Don’t look now: 10 surefire ways to make a terrible video for a good song
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1. Do it on the cheap.
The Minutemen—great band. And “King Of The Hill”—very, very good song that metaphorically equates the brutal world of geopolitics to the childish game of the title, exactly the sort of blending of the personal and political the band was known for. It’s tough to blame the group for the accompanying video; a lack of commercial success and dedication to the D.I.Y. ethos of “jamming econo” made a big-budget high-concept production seem silly. But “King Of The Hill,” filmed in one afternoon in an L.A. suburb, is so low budget that it’s almost a warning against doing it yourself. As the pudgy D. Boon cooks up a heapin’ helpin’ of store-brand hot dogs, local punks enact a depressingly literal-minded version of the lyrics in a cinematic anti-extravaganza that couldn’t have cost more than ten bucks. Top it all off with Boon’s absurd roll down an actual hill and the song’s sublime metaphor being communicated in the form of a cheap costume-shop crown, and you’ve got a video that’s as lousy as the band was great. Videos are notoriously tricky to do well, and The Minutemen are far from the only respected act to transform a good song into an egregiously awful video. Even artists acclaimed for their visual sense, savvy iconography, and canny self-presentation, like Madonna or David Bowie, can stumble horribly. It’s all too easy to fuck up a good song both by trying too hard and not trying hard enough.
2. Attempt to launch the acting career of your model/girlfriend.
Obviously, the only reason to ever get into music is to land hot chicks—and “express yourself creatively,” if you’re a total wuss about it—but there’s nothing more transparent and grating than casting your supermodel girlfriend in your video as a consolation prize for all those failed auditions. If you’re among the fortunate, you’ll only find yourself upstaged—as with Whitesnake, whose Tawny Kitaen-y videos for “Here I Go Again” and “Is This Love” may as well have been re-titled “Hello, I’m David Coverdale, And I Get With This Every Single Night.” But eventually she’s going to get tired of being mere eye candy and demand something that demonstrates her “dramatic range.” That's when you end up with Stephanie Seymour in Guns ’N Roses’ video for “Don’t Cry” (which, honestly, didn’t need any help being terrible), watching her go to the deep well of human emotions only to come up again and again with “slightly annoyed pout,” then engage in some of the least convincing fight choreography this side of G.L.O.W.
3. Prance, prance, prance!
Like much of Morrissey’s best work, “November Spawned A Monster” is simultaneously cutting and empathetic, ironic and oddly sincere, cruel and ambiguously hopeful. It’s an affecting character study about a disabled girl’s romantic angst and profound despair. So why, for the love of God, does the video find Morrissey prancing around a mountainous area in a midriff-baring mesh shirt and dry-humping various rocks? Morrissey poses, pouts, prances, sashays, and tests our patience for fey dancing with over five minutes of semi-convulsive strutting. As always, Beavis said it best when he implored Morrissey to “get up, stand up straight, quit acting like a wuss, quit whining, go out and get a job and some good clothes… And another thing, stay away from those rocks!” Though it’s less “good” than “fun,” David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s cover of “Dancing In The Street” similarly subscribes to the questionable notion that there’s nothing more intoxicating than pop stars prancing about while wearing fatally tacky clothes. “Dancing In The Street” features two timeless icons of rock-star cool at their most ridiculous and dated.
4. Pay tribute to your favorite movies in the most obvious manner imaginable.
Movies: They’re fun. Everybody likes them. Some folks like them so much they make-pretend that they’re actually in their favorite movies. Sadly, some of those folks are musicians who are given budgets to live out their cinematic fantasies. Think Paula Abdul recreating Rebel Without A Cause as a faux-Natalie Wood opposite Keanu Reeves’ stoner James Dean in “Rush.” A hipper but still cheesy example can be found in the video for the kick-ass Dungeon Family posse cut “Watch For The Hook.” It’s a dark, kinetic track that subversively transforms the chorus from Neil Young’s Southern-bashing “Southern Man” into a Dirty South anthem. Yet for some reason its video features members of Outkast and Goodie Mob acting out their favorite scenes from Reservoir Dogs between shots of the crew mugging for the camera. It’s a theme party masquerading as a video that blurs the line between homage and outright theft, not unlike Tarantino’s own films.
