The message provided by any song or music video is subject to context, no matter how surreal or true-to-life the content might be. Future generations will probably look at our 3OH!3 and My Chemical Romance videos and be as taken aback by the hair and the whiny voices as we were by glam rockers or Bobby Brown’s look during the 80’s. One area where context can come across as dated is political humor, as the climate wherein its relevance lies constantly shifts.
“Soviets versus Westerners” and nuclear stalemates have been replaced by anti-terrorism and Middle Eastern holy wars. Perspectives are vastly different now, and the world has a new series of threats and a new era of political celebrities to poke fun at. On that note, taken out of context, what was once an urging for peace in a “land of confusion” during the 80’s and what were once revolutionary production methods, now appear…frankly…fucking weird.
The sexually charged soul effort “Sledgehammer”, featured on the album S0 by former Genesis lead Peter Gabriel, was an extremely hot single in 1986, due in large part to an innovative stop-motion music video. Genesis’ Cold War-influenced and heavily drum-driven “Land Of Confusion” was released prior, on the album Invisible Touch, and its video featured puppets from the then-popular satirical television series Spitting Image. As a 1984 baby, the face of Genesis has always been and will always be drummer/vocalist Phil Collins (Peter Gabriel left the band in 1975), and to that end, Genesis and Gabriel are 80’s acts to me personally. One gets the suspicion that children suffered chronic nightmares in 1986, because one look at either of the these singles’ respective videos screams bad acid trip.
Case #1: Genesis‘ “Land Of Confusion” features the storyline of exploring Ronald Reagan’s psyche as he lays sleep-drowning in cold sweats next to an oblivious wife and a chimpanzee. While his spouse and ape companion stare wide-eyed through a window at a bird spontaneously cooking in mid-air, Reagan dreams about being Superman as various world leaders and celebrity personalities ramble on a giant screen. Reagan wants to clumsily go about saving the world while Genesis performs and narrates, but he is obstructed by dinosaurs, and Phil Collins sings into a telephone as Prince eats his own tongue as a hot dog. There are countless puppet cameos and references therein, but you can play Count The Easter Eggs on your own time; I still think I’m hallucinating. Oh, and did I mention that these caricatured puppets are seriously grotesque looking? Phil Collins’ face appears as though a black hole popped up behind his nasal cavity, and early in the video, we take a camera tour through a swamp full of heads. A swamp full of caricatured heads. It’s as if those old rubber Nixon masks were born like Cabbage Patch Kids…in hell. Jeeze.
Case #2: Have you looked at Peter Gabriel lately? Check out his singles collection, appropriately titled Hit. Sinister, gray chin beard? Balding head? Long, black robe? It’s as if the pop star/avant garde live performer has grown up to be a wizard or a maniacal priest. Maybe he followed the monkey in shock treatments? Anyway, back to why we’re here.
“Sledgehammer”, much like Genesis’ “Invisible Touch”, is Gabriel’s singular #1 hit in the United States and for good reason. The horn section is phenomenal; the lyrics, while full of innuendo, are easy to sing along (badly) to; the song itself is extraordinarily infectious. The big sell, though, is the music video — a raucous romp through Gabriel’s imagination, which apparently consists of cooked turkey honkin’ on brass, fruit baskets that mimic Gabriel’s face, and a room full of constellations. Did any of that make a lick of sense? I get that music videos in the surrealistic department require suspended disbelief, much like Peter Gabriel’s video required him beneath a suspended pane of glass for 16 hours. Truthfully, as an adult with a commonplace, derisive twenty-something sense of humor, “Sledgehammer” is pretty wicked; as a child, my food is seducing me with soul music and a crazy British person who appears to be having a seizure.
Adding insult to injury, the video for “Sledgehammer” lulls one into a false sense of security on an intro of synthesized flute and anatomical footage, as if you’re watching an educational film reel in biology class. Yeah, ladies, you get a crash course on reproduction with this nut-job, while the males get new pickup lines that (again) won’t work.
Honestly, I love these tunes, but the trick or the treat relies solely on one thing: Can you get them out of your head? Better still, do you want to? Wizard Gabriel implores you, singing a chant into your ear while Phil Collins beats bongos with his deformed head. Even Reaganomics is going, “Huh?”
You’ve found one piece. Where are the rest?