A self-loathing Meat Loaf fan discusses his cultural memory of the Loaf’s mid-90s resurgence, the RPG Shadowrun and the Jackson 5’s plan to brainwash the planet.
I’m not much of a music fan.
That much should be obvious by the mere presence of any Meat Loaf songs on my personal radar, guilty pleasures or otherwise. I make no apologies for my secret affinity for Mr. Loaf and his overwrought, bombastic mini-operas, but in my defense, I’ll offer this: I love movies, and Meat Loaf’s songs have some killer videos.
Specifically, I’m talking about Loaf’s 1992 resurgence with the album Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell and its bewildering lead single “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Michael Bay’s utterly bananas music video for this song actually got me to buy this damn album, which I listened to incessantly despite the well-deserved shit I got from my Primus-loving friends. A few other decent (by my twisted estimation) singles emerged from this album, factory-equipped with snazzy music videos, including a grimy cyberpunk fantasia that accompanied the single “Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through” on the small screen.
The fact that I like the music video for “Rock and Roll Dreams” more than the video for “I’d Do Anything” also speaks to my dubious taste, although unfortunately in this case, it calls into question my taste in cinema even more than my taste in music, because even by the rock-bottom standards applied to Meat Loaf music videos, the video for “Rock and Roll Dreams” sucks a lot harder than the one for “I’d Do Anything.”
Here’s the video for “I’d Do Anything.” Feel free to watch it again (if you have half an hour to kill).
Finished? I don’t have much to say about this video right now, other than that Michael Bay knows how to shoot a car/motorcycle/helicopter chase at sunset, and that the video at least tries to echo some imagery from the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Meat Loaf even transforms into a good-looking (or less shit-hideous) man by the end!
Moving on, let’s review the video for “Rock and Roll Dreams.”
Jesus Nun-Fucking Christ. Where do I even start with this imagery? Let’s make an effort:
Meat Loaf seems to be playing some kind of spirit, muse or demigod that advises people who are in pain. Perhaps he’s Rush’s Spirit of the Radio made flesh. He first appears to a young Angelina Jolie, who has run away from home and her presumably abusive father, also played by Loaf, who appears in a series of shout-y, silent flashbacks. I pondered why they double-cast Loaf for a moment but then came to my senses. I can’t imagine they were going for any kind of deeper irony here. I consider Loaf a pretty great actor based on his performance in Fight Club alone, and it must have been convenient to simply stick him in another role. (Side note: Loaf has a cameo as Jack Black’s oppressive father in Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny. I wrote elsewhere on this site that I wish Pick of Destiny had been a rock opera, or at least a musical on the order of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I feel that way largely due to Loaf’s pitch-perfect and rousing turn as Black’s mean old dad. Well done!)
(Side note #2: Keep an eye out at the four-minute mark of the “Rock and Roll Dreams” video to see Meat Loaf give one of the most un-self-consciously pretentious beckoning waves in cinematic history.)
Anyway, back to the video:
So Radio Spirit Meat Loaf starts guiding Jolie through an amber-toned underworld that feels like the best adaptation of the old paper-based role-playing game Shadowrun ever put to film.
OK, OK, OK – I realize I’m outing myself as a heavier-duty geek than previously thought by divulging any knowledge of paper-based RPGs. In my humble opinion, there’s a schism in the geek world between those who play paper-based role-playing games and those who don’t. It’s like, if a normal person thinks a geek is weird, a geek thinks a paper-based gamer is weird.
Disclosure: I played a few hours of Dungeons & Dragons back in the day, and an impish voice inside me thinks the only reason why I didn’t become an enthusiast was because I didn’t have the mental hardware to keep the all the numbers straight.
In any event, I remember Shadowrun well because it captured just about everything I loved about the gritty, post-apocalyptic, escapist fantasy and sci-fi I grew up with. I’ll only offer my vague recollection of the game’s world, so if any Shadowrun aficionados want to flame me, go easy!
In an unspecified future, our information-age society essentially reverts back to a middle-Earth-era social structure. Magical creatures and beings reappear on the landscape, and magic reasserts itself as a part of the underlying chaos of the universe. All of this happens in the context of a tech-soaked modern society where people can wetjack into a world-wide information network called The Matrix (and yes, that idea and name predate the illustrious 1999 film). The game also quaintly recalls the gloom-and-doom mentality of mid-90s economists – remember when we thought we’d all be exchanging goods in Japanese yen by this time? The currency in Shadowrun is the nuyen.
That Shadowrun and the “Rock and Roll Dreams” video came out of the same decade is no surprise. The concept art and illustrations for Shadowrun all featured grimy cyberpunk imagery, replete with floor-length leather jackets, rain-splattered alleyways, dimly lit magical speakeasies and mages dressed like Kurt Cobain. (Side note: I love that this kind of apocalyptic imagery is making a comeback in video games and movies like Silent Hill and American McGee’s Alice.)
