One of the great things about tuning into MTV in the mid- to late-90s were the irreverent music videos the channel used to broadcast when most sane people had gone to bed. Once it turned 1am, you were treated to gems such as Add N to X’s Metal Fingers in My Body, Coldcut & Hexstatic’s Timber, and the ultimate ‘scare your granny’ short, Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy, directed by Chris Cunningham.
Thus, when Aphex Twin’s next single, Windolicker (released 20 years ago today, on 22 March 1999) was released, Cunningham again teamed up with Aphex alter ego Richard D James to compose a music video that would surpass even Come to Daddy’s demonic brilliance.
The (NSFW) video for Windowlicker, which is ostensibly a parody of US gangsta hip hop videos – it reportedly received several broadcasts on Yo! MTV Raps, no doubt to the bemusement of many rap enthusiasts – is a dark satire on the commercialisation of beauty, set in the sun-drenched paradise of Santa Monica Beach in California.
“When you see people in magazines, you can tell they’re thinking, ‘OK, I know I’m not really good-looking, but they’re going to make me good-looking in this photo,” James explained to Medium.com about the short’s Aphex-faced characters.
“So making myself look ugly is just the opposite of that. It’s just a reaction to that fantasy world that celebrities seem to live in.”
Rather than use computers to create the grotesque faces for the video, actual silicone masks were used – “Quite well done, except they didn’t give me any eyebrows. And they’re not my teeth,” James explained – adding to the video’s macabre realism.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Cunningham explained that while he “loves hip hop videos”, and the video was not intended to “disrespect” the genre – rather it was an opportunity to step out of familiar territory.
“Come to Daddy was played quite a lot late at night in England on MTV,” he explained in the 2005 interview.
“There was a guy who would champion the video and play it all the time, and he sent me tapes of this show called The Party Zone because I didn’t have MTV. One day I watched it and I saw the Come to Daddy video amongst all these hip-hop videos and I thought, “That’s ridiculous.” It looks so out of place and it looks so wrong.
“So I wanted to make an Aphex video that fit amongst the hip-hop videos. That’s not the primary reason but it had a big bearing on it. When Richard did this track that sounded summery and sunny, I thought, “Fuck. We should do it in L.A. in that style.” I still don’t think it looks like a hip-hop video – I tried but I fucked it up. I knew if I used wide-angle lenses it would look like Hype Williams right away. […] It was fun though because it was just done in the spirit of trying to have a crack, I’m too much of a hip-hop fan to want to take the piss out of hip-hop.”
The video, alongside other Cunningham projects, went on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2002, while legendary Swiss artist HR Giger was even inspired to create his own piece of art based on its iconic imagery, titled The Windowlickers.
Bizarre, fantastical, grotesque… could a music video like this be made now? Happy birthday Windowlicker!