Shake It Up: Ric Ocasek's New Wave Cool Made The Cars Unlikely MTV Visionaries

Thirty-five years after its release, the video for The Cars’ “You Might Think” remains wildly surreal. A pioneer in the way it used computer-generated imagery, the clip finds frontman Ric Ocasek pursuing a woman (portrayed by actress Susan Gallagher) through various means: shapeshifting into a fly; twisting up from her lipstick tube; drilling her tooth at the dentist; and being a creepy periscoper who appears in the bathtub.

The effects look primitive now but are rather clever; for example, Ocasek's head is grafted onto the body of a fly and, at another point, all of The Cars are seen rocking out on a bar of soap. Smartly, however, the video tempers its lecherous tendencies with sly physical humor -- Gallagher swats the Ocasek bug away with an exaggerated exasperated look -- and cartoonish flourishes: At one point, Ocasek flattens his crush, Looney Tunes-style, with a roaring roadster, right on cue with the lyric, "You might think I'm delirious/The way I run you down."

Producer and director Jeff Stein, who worked on the video in conjunction with a cutting-edge company named Charlex, heard "You Might Think" and "thought I could make the first cartoon with real people, which I think we did," he said in Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. Naturally, the video's advanced conceit helped it clean up at awards shows. At Billboard's (yes, Billboard's) 1984 Video Music Awards, "You Might Think" took home best overall, best conceptual and most innovative, as well as best editing and, for Stein and Charlex, best special effects. And the clip was also awarded the first-ever MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year in 1984, beating out such other classics as Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and even Michael Jackson's "Thriller." 

Despite their success, Ocasek and the rest of the Cars were reluctant video stars. "One of the worst parts of the video process was pitching ideas to the band," Stein said in I Want My MTV. "I met The Cars and told them, 'The band's in the medicine chest, and then on a bar of soap, and Ric's a fly,' and one of them said, 'Why don't we all just play on a turd in the toilet bowl?' That was the prevailing attitude." Robin Sloane, who worked at Elektra Records at the time, added that Ocasek "hated" the video. "He thought it made fun of the way he looked."

Ocasek wasn't necessarily the most natural video focal point. The late Ben Orr was the Cars' conventional heartthrob, all blonde shaggy hair, boyish facial features and honeyed vocal warmth. Ocasek was Orr's photo negative -- dark-haired and sharp-featured, with a slimmer build and angular cheekbones he accentuated with sunglasses and tailored suits -- had an icier tone to his delivery, and wasn't a flashy or active performer. "I never thought of myself as an entertainer, and I never thought that doing a lot of fake moves was the way to go," he said in 2011. 

However, Ocasek was a perfect fit for the ultra-visual, eclectic '80s pop world, simply because he looked so distinctive: He was a moody and mysterious new waver who oozed both nerdy chic and sophisticated cool. The Cars' videos were also sophisticated and full of smart pop culture references (e.g. King Kong, obscure movies), which helped soften the band's reputation as a plain live act.

Naturally, MTV loved The Cars from their literal start. The band had three separate performance-based videos played during the channel's first day on air: a clip for "Double Life" in which Ocasek looks like a rakish glam star, between his dazzling sparkling shirt and some blazing guitar moves; a video for "Let's Go" filmed in what looked like the same day; and "Dangerous Type," in which the band members sport color-coordinated outfits. The Cars-MTV mutual admiration society continued throughout the '80s, with a fan contest boasting spoils including a private concert and a Porsche filled with Snickers bars ("A Private Affair with The Cars"), an Ocasek promo and even the airing of a special effects-laden Cars concert film that found the band at their mighty synth-rock best.

And despite (or maybe because of) his lingering skepticism about videos, Ocasek was the perfect early MTV star. In performance-based Cars videos, he was blissfully unaware of playing to the camera, meaning his persona is pure rock star swagger. He was also a rather fine actor: In "Since You're Gone," which depicts someone who has a hard time accepting a breakup, he plays it straight-faced as movers take away furniture he's sitting on and is spooked as he keeps seeing his ex everywhere. And, as The Cars' videos became more conceptual, Ocasek often came off amused, as if he couldn’t quite believe he was in absurd situations, and never took himself too seriously. 

For example, the campy sci-fi clip "You Are the Girl," which involves the band encountering "female life forms" in space, he employs goofy facial expressions that strike a perfect balance between deadpan and slapstick humor. This clip is also the Cars' most overtly sexual video, as it features (among other things) an Emergency Pleasure Droid who short-circuits and some rather juvenile humor: The band's space vessel has a phallic shape, and is beckoned to dock in a much rounder spaceship. (Get it?) The sexual overtones are so juvenile and over-the-top that it’s groan-worthy rather than offensive.

Yet this kind of consummation is rare in the Cars' universe. The beautiful women cast in videos (including Ocasek's future wife, Paulina Porizkova, in "Drive") tended to be as unrequited crush objects. Ocasek tended to be such a relatable video figure as well because he was rather unlucky in love—or at least found love just out of reach. "Tonight She Comes" projects footage of actress Tara Shannon, looking flirty and seductive, on giant screens; Ocasek interacts with her—pops a gum bubble of hers, say, or dances alongside with her—from an entirely separate physical plane. The artsy clip for "Touch and Go" plays with shadows and lighting angles (much like Talking Heads did, in fact) but also features footage of bored-looking women riding a carousel. Ocasek never interacts with the riders, either, and simply walks among them as if he's a ghost. Even in "You Might Think," all of his animated overtures appear to go unheeded. 

When the Cars' sound went maximalist on 1984's Heartbeat City, courtesy of producer Mutt Lange, the band’s videos also became more elaborate and complex. In addition to “You Might Think,” the album spawned the cinematic "Drive," a black-and-white clip directed by actor Timothy Hutton, and the colorful "Magic," a pointed commentary on the dangers of idol worship. In the latter, people tug at Ocasek’s clothes and clamor for his attention, as he walks on water a la Jesus to play up the isolating nature of messianic worship; he carries appropriate gravitas and rather convincing speaker mannerisms. 

The high-concept premise of a clip such as "Magic" appealed to Ocasek. "I like the kind of videos that don't really depict the song," he told Andy Warhol, who directed the "Hello Again" clip, a spoof over panic over sex and violence in music videos. "I'm a little afraid of videos depicting lyrics. For instance, when you listen to a song on the radio, you always imagine what it means to you and what you're going through in your life at the time. But when you see a video, then you all of a sudden you have this picture of what somebody else thinks it is."

The Cars had dabbled in this early on (cue up the video for "Panorama" and revel in its intrigue), but once they reached their commercial zenith, Ocasek got his wish: The band also started releasing videos that revealed more of a vulnerable side. "Why Can’t I Have You" is dominated by a graceful ballet dancer -- and shots of Ocasek, sans sunglasses, pining after her -- while "Strap Me In" alternates sweeping, panoramic band footage with a dramatic storyline.

The Cars’ videos were as futuristic and smart as the band’s music, as the visual medium added complementary splashes of color and vibrancy. In the end, despite initial reluctance, Ocasek and Co. were one of MTV's most quintessential bands. 

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