Some of us in the MTV generation had to settle for ABC’s Friday Night Videos. Well into college I could still be found in front of the television most Friday nights, watching the few videos available to me.
The music video world was mostly white: Bruce, Madonna, Corey Hart. The black artists who broke the color barrier did so with watered down, poppy hits: Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie. Chaka Khan went from the sexy “Tell Me Something Good” seductress to Prince’s “I Feel For You,” a cool cut but a safe one.
Billy Ocean, Patti LaBelle, The Pointer Sisters and their godawful “Neutron Dance” — even the mighty Run DMC didn’t break out on video until they were joined by Aerosmith. The early history of music video is littered with bland white music performed by black faces. Also, Rockwell.
This is the landscape upon which Larry Blackmon unleashed his cop mustache and his bright red codpiece. Ennio Morricone’s “Good, Bad, and Ugly” whistle was the first clue that Cameo meant business.
The band had been around for a dozen years before “Word Up” exploded. They were big in the clubs and on the R&B charts, but not so much with white audiences too scared to dance. But for their 1986 monster they hit on a winning formula: marry the shitty synthesizers of the era with funk, then stick the Reading Rainbow guy in the video so that the white folks won’t be scared. The final touch? Shoot the video with Miami Vice lighting.
The first time “Word Up” showed on Friday Night Videos I could barely stay in my seat. Years of Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam repression followed by a high school career spent gazing at my shoes obstructed my willingness to wave my hands in the air like I didn’t care. Sure, Jody and I danced at the Dawg all the time, but that was cool music.
“Man, I’d really like this if I liked this kind of music,” I said.
“What?” Jody said.
“This song. I’d really like it if — ”
“I heard you, but what do you mean?”
“Well, I mean I don’t like this kind of music but I can see where this song is cool.”
“You mean you like it.”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Why don’t you just say it? You like the song. Just say it.”
“No. I don’t like this poppy shit.”
On screen Larry Blackmon stopped singing and grabbed Geordi Laforge’s arm. He whispered something, then Reading Rainbow pointed at me and said, “What the fuck is your problem?”
Jody stared at me, waiting for an answer. “For a guy that’s so smart, sometimes you’re a real idiot,” she said. That night there would be no romance, no romance, no romance for me, mamma.