Not everyone hated the career killing video for “Rock Me Tonite”
While I was more than happy to adopt MTV as my personal god, overlord and surrogate parent in the early ’80s, I completely understood why some musicians hated it, especially those that were no longer in the bloom of youth. The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay, the visuals and visages as important if not more than the songs themselves. And if you wanted to compete in the marketplace, to stay relevant and ensure “the kids” knew who you were, you had to play the game. It was non-negotiable; new single meant new video, whether you wanted to make one or not.
In those aforementioned early ’80s Billy Squier was the thinking girl’s AOR heartthrob of choice. He was a collector of Japanese art, an interior design and architecture enthusiast, and an active participant in what he called in a 1983 radio interview “man against nature sports like scuba diving and skiing”. He was culture-savvy enough to ask Andy Warhol to design the cover of his 1982 album Emotions In Motion which ultimately featured Billy’s handsomely weathered face awash in bold swaths of Warholian color. “He’s the consummate American commercial artist, he’s combined his sense of aesthetics with commercialism” sayeth Billy about Andy in 1982. Esoteric interests aside, Billy appealed to the guys too. He could shred and scream with genuine skill and conviction. He was responsible for some of the most infectious and beloved AOR anthems of the era. “The Stroke”. “In The Dark”. “My Kinda Lover”. “Lonely Is The Night”. “Everybody Wants You’. He was a total rock star.
And so there was a lot of love in the world for Billy…or at least there was until the video for “Rock Me Tonite”, the lead single off of Billy’s 1984 Signs Of Life album hit the MTV rotation. It was then that everything imploded when Billy Squier found himself cast as the unintentional lead in a live-action version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
The legend is that the 1984 video for “Rock Me Tonite” singlehandedly killed Billy Squier’s career (especially according to the artist himself). And though his chart success did begin to wane in its wake (as did ticket sales to his shows according to Billy), the song itself was actually the biggest hit of his career reaching #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and #1 on the Rock Chart.
And make no mistake, the song rules, from the squelchy opening finger snaps right on through to the sugar-coated shredding in the coda, it sashays and rocks and is eminently crushable. The “problem” was not the song. What got everyone in a tizzy was the nature of Billy’s dance performance within the video. See, he didn’t really dance. What he did was prance…in a most brazen, and uninhibited fashion. Full on, hardcore, in-your-face prancing.
He also found time within the video to stand up on his satin-sheeted bed, flop face down and roll off, fluff his hair in the mirror, crawl across the floor on his elbows and tear his shirt open ( as seen in the pic above). Yup, he did a whole lotta maybe cringe-y stuff in “Rock Me Tonite”. Now while artists doing ridiculous shit in videos was pretty commonplace at that time (forever and always), Billy’s presentation seemed to hit a nerve. People were aghast, the record company, the rocker boys who’d thought Billy was cool, other musicians, and despite the fact that he was the one making the moves, Billy himself. All were universally horrified at the outrageous, off-the-charts feyness on display.
In the book I Want My MTV, a comprehensive history of the channel by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, there is an entire chapter devoted to the video and its aftermath entitled “A Whopping Steaming Turd; The Worst Video Ever Made”. Billy said he felt deceived when he saw it, that it didn’t follow the agreed-upon storyboard, that he was misled by choreographer Kenny Ortega who’d stepped in to direct it at the last minute just so they could finish it in time for its scheduled premiere on MTV.
“It was diabolical,” said Billy, “The video misrepresents who I am as an artist. I was a good-looking sexy guy. That certainly didn’t hurt in promoting my music. But in this video, I’m kind of a pretty boy. And I’m preening around a room. People said ‘He’s gay,’ or ‘He’s on drugs’. It was traumatizing to me.”
Okay, I get it. And I do sort of understand even though I kinda wished you’d just decided to own it (Billy). But just so you know, teenage me loved the video and was happy every time it shimmied across the screen. It was unquestionably what motivated me to purchase my first ever Billy Squier album. And that’s a good thing right?
And you may be surprised (or okay, aghast) to know I was/am not remotely alone in my demented appreciation of this video. Literally, every music nerd girl I’ve spoken to about it over the years (like you do), no matter what the age demographic, reacts the same way when “Rock Me Tonite” is mentioned. The sentiment is always the same, it is oh my god I love that video. I swear. And I am not talking about two or three people. There seems to be a decent population of humans who think Billy looked super hot romping around in his soft-focus neon-lit apartment in “Rock Me Tonite”, who loved the pink tank top over white tee ensemble, were awed by his prancing technique.
While it may be regarded as a mistake by those responsible ( Billy even fired his management team in the aftermath) and is now the recipient of some seriously hilarious brutality within its YouTube comments, there remains a bunch of us who look upon it with no irony but with sick and eternal reverence, with unending appreciation, for whom it will never get old. And at the end of the day, who was the video for anyway?
It was built for horny teenage rock chicks. And so to the perpetrators, mission accomplished y’all, you should be proud.
Rock me tonite? You better freakin’ believe it.
Watch below if you dare: