Anyone who lived through the 80s with their eyes open, or has read a history like Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On, knows that the 80s were a time when homophobia became deadly on an unprecedented scale… but if you strictly looked at the decade’s best-remembered pop culture, you might think the 80s were a fabulous time to be gay. After all, Boy George, Freddie Mercury, and Elton John were among the decade’s biggest stars. Even heavy metal bands wore makeup and pranced around in tight pants with huge hair. MTV, it might seem, was a safe space to subvert traditional ideas of masculinity.
In their 2011 oral history I Want My MTV, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum devote an entire chapter to the video that, upon its 1984 release, became quickly infamous as one of the worst videos ever made. “Rock Me Tonite” was a new single from Billy Squier, an artist who was then a rising star, seemingly on track to have a wildly successful career. A date was set for the video’s MTV premiere, but budget issues and artistic conflicts brought Squier perilously close to the scheduled premiere without a video, or even a video director. Squier ultimately turned to Kenny Ortega, a photographer who then had little experience in film but was willing to work with Squier on a video depicting a guy rocking out in his room while getting ready for a concert.
Sources interviewed by Marks and Tannenbaum make it sound like the resulting video was the gayest thing ever — and not in what they regarded as a good way:
“I don’t care if the director was lying dead on the floor, you shouldn’t have put on a fucking pink t-shirt and danced around like that.” (Pete Angelus)
“Duran Duran videos were pretty light in the loafers, for straight men. But did Billy notice the pastel satin sheets? I mean, I don’t know that Barry Manilow ever did such a gay video.” (Arnold Stiefel)
“When the rough cut arrived at Capitol, the immediate consensus was that Billy’s performance was disturbingly effeminate. ‘Is this supposed to be funny?’ ‘Is Billy okay with this? He looks totally gay.’ ‘A pink shirt? What was he thinking?’ ‘It wouldn’t be so bad except for all the skipping.’ ‘Maybe we should call it “Cock Me Tonite.”‘” (Mick Kleber)
For his part, Squier now blames Ortega for projecting the director’s own homosexuality onto the rocker. “I mean, look,” he told Marks and Tannenbaum, “Kenny is gay. And this is the way he saw me. He abused my trust, I really feel that.”
Whatever the average MTV viewer thought, they didn’t like the video — and they stopped liking Squier, whose career subsequently tanked. Watch the video in 2012, though, and the reaction of 80s viewers seems weirdly hypersensitive. Sure, Squier’s skipping around and sleeping in satin sheets — but this was the 80s! This was the era of Prince’s assless jumpsuit and Rick James’s falsetto! The decade when the most libidinous rockers’ girlfriends would spend more time doing their boyfriends’ hair than their own! If you’d say that Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite” performance was “disturbingly effeminate,” what would you say about George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in Wham!?
The video is certainly bad, there’s no question about that. Even in the bootleg versions that are the only ones now available on YouTube, you can tell that the direction is amateur and lacking in imagination. The set looks cheap, and the pacing is cloddish. Squier’s dancing is just plain terrible. Why couldn’t Squier and his team admit that, instead of blaming Ortega for making Squier look gay? The post-game analysis of “Rock Me Tonite” hints at the cruelly paradoxical discourse that must have pervaded that decade, when you could be as gay as you wanted just so long as you didn’t say you were gay and as long as no one thought you “looked gay”…whatever the hell that meant in 1984.
Ortega landed on his feet, going on to direct the High School Musical series. Maybe Squier’s right that homophobia sealed his fate, or maybe he’s just using “looking gay” as an intolerant synonym for “looking ridiculous.” Speaking of looking ridiculous… though Squier’s official YouTube account doesn’t include the original “Rock Me Tonite” video, it does include a live performance where Squier stands rock-still, seemingly deathly afraid that if he so much as moves his hips, the crowd will rise up and go out to find a more heterosexual star. Funny how that was never a problem for Elvis.
SUBSCRIBE TO JAY’S GUILTY PLEASURES PLAYLIST ON SPOTIFY. And now also introducing Jay’s EPIC SONGS playlist. Get double for your money.