The video for “Rock and Roll Dreams,” by comparison, finds Jolie’s runaway character hiding out under a bridge in a dark corner of town that’s strewn with rusted old broken down cars and wheezing, ancient jukeboxes – all of it bathed in flashing shafts of white and amber light reminiscent of big-city helicopter searches. Loaf’s Radio Spirit persona himself looks like a character from the grim corners of the Shadowrun universe, right down to his rakish bandana, moody make-up, urchin gloves and floor-length leather coat.
What am I getting at? Meat Loaf put himself back on the map musically with the ridiculous video for “I’d Do Anything For Love,” but with his video for “Rock and Roll Dreams,” he left a lasting impression on my gooshy mid-90s fascination with post-apocalyptic imagery, magic, fantasy and sci-fi.
Looking back at this video now, though, I couldn’t help but think of another equally batshit and (for its time) ambitious video: “Can You Feel It?” by the Jackson 5. Check it out:
If you watch these two videos side-by-side, you’ll see a similarity in theme – the transcendental power of music – and at first glance, I thought these two videos would make great cinematic siblings, but despite some similar images, I found myself growing closer to Meat Loaf’s underworld guardian angel and alienated by the Jackson 5’s paean to rockin’ world peace.
The Jacksons present the transcendental power of music in the guise of five hulking, luminescent demigods (themselves) who appear to the world as glowing superbeings that boogie in tandem, much like the disco-dancing muses seen in the 80s guilty pleasure Xanadu.
OK, most of the Jacksons’ video is harmless psychedelic nonsense. It’s not until the end that I start to get completely creeped the fuck out. The second half of the video shows the Jacksons – from Tito to MJ – sprinkling sparkling fairy dust on what appears to be everyone on the planet. The citizens of earth receive their communion of fairy dust in beatific tableaus (eyes closed, palms up), while the thrice-puissant Jacksons smile down at us like we’re their favorite litter of squirming newborn puppies. To cap it, they hoist a rainbow from the roiling sea and … well … they seem to set it on fire. Presumably this cements our global compact of peace with the Jacksons much like Yahweh’s compact with Noah assured the mythical sailor that no more floods were on the almighty docket.
Why does this imagery upset me so? It’s like this: When I was a kid, and I learned about the Adam and Eve myth, I wondered why they ever risked getting kicked out of Eden. My brother told me it was a good thing that humans had been expelled from paradise because living in paradise would be so boring.
As much as a bleeding-heart liberal like me yearns for world peace, the part of me that’s an artist blanches at the prospect of it, because great art comes out of conflict, from love stories on down. The only forms of expression I can think of that don’t have conflict are early childhood TV shows like Teletubbies.
Frankly, images of paradise freak me the hell out, because only hardcore brainwashing (or fairy dust) could purge all conflict from the human experience. The writers of The Matrix were right on the money when they posited that humans wouldn’t be able to stand a utopian simulation of life.
But why am I coming down so hard on the Jacksons? Doesn’t Meat Loaf’s dumb-ass video turn him into an immortal angel who gathers together a bunch of troubled souls who look up into the sky for inspiration at the end? And doesn’t that “inspiration” look suspiciously like the ghost that gave Dan Aykroyd a blowjob in Ghostbusters?
Here’s why I wind up liking the “Rock and Roll Dreams” video: Meat Loaf’s Radio Spirit isn’t appealing to everyone on the planet – he’s only seeking out people who really need help, and fuck! These people really need help! Loaf’s Spirit of Radio seeks out a runaway, an alcoholic, a kid about to pull his first drive-by and – I’m getting misty-eyed even thinking about this – a woman stricken with blindness in adulthood who can’t figure out Braille.
Fuck, dude! Can rock and roll dreams really help all these poor bastards? Then to hell with the video’s scrambled artistic vision, which shows us Meat Loaf as the aforementioned Spirit of Radio; a chorus of slinky babes who provide back-up vocals; a woman straight out of William Gibson who lives in a jukebox, wears a crown of technology and holds a glowing magic ball; and the Aykroyd blowjob spirit who hovers, like, six inches above the heads of all the troubled souls at video’s end. To hell with all of that and get these people some rock and roll dreams posthaste!
I always like to look ahead to the future, but sometimes I miss the 90s. Sometimes I miss going out to my friend’s cabin to watch my friends play a goofy, post-apocalyptic role-playing game while I read the rule-books and admired the nightmarish illustrations. Sometimes I miss feeling the first stirrings of what would eventually become my artistic passions, regardless of where I got them.
And sometimes I look back at my first exposure to the fast-paced glam filmmaking of Michael Bay and the confluence of post-apocalyptic magical imagery that saddled me with my secret affinity for Meat Loaf power-ballads – and I bang my head in silent tribute.