MTV wouldn’t really spin the video for “Windowlicker,” the Aphex Twin single released by Warp/Sire 20 years ago today. It was a Busby Berkley-meets-David Cronenberg mix of bikini butts, hip-hop gloss, and gender-bent body horror; it was 10 minutes long; it featured more than a 100 swear words; it was promptly criticized as sexist and/or racist. However, two decades later, it’s pretty evident that “Windowlicker” infected the mainstream nonetheless.
The song’s mix of unpredictable syncopation, digital-dub alien transformations, errant noises, and bursts of melody would serve as a starting block for much of today’s electronic music. You can find tendrils in subterranean British dubstep (remember when people thought Burial was Aphex Twin?) and field-filling American dubstep (Skrillex and Bassnectar are avowed Aphex fans) and even the internet-dwelling glurps of PC Music (A.G. Cook has covered “Windowlicker”).
Many landmark rock albums in “Windowlicker”‘s immediate aftermath — think Björk’s Vespertine and Radiohead’s Kid A — owe some debt to Aphex Twin, who was at an absolute highpoint of visibility and chart success. There was even a brief, pre-9/11 moment when the most exciting pop music felt like a future-gazing arms race, and many of its best songs were sputtering and glitching with epileptic, drill ‘n’ bass fits of Windowlicorice — think NSync’s “Pop,” Madonna’s “Music,” and Outkast’s “B.O.B.” “My kids were playing [Minecraft] and I thought that sounds pretty much like some of mine,” said Aphex in 2014. “And then this guy Notch, who made that game, bought one of my records on eBay for $40,000. My kids loved it.”
How did this mostly banned skitter-jam hit the U.K. Top 20, sneak onto the U.S. dance chart and ultimately make the world a weirder place?
As early as 1993, Spin was calling Aphex Twin mastermind Richard D. James “the techno guy it’s okay for indie kids to love.” Obviously, America’s suspicion of electronic music would melt away, the lines between “indie” and “techno” would blur (what’s up, Postal Service), and the internet would make everything a post-genre playground anyway. Still, in this backhanded observation, the intention was clear: Here was a guy bursting with melody, texture, auteuristic vision, Eno-centric ambient drifts and a graphic design closer to a 4AD band than a smiley-face rainbow acid house flyer. Critically adored but commercially underground, James spent years as a secret fissure in the musical firmament, showing up in the unlikely places made for a world that hadn’t totally figured out what to do with electronic music: playing with Moby on an American package tour, hitting Woodstock ’94’s latenight Ravestock, playing sandpaper and a food mixer at a label showcase, remixing Beck and Philip Glass, getting interviewed on MTV U.K.’s Party Zone and submitting two original compositions for what was supposed to be a Nine Inch Nails remix album.
However, by 1997, MTV was spinning Aphex Twin’s yowling, skittering “Come To Daddy” in the age of “Backstreet’s Back” — the hands-down biggest, weirdest, mainstreamiest moment for the yowling, skittering subgenre controversially known as “intelligent dance music.” It follows then that Aphex Twin’s follow-up single, 1999’s “Windowlicker” was IDM’s biggest event. Wrote MTV News, “Fans of maverick techno artist Aphex Twin came from as far away as Finland to see the premiere of his ‘Windowlicker’ video — and hear the song for the first time — in a [London] bar Thursday night. And they weren’t even guaranteed a chance of seeing Aphex Twin (aka Richard James) himself. In fact, it’s unlikely any did.”
It’s said that MTV banned it — though I wouldn’t be shocked if people remember seeing it aired it on late night or on MTV2. It got around nonetheless. You could buy it on stand-alone VHS or watch on an enhanced CD single.
“There are very few opportunities on music-oriented television to expose a video of this style and substance, and we wanted the fans of Aphex Twin to be able to see the video the way the director and artist intended for it to be seen: uncut and unedited,” Sire general manager Randy Miller told Billboard. “We think that a sell-through video release was the best way to accomplish this.”
The 10-minute video — RDJ’s grinning mug replacing the faces of gyrating bikini babes — was some sort of tweak on the big-budget Hype Williams hip-hop cinema of the day. To what degree it’s just a winky subversion or purely disdainful satire is up to the eye of the beholder. A collection of champagne-coated butts and scattergun n-words, it was drubbed as sexist and racist upon its release. A criticism mentioned in a Guardian piece: “Professor of cultural studies Lola Young argues that even if the intention of a video is to parody a genre, a video offers no critical distance from the genre being parodied.”
“I love hip-hop videos. It was not meant as disrespect,” director Chris Cunningham told Pitchfork a few years later. “I used to watch those videos and think, ‘Are these guys kidding? They’ve got to be kidding!’ But they’re not and that in itself is what makes them good.” Still, the “Windowlicker” clip simply bathes in racial stereotypes, starting with nearly four minutes of two men (in the credits as “Homies”) cruising and pitching game to two women (in the credits as “Hoochies”) via sex-starved, Diceman-style swears. “That’s another video I really wanted to make like a cartoon,” said Cunningham in his Director’s Label DVD liner notes. “I didn’t want the dialogue to be too realistic or anything, I just wanted it to be really over the top.”
To whatever level this was all bratty shock-rock schtick, pointed indictment of misogyny, arty exploitation flick hyperbole, “hipster racism” or simply obliviousness is up for debate. What’s indisputable however is that the video struck a nerve, its arresting imagery of Richard D. James’ grinning, puckish, bearded mug on the grinding bodies of video vixens now an indelible image. James explained to The Face about the face in question: “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.’ 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.” In fact, James said he “withdrew” “Windowlicker” for sale since it was headed towards the Top 10 in the UK, showcasing a similar desire as the “Windowlicker” video: a willingness to play and tweak in the land of the famous, but not enough set up a permanent residence.
Similarly, the song’s impossible beats are mirrored in the video by the choreography of Vincent Patterson, who did the moves for iconic Michael Jackson videos like “Smooth Criminal” and “Black Or White.” Though parodic, the footwork is still fancy, amplifying and drawing attention to the song’s tricky rhythms. It’s a complicated dance of the grotesque that uses real, actual showbiz energy for goofy pisstakes.
For a while in the Nineties it must have felt like James was pushing music forward from single to single, 1995’s tinnitus-tastic “Ventolin” to 1996’s gorgeous “Girl/Boy Song” to the arrhythmic blast of “Come To Daddy” and ultimately peaking with “Windowlicker.” His next move was the gorgeous but decidedly formal 2001 release Druqks, an album of Satie-esque piano poems and familiar Aphex tricks. If IDM felt like a contest to see who could be the most forward thinking, then James had quietly forfeited, leaving the job to Autechre’s digital Stockhausen funhaus Confield; Squarepusher’s comically jittery Go Plastic; the up-and-coming “glitch” of artists like Matmos, Alva Noto, Fennesz, and Kid 606; and the digital noise of SND, Richard Devine, Pita, and Russell Haswell. Lots of beautiful and challenging music, sure, but not too much you’d want to dance to — and certainly nothing as memorable as watching a Richard D. James lookalike hump a pole.