Some 12 years ago, when I was living in Madison, Wisc., I spent a lot of time going to rock shows. My musical education was broadened tremendously by attending concerts by the likes of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the Residents, Melt Banana (twice!), John Doe and a pre-fame White Stripes, who were opening for Sleater-Kinney. I probably spent most of my meager income on concert tickets and records. And movie tickets, of course.
One of the most memorable all of the shows I saw back then was a free, outdoor concert given by the recently reformed Buzzcocks, the best pop-punk band of them all. The concert took place late in the summer at the University of Wisconsin’s primo summertime hangout spot, Memorial Union Terrace, and it nearly didn’t occur at all for a nasty rainstorm.
But the promise of a free Buzzcocks show was enough for me — and a crowd of the faithful that diminished in size as the evening went on — to wait it out. I recall the members of the band saying, basically, screw it, we came all this way, and we’re going to play whether it’s raining or not.
The Buzzcocks did not disappoint, playing an incredibly energetic show of their songs new and old. For me, it was well worth getting soaked — not just because I enjoyed the music, but because attending the show closed a sort of musical-visual loop for me.
By the time of that concert, Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley was older and thicker of body than he’d been in the band’s late-1970s/early-’80s prime, but he (and the rest of the band) could still bring the noise. I’d been listening to Shelley’s music since I was a kid, and my introduction to it was his first solo single, “Homosapien.”
MTV was a central part of my childhood, and I was at just the right age for the first, wonderful wave of music videos to have an enormous influence on my musical and visual sensibilities. One of those first-wave (and, I’d later learn, New Wave) videos that left a strong impression was that for “Homosapien,” which I rewatch periodically. I suppose with the intention of checking whether the elements of my cultural past have not somehow withered in value.
I’ve been disappointed many times when, upon revisiting a favorite album or movie or show that I loved in my youth, it turns out to be crappy. Case in point: a reconsideration of the beloved early-’80s cable-TV staple The Incredible Shrinking Woman. I still love Lily Tomlin, but, man, isthat movie a turd.
No such disappointment has ever occurred when I’ve revisited the video for “Homosapien,” which is now freely available online. (The abundance of music videos is, in my opinion, one of the best things about the internet.) I’m not sure what it is about the video, and/or the song it so curiously illustrates, that made such an impact on 8-year-old me. I do know that its cryptic imagery has remained burned into my memory. Rewatching the video brought me enjoyment, if little in the way of surprise: I remembered everything about it. (And, I should note, I absolutely love, love, love this song, a small miracle of New Wave electro-pop glory.)
The set for the video is simple and spare. Shelley, dressed in a spiffy white suit, stands in an angular white room, surrounded by various objets that look like they’re on loan from a museum of art or natural history. Near him, on pedestals, stand various and seemingly unrelated items such as a spinning wheel, a telescope and a reclining statue of, I think, Anubis. Other objects break with the museum theme: Some platforms contain such modern or semi-modern articles as a radio aerial and a 1980 personal computer. More puzzling are a mysterious, glowing, white orb and a brass-colored obelisk. Scenes of stormclouds and raging fires are blue-screened beyond the windows against which Shelley sings.
At seemingly unprompted intervals during the video, the camera zooms in on one of these objects, which are then reduced to black outlines of themselves against a yellow background. By the end of the video, these outlined objects are accompanied by printed text in the manner of dictionary or encyclopedia entries.
The words are not always just the names of the objects but concepts associated with them by the song’s lyrics. A phrenological model of a head, for instance, is used to accompany the definitions of “logic,” “strength” and “affection.” A definition of “culture” is paired with an outline of the Anubis statue. One of the things I like about this video is the oblique way in which these items are paired with the printed definitions. I mean, sure, an Anubis statue has a generalized connection with the extremely broad concept of “culture,” but so does everything else. That sort of open-endedness informs the inclusion of the orb and obelisk, as well. The presence of these items is never explained. Indeed, the video “doesn’t make sense,” in that its imagery has little to do with the song’s lyrical content.* In this, it links up with tendencies in modern art.
That’s why so many videos from MTV’s early days remain compelling to me. I don’t know who directed this video, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someone from the world of avant-garde art or filmmaking. Many bands, especially “artsier” ones, hired experimental filmmakers to direct videos for their songs. The best-known example of this trend is the video for DEVO’s epochal song “Mongoloid,” which was directed by filmmaker Bruce Conner.
That’s the thing about many early MTV videos: They were WEIRD, often excitingly, confusingly so. It was probably that same spirit of strangeness, which comes through so strongly in the video for “Homosapien,” that made such an impression on my young self. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this video was one of the first works of avant-garde art that I ever experienced. It was a peculiar situation. Drawn to the catchiness of the latest pop songs, young kids were exposed to experimental art by, of all things, a mainstream cable channel.
I haven’t watched MTV for many years, as I’m uninterested in its slate of reality shows and whatever the hell else it broadcasts now. But I will always appreciate the way it broadened my artistic perspectives when I was young.
*Reading now about the song, I learn that it was banned by the BBC because of its explicit lyrical references to gay sex. Kudos to MTV for not being similarly reactionary. I seem to recall having some vague conception that the lyrics of this song were about men who liked men, but certainly wasn’t able to articulate such a thing when I was 8.
Shelley, who was pushed into outing himself as bisexual due to the foofaraw about the song’s banning, does nothing in the video to disabuse any suspicions viewers might have had. It would not be inaccurate to call several of his movements in the video “swishy,” an act he seems to embrace with stone-faced irony.