Thirty Years of Food in Music Videos | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Thirty Years of Food in Music Videos

On MTV's birthday, an appreciation of the coffee, cakes, candy, breakfast cereals and milkshakes of song

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Thirty years ago this week, in 1981, MTV debuted on cable television, the first round-the-clock music video channel. The trivia question everyone seems to know is that the network’s first video was the Buggles’ aptly titled “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

The first MTV video I saw—about a year later, when I was 11—was the Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.” That may have been an even more appropriate introduction to the budding medium; the special effects were clunky, the fashions abominable, but there was magic in the way it transfixed me.

For the next few years I was hooked, watching MTV whenever I had control of the remote (this was in the days when one TV per household was the norm). If my friend or I got to stay home sick from school, we would write down all the videos the other had missed that day, just to rub it in.

Music videos have evolved creatively and technologically over the years and have touched on nearly every subject—including food. By my casual estimation, at least half of those uses of food fall into the “overt sexual metaphor” category. Let’s look at some notable video food moments:

1981: The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket”
The seventh video to ever air on MTV is an awkward yet strangely touching bit of storytelling. Lead singer Chrissie Hynde portrays a lonely waitress whose only customers—aside from someone passed out with his head on the table—are a trio of young guys, played by her bandmates. They order the special (campily pointing to it on the menu to coincide with the lyric “I’m special”), leer flirtatiously/menacingly at Hynde, then leave before so much as taking a sip of coffee once their bouncy girlfriends arrive. Hynde looks longingly out the window at them driving away, repeating, “I’m special. I gotta have some of your attention.”

1981: Altered Images, “Happy Birthday”
This bubbly New Wave ditty showcases some fabulous 1980s fashion and waggly-limbed dancing, and features, naturally, a birthday party scene complete with a great big cake and what appear to be jello shots.

1982: Toto Coelho (known as Total Coelho in the U.S. to differentiate it from Toto), “I Eat Cannibals”
A band of wild-eyed, garbage-bag-wearing women do quasi-tribal dance moves while singing about all the ways they like to eat cannibals (roasted, toasted, etc.). I’m not entirely sure there isn’t a sexual metaphor in here somewhere, but the video doesn’t dwell on it. In fact, there is no eating of cannibals, only an apple and a cupcake.

1982: The Waitresses, “I Know What Boys Like”
Aside from the name of the band, the only food reference in this video is the opening shot of a cup of coffee on a checkered tablecloth, which is also used as an occasional background. But I love singer Patty Donahue’s classic wide belt, miniskirt and diamond-pattered top ensemble. And you’ll be hearing the song in your head for the rest of the day.

1982: Bow Wow Wow, “I Want Candy”
Lead singer Annabella Lwin introduced the world to the cornrow-hawk, while dancing around giant candy canes planted in the sand and seductively eating ice cream. Hint: the candy she’s talking about isn’t M&Ms and gumdrops.

1983: Donna Summer, “She Works Hard for the Money”

Boy, does she. The star of the video (in this case, not the singer) starts the morning scrubbing floors, then slinging coffee and getting sexually harassed at her diner job. She finishes up her long day at a sweat shop before going home to her two bratty kids, who bang their utensils on the table to demand dinner. If only she hadn’t gotten knocked up, she seems to think, as she stares wistfully at an old photo of herself as a young dancer. At least Donna Summer, who looks at her creepily through the window, understands. You better treat her right.

1984: Weird Al Yankovic, “Eat It”
The curly-haired, pencil-mustached video satirist had it so easy in the 1980s. Videos like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” featuring West Side Story-inspired dance rumbles, were easy targets. In this one, he turns the lyrics into an admonishment to a picky eater: “Don’t want no Cap’n Crunch, don’t want no Raisin Bran. Don’t you know that other kids are starving in Japan? Just eat it.”

1984: Ratt, “Round and Round”
Here is an early example of the 1980s video trope (especially popular with heavy metal bands) that has snooty, rich or otherwise uptight people getting their comeuppance. In this case, a fancy dinner—guests include Milton Berle in both male and female roles—is disturbed by the noisy rocking of the band upstairs. All hell breaks loose, the guitarist falls through the roof onto the dinner table, and the butler takes the lid off the final course: a dish full of live rats. Get it?

1986: Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer”
The innovative editing and animation techniques used in the British singer’s most popular music video earned it seven MTV video awards. In one sequence about “fruit cages,” various fruits swirl around Gabriel’s head, forming different shapes. I have no idea what fruit cages are, but he is apparently using them here as—surprise!—a sexual metaphor.

1990: Warrant, “Cherry Pie”
If you ask me, this is when hair metal jumped the shark. “She’s my cherry pie”? Really, that’s the best you can come up with? The wedge of fruit pie falling into a model’s lap at the end? Subtle, guys. Real subtle.

1994: Weezer, “Buddy Holly”
Finally, some good clean video food fun. It doesn’t get squeakier than Arnold’s, the drive-in from the 1970s TV series Happy Days, where, through the magic of editing, the video is set. Even Fonzie, the supposed Lothario of the show (who has a cameo in the video), never seemed to do more than “neck” with his many female admirers.

2003: Kelis, “Milkshake”
This one, not so clean. Set in the world’s most oversexed diner, there’s plenty of shake drinking, but something tells me the lovely young singer isn’t bragging about her prowess at making ice cream treats when she says her “milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.”

Kelis – Milkshake (Official Music Video). Watch more top selected videos about: Kelis

2007: Fountains of Wayne, “Someone to Love”
Eating solo in adjacent apartments, two star-crossed would-be lovers (one of them played by comedian Demitri Martin) never discover that their soulmate and dining partner could be right next door.

2010: Katy Perry featuring Snoop Dogg, “California Gurls”
The recommended age on every pre-schooler’s favorite board game goes up a few decades in the pop singer’s version of Candy Land, where she lounges nude on cotton candy clouds and dons pastry lingerie.

Did I miss your favorite example? Let us know in the comments.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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