I have a complicated relationship with the music of Billy Squier.
For better or worse, I grew up listening to “classic rock” radio, so my youthful musical diet consisted of “Fly Like an Eagle” sandwiches and “Stairway to Heaven” blue-plate specials. At the time, I thought it was the Best Music Ever; since then, my musical tastes have diversified tremendously, and I return only very rarely to the kind of stuff that dominates the classic-rock airwaves. (Seriously, guys: Your songs have remained the same, as it were, for three-plus decades. Time to shake up the playlists a bit.)
Now and then, though, I’ll still listen to Billy Squier. Back when I was listening to classic-rock radio, Squier’s tunes — mostly the several big hits from his still-terrific 1981 album Don’t Say No — showed up with some frequency, as, I gather, they still do today. I’ve always considered Squier to be a cut above most of the other “arena rock” performers with whom he is often grouped: Styx, Bad Company, Boston. His music rocks a little harder; he has a fine ear for melody; he’s got that distinctive, plaintive voice; he’s a hell of a guitarist.
Inasmuch as the sampling of one’s music is a sign of its cultural significance (and I think it is), Billy Squier is still highly relevant. Eminem has been sampling Squier’s songs lately, and the singer’s 1980 classic “The Big Beat" is one of the most sampled songs of all time.
My favorite Squier sample has got to be Dizzee Rascal’s use of “The Big Beat” in his 2003 tune “Fix Up, Look Sharp.” Billy Squier is kind of awesome, actually.
But his career took a major, near-legendary nose dive in 1984 with the release of the video for his song “Rock Me Tonite.” In it, Squier, clad at times in a pink tank top and frolicking on a satin-sheeted bed, dances in a manner that was deemed by many at the time to be “effeminate” or “gay.” In the arena-/classic-/hard-rock world that was Squier’s home, that was a no-no.
Squier’s early-‘80s videos for such songs as “The Stroke” gave his career a major boost. But MTV is a cruel mistress that taketh far more than she giveth, and Squier’s career never really recovered after the release of the video for “Rock Me Tonite” — even though the song itself was a huge hit.
The story of the “Rock Me Tonite” video (recounted in great detail on the song’s Wikipedia page) is a strange and sad one. Why would Squier’s alleged effeminacy be so problematic to his fans? Were they that uncomfortable with their own sexualities as to get squicked out by seeing their rock hero dancing in a pink shirt?
OK, he also slithers across the floor like some kind of sexy snake. That move is a little odd, I’ll grant. Looks like he’s slide-humping the floor or something. Still, it’s not explicitly “gay,” and it’s certainly not, to my modern-day eyes, grounds for anything like mass-scale fan abandonment. The 1980s were a strange and repressed time.
Then again, Culture Club had a huge following right around the same time, and David Bowie (as relevant then as he is now, or ever will be) had switched gender identities a good 30 or 40 times by 1984. What was the big deal?
I see two main problems, besides, of course, the nasty homophobia that subtends the whole situation. The first is that the subgenre of hard rock (or whatever you want to call it) in which Squier operated was and is a sinkhole of backwards ideas about machismo. (Insert joke about phallic guitar necks here.) This is a male genre in which men sing songs about women while strutting their manly stuff in masculine ways. Even though “Rock Me Tonite” is clearly sung about/to a woman, and even though Squier’s dance moves are not explicitly “gay,” his video apparently presented enough of a threat to the hard-rock status quo to frighten many of his fans.
A bigger problem is that Squier started out projecting one kind of star persona, and then, with “Rock Me Tonite,” appeared abruptly to change horses mid-video. Initially macho, he suddenly became effeminate. I think the very fact of the change might have been more problematic than his new image in and of itself. Boy George was certainly on the receiving end of many a homophobic brickbat, but because he first emerged into public consciousness with his androgynous image firmly established, he didn’t run the risk of alienating fans who expected him to adhere to a rigid consistency. Blame the record labels, DJs, concert promoters and PR reps for this one: They’re the ones who have forced popular music into rigid little genres, and musicians into rigid little image-boxes.
Viewed now, 30 years after it was made, the “Rock Me Tonite” video has not fully escaped the legacy of its complicated sexuality. That’s in part because its history is now so integral to the video as to have become part of the text itself, and in part because, well, Squier does look and move in ways that are commonly associated with women. His hair is long; he wears pink; he’s heavily made-up (though no more than any other male rock star in a music video, to be fair); his bed is dressed with “feminine” satin sheets. He also does this dance move in which he holds his elbows tight to his sides while gyrating his forearms. In that this move resembles the limp-wristed hand gesture that has long been stereotypically associated with gay men, I’d bet that, of all the video’s symbols, this is the one that is chiefly responsible for the outbreak of heebie-jeebies among the homophobes in his fanbase.
Thirty years after this video was made, American popular culture has come around to embracing gay culture in ways that were nearly inconceivable in the 1980s. Perhaps the time is right for Billy Squier to reclaim his legacy by rerecording this song, which, to my ears, holds up quite nicely. Squier could, once and for all, deflate the homophobic windbags who proclaim “Rock Me Tonite” the “worst video ever,” and remake it so that it’s much, much gayer. It could be a great career move.