One of the many things disco did to the pop mainstream was to help sharpen its body-consciousness. Take the above video clip for Miquel Brown’s “So Many Men, So Little Time,” a 1983 hit that, according to the voluminous notes provided by the song’s producer, Ian Levine (who has his own extensively curated YouTube hub), was “The first pioneering record of the whole High Energy scene.” The song was a huge European hit, but the video is striking for its glimpse into muscle-man culture. Not that this was altogether new in pop. Below, we present a selective history of bodybuilding in pop video from the period.
Let’s work backward from “So Many Men,” starting with Diana Ross’s “Muscles,” a Michael Jackson-penned hit from 1982. It’s a real curio–famously written about Jackson’s boa constrictor of the same name, the song strikes me now (as opposed to me when I was seven) as almost too deliberately camp, even though I have absolutely no question as to either Jackson’s or Ross’s sincerity in this particular endeavor. (Or any other.) Nevertheless, the video is ridiculous, especially when you factor in those odd quick cuts of vintage Buster Keaton footage.
“Muscles” reads, historically speaking, like a sequel–a slow, melodramatic sequel–to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” No. 1 for months in 1981, and one of the most subversive of the early pop videos. (Sadly, it’s not embeddable, but it is on YouTube.) The video–which is approximately 800 times better than the song itself–is one of the most vivid mainstream icons of the period, but watching it now makes me wonder how it ever got on TV in that less permissive age. It’s not just the obviously sexy stuff (this came out at a time when Three’s Company had been on the air for several seasons), but the gay not-even-subtext, particularly at the end, when the muscle men walk out hand in hand. The video’s genius is that is plays everything as light comedy, which was ONJ’s real knack anyway, and which made everything here seem just ducky to Grandma and Grandpa America.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss any of this without mention of the Village People’s “Macho Man,” from 1979. The song certainly is some kind of template, but what’s most unexpected if you’re unfamiliar with the video is how little actual muscle-flexing it has. Instead, the director seems to have put the camera down and gone out for lunch. Or maybe to hit the gym.