Patrick Freyne: Billy Ocean and Paula Abdul changed my world
The music videos of the 1970s and 80s changed me, not always in a good way
Paula Abdul with her dancing cat MC Skat Cat
Childish Gambino’s This Is America is a reminder of how powerful music videos can be. I’m not going to add much to the barrage of cultural commentary about Donald Glover and Hiro Murai’s code-breakingly insightful exploration of race, performance and institutional violence in America. But it has got me thinking about some of the music videos that have infected my life and worldview. Spoiler alert: unlike This is America they’re not all good.
Opposites Attract by Paula Abdul (1989)
In this video X-Factor USA’s Paula Abdul documents her illicit courtship with MC Skat Kat. This certainly was a case of opposites attracting. Paula was, and remains, a human woman. Her gentleman lover, on the other hand, is an animated cat. This is frowned upon in some cultures.
They are aware of many of the obstacles they need to overcome. Their differences are itemised in the song lyrics. MC Skat Kat is a maverick cat who wears sunglasses and lives in a bin whereas Abdul, her unconventional feliphilia notwithstanding, is a conservative homo-sapien who likes owning a bed and having opposable thumbs.
There’s still an element of denial evidenced in the video. They never explicitly reference the fact that MC Skat Kat is a) a cat and b) a series of drawings . They are consequently, both geographically and psychically, perpetually four steps apart (“I take two steps forward,” says Abdul. “I take two steps back,” says Kat) nonetheless they get together because opposites attract. They’re still married to this day.
A stray observation: cat tailors apparently leave a hole in cat trousers for a tail whereas I feel they should actually create a sort of third fabric “leg” for that appendage (NB when a cat wears trousers its front legs become “arms” by default).
Beat It and Bad by Michael Jackson (1982 and 1987)
As a child I enjoyed gritty documentaries about gang culture in America, such as Beat It’ and ‘Bad. In these videos, various toughs in leather jackets and night-time sunglasses gather in the urban wasteland for a showdown. It’s unclear what their “beef” is but presumably someone’s honour has been impugned.
Every sort of gang member is represented – the old-school goombah in a trilby, the bandana-wearing street hoodlum chewing on a toothpick, the smooth hombre on terrifying red roller skates, and, of course, former child star Michael Jackson.
In Beat It, the gang members circle each other and then take out their flick knives and have a bit of a dance. In Bad, they run around a parking lot hollering and doing synchronised high kicks in order to show comradely support for Michael Jackson in his enthusiastic declarations of “badness”.
Paula Abdul: Opposites Attract
Michael Jackson: Beat It
Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights
Billy Ocean: Loverboy
Robert Palmer: Addicted to Love
The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock’n’Roll (But I Like It)
I watched eagerly, hoping that someday I too might liaise with strangers in a disused garage. When I eventually did join a gang, however, there was far less synchronised dancing than I expected. I rectified this over time, finger clicking and twirling my way to the top of the gang hierarchy until Street Katz (I decided we needed a name) were the premiere gang in Newbridge, Co Kildare. Sadly, we were quickly supplanted by a rival gang (Bad Boyz) who realised that instead of out-dancing us, they just needed to beat us up. I have no regrets. Michael Jackson’s videos were eventually adapted for HBO by David Simon but he called it The Wire.
Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (1991)
When I was 16 back in 1991, I considered this admittedly great video full of sullen teens, goth cheerleaders and ironically hip school janitors to be a nihilistic wail of discontent against a repressive status quo. Nowadays, I am aged and find that I want Kurt to enunciate his words properly and to get his hair out of his face. I mean, that gymnasium is pretty dimly lit, Kurt, surely you want to see the chords you’re making on your electrified banjo? Oh, it’s not an electrified banjo and the gymnasium is “America”. Well I’m sorry Kurt. I’m sorry I can’t keep up with the instruments and metaphors you kids are into because I have a job and need to put food on the table. Did you think of that? Did you, Kurt?
Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush (1978)
A wide-eyed woman wails melodically about a book she just read while doing a very literal interpretative dance. Her limbs flail, she twirls, she does a cartwheel, she shoos an imaginary cat. Soon the viewer is seeing double and there are two of them. I wasn’t aware at the time that this video had influenced me so significantly, but apparently as a child I watched it and filed it under “married life”. Flash forward 30 years and this is basically what my kitchen looks like most evenings as my wife and I tell each other about our respective days.
Loverboy by Billy Ocean (1984)
I recently saw this video again while watching old episodes of Top of the Pops on BBC4. I thought I was a) going mad b) off my face on horse tranquilisers or c) dead and in hell. I didn’t realise there was a fourth option: d) all of the above plus Billy Ocean.
The video for Loverboy begins with a reptile goat creature riding a space horse across a beach to a bar in a cave filled with robots and weird animatronic aliens. He must be the eponymous “Loverboy” of whom Billy Ocean sings.
There ensconced, “Loverboy” casually chats to a besuited alien businessman while sticking his goat tongue out lecherously at an attractive elf lady who’s enjoying the smooth music of Billy Ocean with a furry troll man.
Then he murders the furry troll man and violently drags the protesting elf woman out of the bar while three small hooded creatures worship a floating cube containing Billy Ocean. My verdict? Oddly prescient about British politics in the 21st century.
Addicted to Love by Robert Palmer (1986)
“I’m worried about the representation of women in rock music,” said Robert Palmer, his craggy rock-star face downcast, as he swirled a glass of fine brandy in his sad rock-star hand. “We need more diversity.”
“If it’s not too anachronistic to say this, I think that’s very ‘woke’ of you sir,” said Robert Palmer’s butler, Buttles. “What do you have in mind?”
“Well, I was thinking of creating a music video called Addicted to Love in which I’ll be surrounded by identical short-skirted models in black, joylessly gyrating and pretending to be my band.”
Buttles paused for a moment before shaking his head in wonder. “I think what you’re addicted to, sir, is actually amazing ideas!”
“Thanks Buttles. Gather some babes, then give ‘feminism’ a call and tell it there’s a new hero in town.”
It’s Only Rock’n’Roll (But I Like It) by the Rolling Stones (1974)
Dressed as hirsute, prancing sailors, The Rolling Stones inform us in song that they like rock’n’roll while their tent, probably representing America, fills with suds. Faced with looming asphyxiation, Jagger preens and pouts and puts his hand on his hip in a jaunty fashion, which is how I imagine he meets all adversity. Ultimately this is the video that made me want to join the navy, which, I can tell you with confidence, is nothing like the scene depicted in this video.