intercut with studio shots of the band singing the song.

    What any of this has to do with the message of the song still eludes me to this day.

  36. Pretentious: that Tom Petty video where he’s all post-apocalyptic… er… You Got Lucky.

    (Though I kinda liked the Mad Hatter themed video he did.)

  37. How about pretentiousness via conspicuous global travel? I’m thinking “China Girl” or “Hungry Like the Wolf”.

  38. I’m with GottaCook at #33. I laughed so hard, there was a lotta “prairie doggin” going on. (Yes I live a cube farm from 8 to 5.)
    I think masters of emotional grandeur fits John’s cat Ghalawhatever, the bacon wearing ball of fur. No disrespect intended, I too am owned by a cat; Hazel is a white manx. Sorry I digress…
    I may have to put a little dialog box with the letters MEG on my print out of bacon cat.

  39. Volodya @45, I’ve always liked that Tears For Fears vid. Mostly because the 1964 Austin Healey 3000 Mk III – in iconic British Racing Green – is one of the most gorgeous cars ever built by the hands man. The area, BTW, is around Cabazon in southern California.

  40. How about Quarterflash and “Harden My Heart?”

    Best use of flamethrowers evah….

  41. My favorite pretentious video is still Rock of Ages. The show starts off in German, the band has apparently tied up a woman to ensure an audience, the camera has an obsession with the guitarist’s hot-pantsed ass, and the singer is King Arthur.

  42. Michael Walsh–You do know that “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” was written by Jim Steinman, don’t you?

    And he certainly had a hand in the video–windblown flowing cloth is one of his video trademarks. Though I wonder what happened to the motorcycle that’s usually in his videos–did it get a flat on the cutting room floor?

  43. Stardrake #53: Maybe implied by by “Arthur Fonzarelli’s army of clones”?

  44. While the videos of the ’80s certainly haven’t been surpassed, I’d say Bollywood’s musical numbers have been regularly matching them and by now must outnumber them. Do not, alas, have links, but it’s pretty normal for the characters to rotate through three or four globe-trotting romance cliche settings (Paris bridges, Scottish castle, garden in bloom, etc); also, they tend to have more and more skilled backup dancers.

  45. I remember when that Simple Minds “Alive and Kicking” video was shot. It was done at North Lake Public Campgrounds in Haines Falls, NY. The waterfall is located about 2 miles away called Kaaterskill Falls. Its a nice hike to teh falls and upstream is a great swimming hole, although the water is often very chiily. You can drive to within about a 1/2 mile ofthe falls. ne very careful of the ledge. A few people have been know to fall off and its quite a drop to the bottom.