Cracked's 'One Hit Blunders': 5 Ways One Awful Music Video Ended Billy Squier's Career
By the time 1984 came around, Billy Squier was well on his way to the top. Fresh off the success of two back-to-back hit albums and his first headlining arena tour, Squier was set to release his fourth studio album, Signs of Life, and its lead single, "Rock Me Tonite". The song did end up being a hit … but the ridiculous video that came with it is what really went down in rock history and sparked the decline of Squier’s career.
The video has been listed on dozens of “worst music videos of all time” lists over the years, even making it to the top of many of them. How bad is it? Why is it so bad? Given what’s come out since then, did we perhaps judge it too harshly? Let’s find out ...
Okay, Just Watch the Video
To say that this video deserves the title of worst video of all time is a bit unfair. After all, it came out a mere three years after MTV's debut, so at that point, music videos were still an experimental art form. Looking back on the early days of music videos, there were a ton of them that were objectively horrible … at least from an aesthetic standpoint. MTV became the music industry’s dominant marketing tool so quickly that record labels had to scramble to put together anything they could just to get it on the air if they wanted a potential hit song to have a chance in hell.
Music was now a visual medium, and musicians not only had to make their music sound good, but now they had to learn how to make them look good. That’s why in so many of the videos from MTV’s first year, everyone looked so stiff and awkward. Their lip-syncing and choreography made them look either bored as hell or way more animated than the song demanded. That’s because when they recorded the song, they weren’t thinking they would have to act it out on camera. Does anyone honestly think the members of Blondie had any of this in mind when they wrote and recorded “Rapture”?
Given the standards of the time, was “Rock Me Tonite” a weird video? Absolutely! Every detail in that video only raises more questions than answers. Why is there a pink, smoky elevator that opens to the bedroom of this loft apartment? Why does the fire escape outside his window have a spiral staircase? Who choreographed this, a cranky five-year-old who just learned how to snap their fingers? Why does he seem to only own three equally wrong-looking shirts, and why does the worst one match his guitar?
But in its defense, this really wasn’t even the weirdest music video that came out that year. Ratt’s “Round and Round,” ZZ Top’s “Legs,” “Magic” by The Cars, Billy Idol’s "Eyes Without a Face" … watch any of those videos on mute and try to tell us they don’t feel like the fever dream of a madman who struck out with his cocaine dealer and settled for whippets and cough syrup.
Rock Me Tonite wasn’t the first music video to feature the singer prancing around like an idiot. It certainly wasn’t the first one where it was clear they were trying to do something different. It wasn’t even the first video that made people question the singer’s sexuality. It was perhaps the first music video that became famous for being awful but without enough campy charm to qualify as “so bad it’s actually good.”
This Was Not The Original Idea for the Video
According to the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, Squier’s initial pitch for the video was different from what the world ended up getting. You can kinda see traces of the original idea in the final video if you squint hard enough.
Squier wanted the video to depict the ritual of getting ready to go to a concert, showing him picking his outfit, fixing his hair, etc., and cross-cutting with scenes of his fans doing the same thing. The video would end with everyone having a blast at the concert. It seems like a pretty simple, straightforward concept that would be impossible to screw up. So how did they screw it up?
Well, first, they took the idea to Bob Giraldi, who was in high demand at the time after directing the video for Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Giraldi liked the idea but changed his mind after a week because he thought it wasn’t something he’d like his children to see. Okay, fair point… But didn’t “Beat It” have a knife fight in it? If Michael Jackson hadn’t broken up that fight with the power of choreography, that scene would’ve been a bloodbath!
Next, they went to David Mallet, who directed Billy Idol’s White Wedding video. According to Billy Squier, the first storyboard Mallet showed him was of a scene of Squier riding into a diner on a white horse. The book didn’t really explain if they had first informed Mallet of the concert ritual idea, which either means A) the director was going rogue with the diner horse idea, B) this guy has never been to a concert, or C) he’s been kicked out of every concert he has ever attended. Either way, Mallet didn’t get the job.
Enter Kenny Ortega, a friend of Squier’s then-girlfriend, who called up Squier directly to offer to direct the video. Ortega had been a choreographer on many of David Mallet’s videos and already had a few video directing credits under his belt, most notably the Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited. Squier’s label and management weren’t happy that Ortega went around them to get the gig, but with time running out before the video was set to premiere on MTV, they reluctantly went along.
