With the eve of the 31st annual MTV Video Music Awards upon us, I’d like to posit some quick thoughts on what’s undisputably one of the most iconic music videos to ever grace the awards.
Go ahead and search the term “sledgehammer” on Google. This video is the second result. Either someone’s done a hell of a job on the marketing side ensuring the video gets still views more than 25 years after its initial debut, or people genuinely think about “Sledgehammer” more than they do, well, actual sledgehammers. And for good reason: it’s tied for the most VMA nominations (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” pulled 10 as well in 2010) and holds the record for most VMAs awarded to a single video with nine taken home in one night, including the coveted “Video of the Year”. But those are just statistics reflective of the opinions of people watching MTV at the time. “Sledgehammer” has endured because it’s still a thrill to watch all these years later.
When you look at this video on paper, it is, for the most part, a strictly literal interpretation of the lyrics. So it’s a bunch of double talk about sex brought to life around Peter Gabriel’s upper torso. In “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution”, director Stephen R. Johnson said of the song:
“I didn’t even like the song, frankly. I thought it was just another white boy trying to sound black.”
But then you actually see the final product and it sticks with you, whether you first saw it on MTV or YouTube. That flute solo accompanying magnified sperm swimming like koi in a garden pond. Gabriel seemingly coming to life as the song does. And yes, there are those god-damned chickens. There are just as many visual hooks in the video for “Sledgehammer” as there are in the music. All of the genius of Johnson’s visuals coming together perfectly with Gabriel’s songwriting. No small feat. “Video Killed The Radio Star”, this ain’t. For 16 hours at a time, Gabriel was placed under a glass sheet as the stop-motion for the video was shot frame by frame. Gabriel was also 36 years old by the time “Sledgehammer” hit number one. His target demo on MTV was half his age. His old band, Genesis, were enjoying the fullest measure of musical success they ever would in their career, with a number one single in the form of “Invisible Touch” and another nominee vying for Video of the Year that year in “Land of Confusion”. There were tons of obstacles in the way of “Sledgehammer” being made at all, much less it being made into the success it was.
But in the history of the network, no one video has been played more times than “Sledgehammer”. Not “Thriller”, not “Vogue”, not “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. “Sledgehammer”. The song went on to replace “Invisible Touch” at the top of the charts stateside. And eventually, “Land of Confusion” did beat out “Sledgehammer” at the Grammys in the short-lived “Best Concept Music Video” category. But 11,000,000 combined views on YouTube and nine moonmen can’t be wrong.
“Show for me, and I will show for you.”