?Earlier this month, on August 1, MTV turned 30. Did you send a card? Flowers? Of course not. MTV didn’t even celebrate their own anniversary, unless by “celebrate” you mean “air so many episodes of Jersey Shore that decent people start crying.” It’s certainly worth noting the milestone, however; the notion of a 24-hour music video channel was an oasis for music geeks in the Greed Decade. And while the video medium is not synonymous with legends of geekery (have you ever seen a member of Duran Duran at Comic-Con?), several legendary icons of sci-fi and fantasy have graced the small screen to varying effects. And for those of you who want your MTV the way it used to be, Topless Robot is only too happy to oblige.
10) Hans Zimmer in The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”
From its very beginnings, MTV was catering to nerds, even if nobody knew it quite yet. At about three minutes into the first video ever played on the station, the man behind the keyboards is none other than Hans Zimmer, who’s gone on to score some of the most popular (and geek-friendly) films of the past 20 years, from the Pirates of the Caribbean series to Chris Nolan’s Batman films. It’s such a quick moment, but it certainly has had an impact, in its own way, over time. It’s almost as if Zimmer planted the notion of himself as composer through the video… BRAAAAAAAMMM.
9) Robin Williams in Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”
Sure, Robin Williams isn’t your first draft pick in the nerd canon, but you have to give the guy some credit — he’s a noted World of Warcraft player, and he named his daughter Zelda after a lengthy gaming session with his then-wife. None of that nerd cred, however, explains his semi-insane turn in “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the most irritatingly inescapable hit of the 1980s. While Bobby McFerrin asserts his positive lifestyle/eternal damnation to one-hit wonder status, Williams and actor Bill Irwin (who has a bit of pop-cultural street cred himself, acting in Sesame Street and the terrible Jim Carrey version of The Grinch) dance about in incredibly silly costumes. I don’t care what your opinion on Hook is — Williams’ Peter Pan costume isn’t as ridiculous as his parading about in traditional African garb toward the beginning of this clip.
8) Robert Downey, Jr. in Elton John’s “I Want Love”
Before he strapped an arc reactor to his chest, Robert Downey, Jr., then known as an occasionally brilliant, often drugged-out actor, starred in this unique clip where he lip-synched to Elton John’s tune while walking through an empty mansion in one sustained take. The video certainly had a great deal of emotional heft at the time — why shouldn’t the troubled Downey want love? — but it’s kind of hard to feel bad for the guy now. I mean, seriously. He’s Iron Man. The amount of love one has is kind of irrelevant when an eyepatch-wearing Samuel L. Jackson is your boss.
7) Just About Everyone in Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl”
How monstrous was the Michael Jackson train in the late ’80s? For the eighth single released off of Bad (out of 11 songs on the album), Jackson commissioned a video that just combined as many famous friends as possible. Obviously, with that many film and television luminaries in the room, there are more than a few nerd-friendly appearances, from directors (Steven Spielberg) and comic book superheroes (Lou Ferrigno) to Star Wars alumni (Billy Dee Williams) and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Even a Ghostbuster (Dan Aykroyd) shows up, although the magnitude of that appearance pales next to the next one on this list.
6 / 5) Dan Aykroyd in USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” / Jeff Bridges in USA for Haiti’s “We Are the World 25 for Haiti”
As good as the intentions may have been for USA for Africa’s chart-topping single of 1985, “We Are the World” is infinitely irritating: seven minutes of singsong pap, performed by some of the biggest voices — and egos — in show business at the time (Bruce Springsteen, awesome as he is, doesn’t need to shred his larynx for Ethiopia, and everyone knows it). But the video, filmed during the sessions for the song, have given film geeks one of the greatest did-that-just-happen? moments: during the full choral singalong, Dr. Raymond Stantz himself can be seen singing along, wearing a huge pair of glasses to read his sheet music. The actor was invited after attending that year’s American Music Awards — and he certainly has the musical chops, as one of The Blues Brothers.
A similar sensation occurred last year, when an updated, even more bombastic version recorded to raise money for the earthquake relief effort in Haiti counted Jeff Bridges, fresh from The Grid, among its ranks. Like the song itself, though, it wasn’t quite as good as the first time.
4) Elijah Wood in The Beastie Boys’ “Make Some Noise”
In 1986, The Beastie Boys made one of the funniest, snottiest music videos of all time: “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).” A quarter-century later, the group made a surprising sequel, which explained what happened to the group after they left that Brooklyn apartment. Naturally, the Beasties weren’t going to reprise their roles as twentysomething rappers, so they recruited Seth Rogen, Danny McBride and Elijah Wood to fill the roles of young Mike D., MCA and Adrock, respectively. Don’t let those piercing blue hobbit eyes fool you: Wood has all of Adrock’s sneering charm, and unintentionally sets up one of the funnier of the many cameos in the video — Lord of the Rings co-star Orlando Bloom mugging endlessly into the frame, clad in a Def Jam Records jacket.
3) Christopher Lloyd in Huey Lewis and The News’ “The Power of Love”
It may be a cheat to include a video from a sci-fi soundtrack, but it’s not a written rule that a film’s star will end up in the accompanying music videos (Case in point: the clip for El DeBarge’s “Who’s Johnny,” featured in 1986’s Short Circuit, which could only muster a cardboard cutout of costar Steve Guttenberg). But Back to the Future is nothing without its Emmett L. Brown, and even Huey Lewis knew that, forgoing his band’s usual video theme of yachts and buxom babes for a straight performance clip bookended by new footage of Doc and the DeLorean outside a nightclub.
You have to debate the logic behind Doc leaving the time machine for those crazy teens to use, though — I have a feeling they were looking to go more than just 88 miles per hour, if you catch my drift.
2) Leonard Nimoy in The Bangles’ “Going Down to Liverpool”
As if being the first officer aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise wasn’t awesome enough, Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, managed to get another plum job for nerds: the personal chauffeur of the hottest ladies of ’80s rock, The Bangles. But he’s not only in front of the camera for the video to one of the band’s first singles — he directed it, too. Nimoy’s son was a friend of Bangles leader/head bombshell Susanna Hoffs from college, the lucky bastard.
1) Forrest J. Ackerman in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”
It’s the video that’s widely accepted as the greatest ever made, so it only fits that it should have one of the nerdiest cameos. The first third of the 14-minute “Thriller” short film is a movie within a movie, as Michael Jackson turns into a werewolf and stalks a young bobby-soxer. If the transformation looks familiar, it’s because MJ wisely adopted the crew of An American Werewolf in London for his project, from director John Landis to makeup artist Rick Baker.
But the best homage of horror occurs as the non-film Jackson and his date leave the movie theater. As Jackson exits his row of seats, he passes by the Famous Monsters of Filmland editor and exalted collector of all things sci-fi, Forrest J Ackerman. It’s a brief but brilliant tip of the hat to one of sci-fi’s all-time legends, and arguably the crossroads where the cool factor of music videos could meet the subdued awesomeness of being a nerd.