A Difference in Vision
As soon as Billy Squier arrived on the video set and saw how it was decorated, he knew there might have been a breakdown in communication. The satin sheets on the bed, the almost aggressive amount of pastels… it just wasn’t what he had imagined. In his idea for the video, Squier envisioned something like the opening scene from American Gigolo:
While director Kenny Ortega pictured it more like this scene from Risky Business:
And yet, it ended up like this:
For the choreography, Ortega suggested that Squier simply do the same kind of moves he does when he performs on stage, only without his guitar. It’s gonna look goofy as hell, but when they cross-cut it with footage of the band performing and the scenes of the teenagers getting ready for the concert, it shouldn’t look that bad, right? Surely, Ortega was gonna use footage of the band and the teenagers for coverage like he had promised… right?!?
Of course not! For three minutes and 22 seconds, the video shows the full prancing session, with all of Squier’s floor crawling, shirt ripping, back writhing, skipping, and belly flops on the bed playing out in its entirety. Only with 86 seconds left, we get to see him finish out the song with the band. Not at an actual concert, but rather in a room that looks like … I dunno … some sort of underfunded art gallery? A somehow more disturbing version of Dexter’s kill room? Seriously, what’s the theme here?
Squier absolutely hated the final cut of the video, and his girlfriend told him it would ruin his career. His managers desperately pleaded with the label to cancel its release, but the label refused. In the first month after the video’s release, Squier started seeing attendance numbers drop at his concerts. He ended up firing both of his managers.
The Blame Game
The Rock Me Tonite video definitely marked the beginning of the end for Billy Squier’s career, but it doesn’t mean the song was bad. After all, it did make it to #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the highest charting single he ever released. But then again, at the time that was based solely on record sales and radio airplay. MTV was changing how music was consumed and marketed. One good video could make you a superstar. One bad video could bury you.
Squier and Kenny Ortega still blame each other for the video’s failure. Squier maintains that Ortega misled him, while Ortega claims that Squier has no one to blame but himself; they wanted a Billy Squier video, and that’s exactly what Kenny Ortega delivered.
Kenny Ortega’s career was left completely unscathed by the ordeal. As a choreographer, he went on to work on films such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Newsies, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and Dirty Dancing. As a director, he made Hocus Pocus, the first three High School Musical films, and he’s apparently signed on to direct a Dirty Dancing reboot slated for 2026. It’s unclear if that movie will ever see the light of day, though. Seriously, four years of production? C’mon; it’s a corny dance movie, not the Snyder Cut of Justice League, for crying out loud.
Billy Squier went on to release four more albums with Capitol Records after Signs of Life. The last one, Tell The Truth, was released in 1993, and Capitol did practically nothing to help promote it, which led Squier to walk away from his contract… and the music business. Squier has since moved on to other endeavors, including screenwriting and filmmaking. In 1998, he released his last studio album, Happy Blue, a bare-bones acoustic blues album that is actually pretty damn good!
But the important thing is, Squier has come to terms with everything and is living his life the way he wants to live it. His attitude on the video now?
“The wounds have healed, and the scars aren’t that deep because my life has evolved in a good way. I left the music business when I was forty-three. I don’t have to work. Look who’s smiling now! That video is a bad part of a good life.”
Billy Squier has had to deal with the backlash over the Rock Me Tonite video for 38 years now, and it keeps getting brought up again and again. For example, you’re reading about it right now, aren’t you? But the fact remains that Rock Me Tonite is not the worst music video ever made. Not by a long shot. It may have been regarded as such at the time, but there have been so many worse videos since then. Are we just gonna forget Kid Rock even existed?
Perhaps it’s time we give Billy Squier a shot at redemption. Here’s what we propose: Let’s crowdfund a new video for Rock Me Tonite. Not a redux, remix, or remake. No, give the song the proper video it deserves after nearly four decades of mockery.
We take the video back to its original idea: Billy Squier getting ready for a concert intercut with scenes of his fans doing the same, and end it with everyone at the concert rocking their brains out. Not as they are today, but as they were when the song first came out in June 1984. It wouldn’t be hard to recreate the look and feel of that time period. Just hire the set designers and casting directors from Stranger Things. Problem solved!
But isn’t Billy Squier 72 years old? Yes, but we can still make it work. Hell, if the MCU can de-age Michael Douglas’ sub-Saharan relief map of a face back to its pre-Gordon Gekko glory, then surely we can give Billy Squier a decent mid-eighties digital facelift. Use a body double for the dance moves or go full-motion capture CGI if we have to. We may only need a handful of FX shots for a five-minute rock video. It’s not like we’re having Billy fight Thanos or anything.
C’mon, people! Let’s do this. Do it for Billy F—ing Squier!
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
Top image: Capitol Records