Ice, Hammer: Rap-Lite Dummies

Chris Willman's Sound & Vision appears periodically in Calendar

Some call it coincidence.

In the penthouse of this month's video roundup are the Crash Test Dummies, a seriously arch combo that currently claims pop's most unlikely left-field hit.

And sharing a self-serious condo in the video basement, meanwhile, are pop-rappers Hammer and Vanilla Ice, two guys who act like they recently got beaned by a left-field hit, driving off in a career-suicidal direction that's unsafe at any speed.

Will the real dummies please stand up?

If there's any lesson for future pop aspirants in the cellar of this edition of Sound & Vision (in which pop music videos are reviewed and rated on a 0-100 scale), then, it's not to sink and drive.

Crash Test Dummies, "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." Here you have a sort of enigmatic, vaguely humanistic novelty song consisting entirely of three anecdotes--three briefly spun tales of childhood embarrassments--with only the titular humming in the choral place where some moral to the story ought normally to go. And this lovely web of utter inconclusiveness is a Top 40 hit? Maybe there is hope. (And isn't it perversely gratifying just to visualize Casey Kasem saying "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," repeatedly?)

But the question would be how to illustrate these same three stories without being overly literal. Director Dale Heslip had the solution: Remove the narratives a step by dramatizing them being dramatized. So the setting here is a school talent-show production, in which parents have come to watch their children acting out the scenarios of their own pain as kiddie comedy.

In the orchestra pit at this sad school play are, of course, the Crash Test Dummies, whose wry Brad Roberts gets just enough chance to screw up his mouth and lift his eyebrows, which offers almost as much commentary on the poignant proceedings as the missing moral might. 85

Nine Inch Nails, "March of the Pigs." Trent Reznor and co-director Peter Christopherson shot one elaborate conceptual video for this song that they finally decided to scrap as too portentous, despite the expensive outlay. Their second stab is the simple treatment you see here: Reznor and his touring band playing the song live in their rehearsal studio, one camera, one take, no edits. Without having seen the shelved first attempt, you can guess they made the right move.

Other acts have made edit-less videos, usually as novelties. The measure of this one's success, though, is that you might turn it on and not even notice initially that there's no cutting between cameras. The hand-held photography is constantly on the roam, without venturing too far into seasickness, capturing a studio performance by NIN that's unusually brightly lit but otherwise very much their usual visceral chaos. Leave it to Reznor, whose studio music is mostly carefully computer-sampled, to make the first video in recent memory that truly sounds, feels and looks like unfussed-over rock 'n' roll. 83

Me'Shell NdegeOcello, "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)." Another video on the slightly experimental side: Director Jean-Baptiste Mondino has taken Me'Shell's funky R&B; declaration of infidelity and overlaid it with actress-models speaking directly into the camera, over the track and even, in a lot of cases, over the lyrics. The disjointed close-up comments from the women on screen come in a rush: "I feel like such an ass." "I am a very jealous person. I don't like other women." "Once you have a child, suicide is no longer an option." "I love love!" "I don't need sex. I need companionship. I need a dog."

What is this, a Henry Jaglom movie?

Well, it's a pretty good Jaglom movie, as it were, then. The parade of co-dependency may dismay some feminists, and some of the lipstick-smearing neuroticism may be a little overacted, but Mondino's latest ground-breaker has the ring of exaggerated truth. And the hearty bass-slapping by NdegeOcello that underlies her braggadocio covers a multitude of sins. 79

Janet Jackson, "Because of Love." Ah, it's the old cost-cutting wish-you-were-here home-movie tour memento video. And we do wish we were there. But not this much. 40

Shaquille O'Neal, "I'm Outstanding." All right, so this Shaq-talk isn't any worse than "Mr. T's Commandments"--remember that one?--the last such notable example of a celebrity role model making his crossover move into "positivity"-themed rap. Given the lack of balance in the genre, it may be nice just for niceness' sake that there's a rap video out there that doesn't scream for a childproof cap. But, between Shaq and that hot new baseball slugger Michael Jordan, there's a pretty good case to be made for the old-fashioned notion of sports specialists. 38

Hammer, "It's All Good" and "Pumps and a Bump." In "It's All Good," the first of his two current clips, Hammer offers "a left hook" to anyone who might dare question his gangsta credentials: "So you think that I'm a sellout / When we meet up on the street / Then we see who bail out!" He even invokes the lyrics of his not-so-distant pseudo-gospel hit as part of a not-so-veiled threat to all challengers: "So if you ever come my way / Like I used to say / Homeboy you better pray just to make it today."

Hammer had best pray too, that the waves of laughter generated by his sudden turnabout don't swell up and bust up the walls of his estate, because he makes about as convincing a gangsta here as he did an evangelical Christian a couple of years ago. Make what you will of his new felt-cap and high-top-sneakers look, but the saddest part of these two videos is the overwhelming near-absence of Hammer's truest talent, choreography--which obviously doesn't have much place when you're trying to re-establish yourself as down with Dre and Cube.

Silly as "Good" is, it's no match for the hilarity of "Pumps," a mass poolside bikini-fest in which Hammer skirts any charges of sexism by appearing himself in the tiniest of thongs, an "equal opportunity" we wish we'd never had. Call this one "Buttz N the Lenz," but call it off immediately. "Good": 8; "Pumps": 0

Vanilla Ice, "Roll 'Em Up." Hammer can take solace in the fact that his former rival for the top of the pops has sunk even lower in a wasted attempt at career resuscitation. Shedding the shorn look, Ice is now done up in dreadlocks and stubble, with flannel shirt and requisite felt cap. And his new persona is . . . pothead. Which, frankly, explains a lot.

He doesn't actually inhale on screen, though he is seen standing around a garbage can bonfire holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, cheered on by a lot of supportive African American extras who look as if they're trying to make sure their faces don't show up on camera while lending their racial credibility. Sample lyric: "You know I smoke good stuff so go and get your bong / Biggedy-bong, once again you know what's on, huh!"

Biggedy-gong: Watching what's left of Ice's kid-oriented career literally go up in smoke, it's easy to picture him way down the road, in his Florida rocking chair, insisting to his incredulous grandchildren, "But I really did know Madonna!" While, of course, happily sharing a big ole blunt with 'em. 0

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