Though I have extremely little tolerance for amateur videos on the internet, and only slightly more tolerance for people who like them (including my roommate, who spends all day in front of the computer watching people embarrassing themselves on-line), one of my favorite things to do on YouTube is watch (professionally produced) music videos. Since videos are no longer part of MTV's roster of high-brow entertainment - such as "True Life: I'm from Staten Island," - it seems like watching pixilated and slowly-loading videos on YouTube is my only option.
Because of the limited venues for artists to showcase their videos, I'm always amazed they still make any videos at all, particularly with such big budgets and with such little exposure. But I have to admit that it's a lot less fun watching 50 Cent rapping in front of a Bentley than remembering the glory days and watching the videos from hits of yore. The extensive catalogue on YouTube, hampered only slightly by it's offensively bad search engine, gives me the opportunity to remember how a young Gwen Stefani once warmed the heart of an even younger Jack Donaldson, how trying to learn the lyrics to Bone Thugs' "Crossroads" was impossible (something something something "and man I miss my uncle Charles, y'all"...something something), and how I realized I was no longer a core demographic when the Backstreet Boys took control.
It's also amazing to go a few years earlier, into what is probably the heyday of the music video: the mid to late 1980's. Whether it's trying to decipher whatever's going on at the carnival in the desert in U2's "All I Want is You," or basking in the neon warmth of Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know," you can just tell that video-making was a serious process back then.
The thing that strikes me the most about watching the videos from the 1980's, however, is, believe it or not, how ordinary many of the performers look. Have you noticed how in the 1980's you could be a Rock Star but look like a totally normal guy? You don't see this at all anymore. By "normal," I don't necessarily mean average, or even regular. Using that formulation, one could argue there've been many "normal" looking rock musicians since the time of Phil Collins. The Grunge phase, for instance, could be considered normal. Flannel shirts, wool hats, and Doc Martens ruled the day back in the early nineties; so one could say that Kurt Cobain & Co. wore "normal" attire. But this misses what makes the '80's remarkable.
In the '80's, you could be a Rock Star and dress like a thirtysomething who actually worked for a living. It was the casual look of a suburban weekend, whereas Grunge represented the college student and the aspiring barista more than anything else. Let's put it this way: it's not like Gavin Rossdale or Eddie Vedder looked like they could be doing anything other than playing music or hanging out in the quad. Paul Simon & Co. looked like they could have been working for an insurance company in midtown.
Check out any of the Steve Winwood clips on YouTube; he looks more like a white-collar accountant than someone playing sold-out arenas. His haircut is worse than mine, and he looks like he hasn't seen the sun in months (his cubicle must not be near a window). There's a series of videos from something called the, "Roll With It" tour, from 1988, where Steve plays all the hits, most of them classics to this day: "Higher Love," "Back in the High Life Again," and "Valerie." He's wearing an oxford shirt on stage! And not ironically in a Kanye, so preppy I'm the complete opposite of preppy way, but more in a, it's Saturday morning and I'm driving my old Jeep to the county store up here at Lake Winnipesauke kind of way.
I thought at first Winwood might just be a freakish exception to any music industry dress code - he was after all a freakish talent. But check out Phil Collins, Paul Simon, or Hall & Oates. They guys all look like they could have been Billy Crystal's best friends in When Harry Met Sally, and they're the guys who, for a decade, were living the most raucous, decadent lifestyles imaginable. I don't think they were trashing hotel rooms and snorting ants like the big-haired, spandex pants crowd, but it's safe to assume that groupies and drugs abounded. Eric Clapton wore gap jeans and had a beard and glasses, and we know he was hitting the booger sugar hard and sleeping with more women than Shawn Kemp. Lionel Richie exemplifies another aspect of the '80's "normal dude" look in rocking some sweaters and outfits my dad would think are boring.
Granted, you had the leopard prints, the leather jackets, the eyeliner, and the neon-whatever sartorial choices of the decade as well. No one would argue that the 1980's didn't contribute some hilariously horrible fashion, much of it paraded on stage and displayed in videos by Rock Stars. However, there are numerous examples of artists in the highest ranks of success, who appear to have shot their music videos on the way back from a weekly squash game. You had the ridiculousness, but normalcy was no obstacle. I doubt you could see anything like this now. Even on VH1 the "normal" guys are wearing stupid hats or skinny jeans. Unless you're an impressionable fifteen year-old or posing for a catalogue, the clothes and persona's of today's rockers most likely have nothing to do with your life.
Could normalcy make a comeback? I'd like to believe that it could. There's certainly plenty of us regular guys out there listening to music, and I certainly think it would be easier to vicariously live through a Rock Star if I was able to see even a little of myself in him. When I see the tight jeans and white Ray-Bans of today's musicians, a wave of self-conscious anger rises up, knowing it's only further proof that I'm being pushed to the margins of popular culture, continuing the process of exclusion initially perpetrated by the boy bands of my youth. Hopefully, there'll be a place for me once again. Until then I'll have to look into the mirror known as 1980's music videos, watching Steve Winwood, with his lawyer's haircut and Ralph Lauren clothes, telling me we'll be back in the high life again.