At first glance, the video for Al Jarreau’s 1984 single “After All” seems simple enough. Jarreau sings on a soundstage “rooftop” while a pair of dancers interpret the song’s romantic inclinations through movement, eventually winding up in a position to “consummate” the relationship Jarreau is describing. There’s no plot, no animation, no special effects that couldn’t have been created with a paintbrush and a fog machine.
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A simple, low-budget video, right? Perhaps even amateurish, if viewed in the context of many of the other clips of its year, from the Cars’ “You Might Think” to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” not to mention videos by pop-oriented black artists such as Lionel Richie’s “Hello” or Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
It’s tempting to guess that little money or effort was expended on “After All” because Jarreau was not being marketed particularly strongly by his record label, Warner Bros. — or perhaps because he was being marketed to African-Americans rather than a white audience, and presumably artists targeting the R&B charts would have received smaller video budgets than their pop counterparts.
Certain facts undermine such a guess. First, “After All” was the lead single from Jarreau’s High Crime album, the follow-up to two Top 15 albums that each produced a Top 25 pop single. Second, “After All” was (let’s face it) a pretty goddamned exquisite, but completely colorblind ballad co-written by pop uber-songwriter/producer David Foster, who was then riding high on a pair of bestselling albums by Chicago. Third, the video for Jarreau’s previous album-leading single, “Mornin’,” had been a big-budget extravaganza setting Jarreau within an elaborate cartoon world.
And finally, is that male dancer white?
In fact, “After All” was Warner’s last — and most half-assed, and least successful — attempt to pitch Jarreau with a “crossover” video of the type that labels produced in droves during the era between 1983 and 1987. During that time, African-American artists were struggling to crack the playlists on MTV, VH1 and other video programs (mostly on late-night cable, plus NBC’s “Friday Night Videos”) that targeted white audiences; crossover videos provided a new visual aesthetic designed to help these artists reach that goal.
The most iconic of the crossover videos were Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (which shattered MTV’s color barrier in ’83) and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long”; both surrounded their stars with large, multi-racial casts. Other crossover clips placed singers in recognizably middle-class surroundings, within the context of a feature film (for soundtrack singles) — or even, in the case of “Mornin’,” in an animated wonderland — to make them and their music more palatable to whites. (Yes, such was the segregation of the post-disco, dawn-of-music-video early ’80s.) Here’s “All Night Long,” if you can stand it:
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Full disclosure: In 1992, as a graduate student in communication at Penn’s Annenberg School, I sneaked past a committee that should have known better a Master’s thesis entitled “Paint It Black: A Comparison of the Visual Characteristics of African-American and Pop Music Videos.” I hypothesized that videos primarily targeting the R&B/soul market would feature distinct differences from pop/rock clips — differences in visual elements such as shot lengths and distances (long, medium, close-up), presence or absence of plots, number of “actors” employed, and percentages of footage devoted to showing a vocalist in the act of singing.
Analyzing a pool of videos representing the most-played clips on MTV, VH1 and Black Entertainment Television for the year 1991, I found that there indeed were profound differences: the clips that dominated BET’s year-end “Video Soul” chart were much more likely to feature only one or two “actors” apart from the vocalist, and were more likely to focus — at times almost exclusively — on the vocalist. In the thesis, I argued that these differences were a visual extension of the historic emphasis on singing styles in the African-American musical tradition (from gospel and field hollers through the acoustic and electric blues, and forward to R&B and soul music), and the historic emphasis on song texts in the Anglo-Saxon and European folk-music traditions that evolved into country, Tin Pan Alley, show music and rock.
The wild cards in the 1991 analysis were, of course, crossover artists like Janet, Whitney and Boyz II Men — and Michael Jackson, whose “Black or White” video was seemingly about nothing less than the attempt to be all things to all people (and who was engaged at the time in a physical crossover all his own):
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If the visual aesthetics of the crossover video were a wild card in my theoretical analysis of 1991’s biggest clips, they were more like a minefield in 1984 when “After All” appeared. Dozens of African-American artists, from Michael and Lionel to Herbie Hancock and Deniece Williams, were knocking down MTV’s door with varying levels of success, and employing all sorts of video styles in the attempt.
As for Jarreau, his budget-busting “Mornin'” video had not helped the single become quite the smash Warner Bros. must have envisioned. Too “adult” for MTV, too early for VH1 (which wouldn’t debut for months after the release of “After All”), Jarreau was a crossover artist without a natural home for his videos. That may be why the “After All” clip seemed to pull back significantly toward the visual conventions of R&B videos.
Indeed, the presence of the white male dancer is pretty much the only element that signifies any intention to broaden the audience for the clip beyond BET. The video is plot-free, of course; instead, Jarreau splits screen time almost exactly with the clip’s two dancers, and he is shown primarily in extended medium shots, with the occasional close-up to emphasize his facial expressions and use of melisma.
Whatever Jarreau, the video’s director, and Warner Bros. were going for, it didn’t work. “After All” peaked at an abysmal #69 on Billboard’s Hot 100; even more distressing, it climbed no higher than #26 on the R&B chart, a sign that the African-American fans who had sent “We’re in This Love Together” and “Mornin'” into the R&B top 10 didn’t think “After All” was soulful enough.
Jarreau, of course, would go on to become a crossover icon anyway — but on the “smooth jazz” radio format that seemingly was designed expressly for him during the late ’80s. That’s where “After All” has achieved classic status, alongside much of the rest of Jarreau’s work.
Meanwhile, within a few years of my 1992 thesis, hip-hop completely took over MTV with a visual aesthetic that combined “All Night Long” with hydraulics, 40s, those baseball caps with the pixilated logos, and a whole lotta booty shakin’. I don’t know how I would have tried to place that within any kind of folkloric context; frankly, I’m glad I didn’t have to try.