VIDEO Song-Off: Cheerleaders

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In the 1988 film Tapeheads, aspiring video jockeys Ivan (John Cusack) and Josh (Tim Robbins) put together a ludicrous first effort for record producer Mo Fuzz (Don Cornelius) that features a band called Cube Squared performing the Devo song “Baby Doll” as Ivan drenches them with colored paint and feathers.  “I can’t do anything with this,” Mo tells them after he watches it, “I need production value.”  As Ivan and Josh react with confusion over the concept of obtaining production value with no budget, Mo explains, “There’s only one thing that adds real production value … tits and ass.”

The combination of cheerleading and music videos seems like a match made in heaven.  Cheerleading has always featured a healthy dose of “tits and ass” as Mo puts it, and it’s evolved a long way from its early days of long-sleeved sweaters, pom-poms, and rhythmic chants.  High school and college cheerleading is a full-on gymnastics show, and most professional cheerleading groups have morphed into “dance squads” that don’t even pretend to lead cheers anymore.  And certainly more than a few music videos have taken advantage of this synergy to grab a few cheap glances.  But strangely enough, there are only a few music videos where cheerleaders truly dominate the stage.  Here are my top five favorites:

Toni Basil – “Hey Mickey”

Created at almost exactly a year after the launch of MTV, Toni Basil’s 1982 video for “Hey Mickey” is the sweet, doting grandmother of all cheerleading videos.  Caked in makeup with their arms hidden by fabric, the cheerleaders here aren’t sex objects but are actually a well-drilled team of dancers that help Toni Basil show off her talents as a dancer and a choreographer.  The LVH logo on Toni’s uniform in the video is a sentimental nod to “Las Vegas High,” but the essential innocence of the song and the choreography brings to mind Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series of teen romances, which was launched just a year after “Mickey” was released.  Toni’s recent appearances as a guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance have been unintentionally hilarious, as she peppers the contestants with bizarre commentary and constantly uses the word “street” as an adjective, but her video for “Mickey” was a grand success, cementing itself in pop culture memory as the first true cheerleading video.

Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Nirvana achieved an incredible breakthrough in 1991 with their video for “Smells Like Speen Spirit,” introducing grunge music and moshing to the suburbs and virtually changing the entire tone of MTV’s programming overnight.  The video’s director, Samuel Bayer, was reportedly chosen by the band because his test reel was so bad, and the ultimately basic nature of the production bears this out – and also accounts for the video’s charm.  The iconic opening shot of a single foot clad in a Converse All-Star sneaker tapping along to Kurt Cobain’s jangled riffs is only surpassed by the cheerleaders, dark-haired beauties adorned with red “anarchy” patches who half-heartedly try to inspire pep in the listless teens that fill the bleachers.  It’s not until the kids are released to rush the floor that the cheerleaders fulfill their true potential, throwing their heads back and raising their pom-poms to match the crowd’s intensity.

Nada Surf – “Popular”

Nada Surf gained instant popularity in 1996 with their video for “Popular,” which was their first single from their debut album High/Low.  It features a vampish teen (played by a very young Sarah Sebestyen, who these days is a country/blues singer in Nashville) skanking it up behind the back of her supposedly infallible quarterback boyfriend (played by a toothy Jason Priestley lookalike).  Matthew Caws’ increasingly frantic recitation of his dating advice to teens (cribbed from Gloria Winters’ 1964 book Penny’s Guide to Teen-Age Charm and Popularity) is the real hook for the song, but Sebestyen’s ponytail and seductive gazes at her oblivious boyfriend’s teammates (along with her willingness to follow through on her promises) are what really sells the video.

Ash – “Burn Baby Burn”

Even compared to other familiar songs from their catalogue like “Jack Names the Planets” and “Kung Fu,” Ash’s 2001 hit “Burn Baby Burn” has an incredibly high energy level.  Compared to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which closed its day of shooting with a near-riot from the extras, “Burn Baby Burn” was described by Ash as a particularly enjoyable video to shoot, and one of their favorites upon conclusion.  The cheerleaders featured here represent a new millenium of cheerleading, as hair is tossed, midriffs are bared, skimpier uniforms cling more tightly to more adult curves, and the pom-poms have practically disappeared.  Ash delivers a top-notch single, and in the process takes the sexualization of teenage cheerleaders to its logical conclusion.

Robbie Williams – “Radio”

And then former boy band sensation Robbie Williams takes it one step further.  The concept behind the video for “Radio” is relatively simple; an Antichrist cavorting with his minions.  But the video conception of the song, which would otherwise be forgotten as an unremarkable tack-on to a greatest hits compilation, is absolutely brilliant.  Robbie Williams, clad in a dapper white uniform, presides over a legion of cheerleaders as they toss each other through the air of a dimly lit warehouse decorated with inverted crosses.  The faceless cheerleaders, their identities obscured by black masks, appear to be little more than tattooed pieces of meat cavorting for their dark lord’s pleasure.   It’s an incredibly sexy effect, particularly when the directors turn on the hoses and get everyone wet.  Subliminal shots of Robbie Williams featuring a lizard’s eyes and sharpened teeth are spliced into the super-slow motion shots of the aerobatic maneuvers of the cheerleaders, the term “trouser snake” is interpreted very literally, and by the end it’s pretty hard to deny that eternal damnation looks pretty damned fun.

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Last week the Beach Boys lived up to their name (and increased their Song-Off record to 2-0) by riding home a 36 percent wave of voters, followed by the Trashmen’s “Surfing Bird” with 31 percent. Join  us again next week as we match up songs about bad luck; if you’ve got suggestions, leave them in the comments. See you then!