So far in the video decade we’ve mostly met promo clips that enhance their records, at best bringing their imagined worlds to life, at worst providing a harmless bit of period diversion. Even when the video is absurd – Bonnie’s glowing choirboys, for instance – it’s been somehow responding to and enhancing an absurdity in the record. “Hello” is, I think, the first song to be destroyed by its video.
On record, Richie broods, obsessed by someone he hardly knows, imagining himself breaking his isolation and deadlock, aware he never will. Beneath the schmaltzy topsoil “Hello” is a grim, haunted record – melodramatic yes, but it’s the melodrama of a 19th century novel, dark and with a hint of tragedy. “Are you somewhere feeling lonely – or is someone loving you?”
And if you can listen to it without seeing that fantastic, stupid clay head, you’re a better man than I.
The “Hello” clip brings narrative where the record offers only paralysis. It turns the song into an awkward mini-episode of Fame, interrupts its intensity. Briefly it threatens to enhance what’s good in the song – Richie as teacher infatuated with student would be too specific, but rightly creepy. Instead, the student returns the infatuation. And is blind. But has a hidden gift for sculpture. And makes –
But you know already.
The length and professionalism of the clip – the intensity of Richie’s furrowed brow, the beauty of the girl – gives “Hello” a kitschy seriousness that overwrites and mocks its real emotions. Suddenly things which seemed strong in the song – from the chestbeating passion of its chorus to those witchy synth runs in the background – seem foolish, and weak elements like its closing flourish of strings jump out.
It makes me realise, listening to it now, making myself put the head out of my head, that video presented soul music with an awful dilemma. Adult soul music as it had evolved through the 70s was built on connection, on the performers mixing sincerity and skill to sell an emotion: it simply didn’t need the enhancement a video provides. Go abstract and you create a distraction; use the screen to tell a story and you risk breaking that precious connection. Performance clips were the safest – though dullest – option.
Forced to consider “Hello” only as a record, I like it well enough. It’s well arranged, Richie brings an appropriate note of crushed caution to the vocal, and heaven knows he could write a hook at this point in his career. But it’s half the story, and the other half is a silly old Fantastic Four plot point dressed up as drama.