With this lyric, Nu Shooz introduced themselves to the world. Though the Portland, Oregon band has been making funk-infused dance music since 1979, “I Can’t Wait” is the song and video that finally brought them worldwide exposure. But… what is it all about? That is the question.
Since the video’s debut in the summer of 1986, it’s been both entertaining and puzzling viewers with its bizarre eye candy graphics. What’s up with the slides and all the tools? Why is a baby shark being extracted from a coffee pot? Is there any special significance to that banana? These questions have plagued MTV, VH1 and YouTube audiences for decades.
In a 1986 MTV interview, Nu Shooz singer Valerie Day dismissed the baffled masses with a simple “either you get it or you don’t,” and she does have a point. Seeking precise meaning in music video imagery can be like searching for logic in a Nyquil dream – not something a rational person would spend too much time on. But for the irrationally curious out there, your lucky day has arrived! Director Jim Blashfield has been cool enough to share some inside information about the I CAN’T WAIT video, exclusively for Images of Heaven readers! Yes, for the first time, some light can be shed on this iconic eighties clip.
The story begins in Portland when John Smith and Valerie Day of Nu Shooz asked their buddy Jim to direct a video for their hot new single. The visionary behind the Talking Heads’ award-winning AND SHE WAS and Michael Jackson’s LEAVE ME ALONE among others, had a kooky concept for the Shooz. “I wanted to improvise it,” he says. “I didn’t want to plan it at all. I wanted the experience of just making it up from what was around when we got to the studio.”
So he loaded his car with biology slides, a coffeemaker, his kitchen table and lamp. At the studio he dug up a canvas backdrop and some phony saguaro cacti, procured a dumpster and some tools, then swiped a dog named Buster’s doghouse from a vacationing friend’s backyard. (One can only assume the eponymous “Buster” didn’t have a sunglasses face, as another pooch was cast in what should have been his role.)
Once the set was fully stocked with the perfect array of paraphernalia and pets, shooting could begin. But what exactly was being shot? Blashfield explains:
Besides being a promo for a band and a song, it is an experiment to see what results when you take a line from the video "tell me what it's all about" and decide that Valerie is a some kind of a scientist with an interest in small appliance repair instead of somebody waiting, lovesick, for a phone call, and let everything follow logically from that.
Logical or not, there is a kind of rhythmic reason to the clip; a left-of-center relevance that reveals itself from the introductory image: a piece of sheet metal upon which various objects are dropped. Wrenches, tools, a mini totem pole, a ripe banana. Could this be a clue that this woman is attempting to apply cold scientific analysis to mysterious realms like the human heart? Or is the banana in this case just a banana?
When the sheet metal is withdrawn we see the dog who’s not called Buster, sporting shades to shield his sensitive canine eyes from the massive voltage emanating from his electro-charged house. Against the wall a dumpster rigged with fishing wire opens and closes in time with the beat. Valerie – demonstrating a “great sense of playfulness as her song was absolutely misinterpreted,” according to Blashfield – sits at her desert desk, examining microscopic slides, asking what it’s all about.
Next she reaches for the drip percolator and seems pleasantly surprised to find a small plastic shark inside, swimming amongst the dregs. “If viewers look closely,” Blashfield says, “they may notice that happiness seems to be represented as a shark found lurking in a coffee pot, a metaphor which is certainly worth considering, if you ask me.”
How could a shark survive inside this coffee pot, you ask? The only logical thing to do is to take it apart and find out. So Valerie pulls out her tools and gets to work. As she dissects, her image bisects and splits apart, following the video’s theme of deconstruction and analysis. Over a blueprint, a magnet spins and Not-Buster makes a cameo appearance, perhaps offering another symbol of science being applied to love. Animal magnetism, or the unexplained force that draws two people together. How does it work?
At this point, Jim Blashfield’s willingness to experiment pays off in an unusual shot of the coffee percolator dividing into its various skeletal parts and spinning in front of Valerie’s head. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many music videos in which a random inanimate object spends 10 or 15 seconds completely obscuring the face of the singer. Let’s pause and appreciate that for a moment, shall we?
As the sections whirl like wheels of the mind, they seem to illustrate one of the song’s repeated lyrics: Tell me what is on your mind. The sunglasses-wearing dog returns (blocking the singer’s face again!) to be hypnotized by a couple of shiny objects, and finally Valerie throws her hands up and decides to do it; to open Pandora’s Box.
In the end, her tinkering and probing delivers concrete results. She is showered in all knowledge known to humankind, taking the form of constantly morphing shapes – moons, rockets, butterflies and squiggles – courtesy of animator Roger Kukes. She withdraws a set of false teeth from the box and lets the teeth take a stab at lip-synching a line or two before the X motif (first seen in the opening shot of the sheet metal) returns to close the piece.
After some nifty post-production tricks and editing, I CAN’T WAIT was ready for its MTV premiere. “When the record company saw the video,” says Jim Blashfield, “they called it ‘unusual’ or perhaps ‘quite unusual’ or maybe ‘very unusual,’” but the MTV-ers and the band loved it. John Smith of Nu Shooz says:
No one captured our aesthetic like Jim. Years later I said to him, "Your style and ours meshed perfectly." To which Blashfield replied "I don't know if they meshed so much as they were congruent."… It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with him, and one of the high points of our career.
Spin magazine also had a positive reaction to I CAN’T WAIT in their August 1986 issue:
The video is very art-directed, and it’s nice. It’s kind of kitschy … except it’s restrained and minimal. It’s one of the genre of videos directed by people who wanted to be graphic designers or interior designers, not film directors. They’re into super graphics. They would rather be designing alarm clocks.
The director, who’s been making films and videos for decades, would probably disagree with that last statement. But the clip is definitely heavy on stylish “super graphics,” the likes of which have been tragically absent from music videos for many years.
And that’s what it’s all about! A grand experiment in the uniting of pop music and images that constantly picks apart and analyzes objects, lyrics, ideas, yet ultimately defies literal interpretation. “That was our intention,” says Blashfield. “To do stuff that bent the expected trajectory or looked deeper or cast light and attention on subjects, images and ways of seeing things that were often overlooked.”
Nearly 25 years after it was made, I hereby pronounce I CAN’T WAIT a successful experiment. I for one will never look at a coffee pot the same way again.