"Rock Me Tonite"

by Rob Horning

26 February 2007


Please pardon the explosion of audiovisual content into this blog, but I was forwarded this clip, and I couldn’t let it pass without comment. If you don’t remember this from 1984, it’s Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite.” Yes, that’s t-o-n-i-t-e, tonite, not to be confused with the pedestrian g-h-t variety. Can’t you feel the exc-i-t-e-ment? More semiotic analysis to come, but first some background: Squier first rose to prominance as singer for the above-average but commercially unsuccessful power-pop band Piper. He went solo and eventually released Don’t Say No, a vaguely sleazy proto-poodle-rock record which ruled AOR radio in 1981 along with J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame and REO Speedwagon’s immortal Hi Infidelity.

With “The Stroke”, Squier managed to find a sound simultaneously stripped down and bombastic; it had all the idiocy (and irresistiblity) of a band like Slade (of “Cum on Feel the Noize” fame) without being entirely juvenile and devoid of conceivable sex appeal. The record’s other hits—“My Kinda Lover”, “Lonely Is the Night”—were similarly loud and stupid in the best possible way. Def Leppard would later appropriate this formula for its Pyromania record, tour with Squier in the U.S. and steal his audience after upstaging him night after night. Perhaps this set off the desperation which led to the catastrophe you see above in the video. (Ironically, Squier had opened for Kiss while in Piper and should have learned the cardinal lesson of always getting underwhelming bands to open for you on your arena tour. This is how I came to see the band Third Eye Blind open for the Stones.)

At first Squier was working a journeyman rocker/prisonhouse-chic look, which this album cover epitomizes. Note the denim shirt and bare feet and the fact that he seems to be sprawled on the floor of a bus station lavatory: “All I got—and all I need—is this here Telecaster.” But for the follow up to Don’t Say No, the far inferior Emotions in Motion, pastel creep had begun to set in.  The bedraggled rocker look has morphed into an effeminate quasi-Eddie Van Halen thing (though arguably Squier looks more like Asylum-era Paul Stanley here); one can only presume that he was being encouraged to consolidate his fleeting grip over the Tiger Beat demographic by softening his image. The music too was a little softer—more synths, more power ballads. Then with his next album, with MTV in full swing and music videos at their first apex of cultural significance, came Signs of Life (produced by Meat Loaf Svengali Jim Steinman) and the abomination we see above. I’m guessing the idea here was to push Squier’s androgyny to the next level and make him into the hair-metal Prince or something: hence the satin-swathed bed (straight out of the risible jacket photography from 1999) and the uninhibited “dancing”, which seems a weird cross between aerobicizing and particularly outré masturbation.

The video begins with some jazz-hands finger-snapping on the soundtrack, and Squier writhing in the satin sheets as though it were an alarm clock. He scratches his head sleepily, pulls on a pair of pajama pants, and we get our first look at the weird set-up I’m guessing we’re supposed to pretend is his loft apartment—giant scrims with close ups of his own eyeball on them, big windows opening out onto red skies at night, a few lamps that seem to have mauve lightbulbs in them, dressing screens back-lit purple that shield our view of a brick wall, some cheap-looking armchairs with clothes draped over them, etc. Then he pulls on a shirt that has one sleeve cut off and the other barely attached so that it ends up looking like a wristband around his bicep. Why are his clothes in tatters? we wonder. Perhaps the red skies at night indicate that we are in postapocalyptic times. This is the height, remember, of nuclear-war hysteria and fears of the Evil Soviet Empire; it was common place to set videos in nuclear wastelands to make them seem more emotionally urgent. Maybe only something like nuclear holocaust had any real potency as a free-floating signifier within a nonnarrative music-video context; maybe directors felt they had to at least gesture toward it, since it seemed an inescapable part of the era’s visual vocabulary, like pastel and oversize graphic elements on ludicrously large posters.

Anyway, we don’t have much time to mull any of this over, because Squier inexplicably begins dancing, as if that’s just what he always does after rolling out of the sack. When my alarm goes off and music is playing, I generally don’t get up and start doing an interpretive routine around my living room, but maybe that’s just because I don’t have as much space as Squier seems to have in his fictional apartment. But then, what he’s doing is less dancing than spasming—he looks like a mannequin whose strings have become tangled. Or maybe the puppeteer’s quaaludes just kicked in or something, for then he’s lurching around the apartment in his sweat socks (or are they wrestling booties? It’s hard to tell at this resolution.) Apparently he was searching for a mirror in which to complete his morning ablutions—but wait, then his mirror suddenly opens up on to what looks like the mouth of hell, and Squier recoils and begins crawling on the floor and having some kind of epilepti-erotic episode with himself on the painted concrete. And then, after a freeze frame on his arching his back in ecstasy dissolves into him humping the floor at the foot of his bed, it really starts getting weird.
Some notable moments:

1:07—What is that in his hand? Is that a pink camisole? After what we’ve seen, how can anyone conclude it’s not part of his own wardrobe?

1:15—The size of his fantasy loft apartment is much larger than we realized, larger than a few racquetball courts placed end to end. This, I imagine the director believed, emphasizes the loneliness of his bed.

1:20—Squier’s jump-rope dance move seems especially awkward, even worse then his skipping around the loft, until he resolves it in a spank-the-pony/air guitar flourish.

1:26—The lingering freeze-frame of Squier tearing his shirt off somehow fails to make this would-be climactic moment more dramatic—perhaps because the shirt was already so shredded, it seemed he had an unfair head start.

1:29—Is he now wearing the same camisole he threw at the hanging lamp?

1:40 to 1:55—An Elizabeth Berkeley-esque routine on the firetruck-red stripper pole and the windowsill.

2:03—Air guitar is one thing, but air microphone?

2:13—The papier-mâché crane hook? Mario Brothers has more realistic looking heavy equipment. And what is this doing in his apartment? Is he supposed to be living in a dockside warehouse?

2:43—I try to imagine what’s going through Squier’s head as he collapses on his face into the satin sheets. Was he filled with shame and self-loathing? Or did he have a moment there where he truly forgot he wasn’t eight years old? And how is he not laughing when he rolls himself upright and sings, “Times are all and all in time, / I stepped beyond the borderline / Of who we are and where we long to be”?

At last, he grabs the guitar that has been teasing us in the corner all along, plugs it in, and magically he joins his band—sort of Loverboy gone new wave—in an even more sterile environment, with more giant posters of himself and ugly pseudo pop art suspended from the ceiling. Even though they all make jackasses out of themselves by jumping around and pretending to play instruments despite the absence of any amps or patchcords or wires of any kind, every member of this band calls out for specially tailored derision: I’m content, though, to call your attention to the drummer’s Panama Jack hat and the studded Gary Glitter guitar strap on that Stray Cats reject playing bass. I’m guessing his unbuttoned Chams shirt did not distract anyone from the lameness of his greased-out Kenickie hairdo, even when he takes his bass off at the end to throw the shirt off his shoulder to expose more of his chest. The keyboardist dive-bombing his fingers to play the one-note synth “lick” of this outro is pretty great, but nothing can top the Rockette kicks Squier and the drummer trade off toward the end.

I’ve gone into much greater detail than I planned to, but I think you get the point: The argument that this video ended Squier’s career is entirely plausible. It was right around this time when the sheer existence and novelty of videos was no longer enough: you couldn’t do an unchoreographed dance around a half-assed set anymore and expect to get away with it. Million-dollar video budgets were not too far off in the distance. And journeyman retreads like Squier would no longer get second chances when so much more was riding on image rather than songwriting talent or musical charisma. The awfulness of 1980s music obviously has much to do with this purging of the talent pool.

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