After months of not being in the mood, I finally popped in a DVD of Stan Ridgway's music videos, Showbusiness [sic] is My Life. The 2004 DVD covers his early career, from his brief flirtation with pop stardom as lead singer of Wall of Voodoo through his fourth solo album, Black Diamond.
The Wall of Voodoo material includes his best-known song, "Mexican Radio", which I've never liked but which is given an appropriately tongue-in-cheek treatment that makes it kitschy fun. Far better as a song is "Call Box" (truth be told, I can't think of a WoV song that isn't better than "Mexican Radio"), whose video consists largely of jump cuts and quick edits that capture the song's twitchiness admirably. "Twitch" was Ridgway's chief characteristic in his WoV days, and when the videos represent that visually they tend to be pretty good.
His first solo album, The Big Heat, featured a number of memorable songs and remains one of my favorites even today. The video for the title track beautifully conveys the film noir feeling with which the lyrics practically drip. A live performance with his then-current backing group, Chapter Eleven, freshened up a couple of tracks I had burned out on years ago due to over-listening, "Pick It Up (And Put It In Your Pocket)" and "They Can't Stop the Show". However, the video for "Camouflage", the album's magnum opus, is a great letdown: it consists mainly of the standard performers-pantomiming-to-the-track schtick, with a few perfunctory depictions of the actions in the lyrics thrown in. It looks ill-conceived and cheap, and illustrates the futility of trying to literalize what Ridgway's lyrics already so expertly convey, unless you go all out and make the entire video a story as in "The Big Heat". The one saving grace about the "Camouflage" video is that it's set to a shortened version of the song so there's less to endure.
If there's a fault common to Ridgway's less successful videos, including "Camouflage", it's that Ridgway often is filmed mouthing the lyrics while staring into the camera. The man's a gifted songwriter but he does not have an expressive mug. His deadpan expression undercuts the vibrant worlds his lyrics create.
It could be argued that the majority of Ridgway's songs simply don't lend themselves to making mainstream-style videos. That's certainly the impression left after seeing the video for "I Wanna Be a Boss", the exception that proves the rule. The song is a little-man lament and power fantasy, a relatively uncomplicated subject given an absurd lyrical treatment which is a bit unusual for Ridgway. The video boasts a goofy, B-52s-style visual sensibility that suits the song well.
"I Wanna Be a Boss" also hints at why it's usually hard to put Ridgway at the center of his videos. He may be the primary creative force behind his weird and wonderful tales, but those tales are not about Ridgway the artist. It's not Ridgway who is following the mysterious traveler in "The Big Heat", it's the narrator (until, in the last verse, it becomes the traveler). It's not Ridgway who entreats, "You be the knife and fork, and I'll be the plate", it's the protagonist of "Knife and Fork". Unlike most singer/songwriters, it's not enough for him to mouth his lyrics as he sits or strolls past pretty backgrounds: his songs, the early ones especially, are first and foremost stories, so if he wants to be onscreen he must first and foremost be an actor in those stories.
By that logic, it could well be that Ridgway has made, or could make, much more satisfying videos out of his later material, especially off his last few solo albums. His songwriting slowly has drifted away from cinematically vivid morality tales to more abstract and more personal works that would lend themselves more readily to traditional "mime singing while walking along the beach"-style videos.
It could also be that Ridgway's early videos simply were no better than the times allowed. That would explain why the videos for "Big Dumb Town", "Knife and Fork", and "Bel-Air Blues" are so much less awkward-looking than those for earlier songs. The later videos are quick-cut pastiches of short clips that suggest rather than show outright, and the less direct visual style well suits the less direct lyrical style. Someone, either Ridgway himself or his directors, also figured out that he shouldn't stare directly into the camera lens, eliminating one of the most amateurish traits of the earlier efforts. Overall, the style of the later videos likely reflects the increasing sophistication of the music video production community generally.
Ridgway's videos aren't horrible for the most part, but they definitely aren't essential. His music needs no visual accompaniment.