5. Express the themes of your video in a depressingly literal fashion.
George Strait’s version of “Amarillo By Morning” is a lovely, lyrical meditation on the rambling, lonely life of a rodeo cowboy. But rather than dramatically explore the song’s lyrical concerns, the video alternates between unimaginative concert footage and slow-motion shots of rodeo cowboys getting tossed around like rag dolls by angry bulls. On the plus side, a bunch of dudes get their bones shattered by violent animals. So, you know, that's something.
6. Let David Lee Roth write, direct, and edit the video.
In his autobiography Crazy From The Heat, the eternally self-effacing Roth describes the videos he writes, directs, edits, color-corrects, and caters as the music-video equivalent of The Wizard of Oz. The rest of the world sees them as tacky neon parades of bad taste, T&A, gratuitous exploitation of midgets and Fellini-esque grotesques, baggy pants wackiness, and shameless mugging. To be fair, Roth does sexually objectify himself as much as his video vixens, and he’s equally prone to wearing skimpy, skin-baring outfits, though it’s unclear whether that makes his over-the-top narcissism more or less bearable.
7. Hug it out, bitches.
You’ve got to give Kate Bush credit: she’s utterly audacious and committed to executing bad, pretentious ideas with scary conviction in her artsy videos, whether that means putting Donald Sutherland in foppish period clothes and casting him as Wilhelm Reich and herself as his apparently mentally challenged son Peter in “Cloudbusting” or making semi-productive use of all those interpretive dance classes in “Running Up That Hill.” But Bush's most audaciously bad video conceit involved hugging Peter Gabriel throughout the entire video of “Don’t Give Up.” Granted, the literally touchy-feely visual matches the New Age vibe of the song; “Don’t Give Up” really is a big, comforting audio hug, but after six minutes of vertical cuddling it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for both parties.
8. Let production values, special effects, corny skits, and celebrity cameos overpower the song.
At the time of its 1991 release, Michael Jackson’s catchy “Black Or White” was perhaps the most hyped video of all time; it premièred with great fanfare on network television and boasted the biggest budget of any video up to that point. It was also, not coincidentally, the most disappointing video of all time, a loud, clattering, overstuffed mess that drowned its simple message of tolerance and understanding in empty spectacle. Morphing, dancing around the world, a cheesy skit involving the kid from Home Alone and the guy from Cheers—it had enough bad ideas for a dozen music videos. Why did it have to begin in outer space? Because it could. In its original incarnation, “Black Or White” ended with several minutes of crotch-grabbing and meaningless destruction until networks and the label came to their senses and realized the otherwise family-friendly video probably didn’t need a bizarre dose of psychosexual catharsis. The car-window smashing, junk-groping sequence was at least vivid and creepily personal; without it, "Black Or White" is merely a sticky-sweet ice cream headache of a promo.
9. Pay awkward homage to your heroes.
Morrissey makes so many terrible videos out of good songs that he merits two songs on this list. As his worshipful followers are all too aware, Morrissey is a James Dean super-fan. So Moz decided to turn the video for his awesome first solo single “Suedehead” into a painful homage to the late icon in which he awkwardly visits Dean’s Fairmount, Indiana hometown and perambulates about with the creepily alien body language and affect of someone who has forgotten how human beings move and behave. Morrissey’s charisma seems to have temporarily deserted him sometime before the video shoot as he plays tourist, tweely thumbs through a copy of The Little Prince (how precious!) and pays reverent homage to his own iconic past via a "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” floor mat. “Suedehead” was a chilling omen of crappy videos to come.
10. Fill your video with clips from the terrible film you’re promoting.
For reasons known only to Madonna, the venerable, mutable icon spends her video for “Who’s That Girl” wandering around a tacky set dressed as an androgynous 1920s waif and stiffly gazing at appropriately dire-looking clips of the film of the same name, her little-loved 1986 attempt to resurrect the screwball comedy. It doesn’t help that Madonna looks like a second-rate Cyndi Lauper impersonator in the film clips or that there’s a dispiriting sense of continuity between her terrible acting in the video and her terrible acting in the movie. If nothing else, “Who’s That Girl” performed a valuable public service by scaring people away from seeing the film, not that it needed much help in that department.