Music Video Relapse: "By The Time I Get To Arizona" (1991) by Public Enemy

Posted by Adam Fairholm on January 20, 2014 in Music Video Relapse

Staff Post


Today is Martin Luther King Jr day in the United States, and in the grand scheme of things, it's a pretty recent federal holiday, having only been signed into law in 1983. (Fun fact: even though MLK Day ostensibly celebrates MLK's birthday, it is always on a Monday due to a 1971 law that puts certain US holidays on Mondays.)

It's easy to forget that years after it was established, MLK Day was debated as a holiday in some places in the country. In Arizona it got pretty heated, with AZ governor Evan Mecham rescinding the holiday in 1986 after he took office. In 1990 Arizonians were given the opportunity to vote whether to observe the holiday and they rejected it, losing the 1993 Superbowl to California in the process. They later voted to bring back the holiday in 1993 and got the 1996 Superbowl.

Amazingly, all of this recent history has a music video connection, as Public Enemy released a song and music video about the whole situation in 1991 called "By The Time I Get To Arizona," and it caused a huge stir. Let's take a look.

The video mixes two timelines - first, the "modern time" (1991) with a Meecham-like character standing at a podium saying he's not a racist even though he is against MLK day. The other timeline is the civil rights-era south, following an MLK character through some of the iconic civil rights visuals, including sit ins for busses and lunch counters.

The controversy around this video is mainly in the modern timeline, which shows a militant group planning for an event shortly after the issue of the Arizona holiday status is set up. Towards the end of the video they kill the two politician characters - one with a car bomb and the other (bizarrely enough) with a poisoned box of chocolates.

This was understandably singled out as something that was counterintuitive to Martin Luther King's message, which focused on nonviolent civil disobedience. The video was featured on Nightline and gained huge amounts of mainstream press (most of it negative). Chuck D was asked in 2011 in Spin if there was a contradiction:

No, because there's no contradiction in myself. Dr. King didn't make the video. Dr. King died a violent death and I was answering that. As a child, I was pissed off that they killed Dr. King and I was answering that. Regardless of what Dr. King believed, the act of his life being taken was not a passive thing.

In the context of the video, his defense of the violence makes sense. The assasinations at the end are juxtaposed directly with MLK's assassination, making it a kind of visual tit-for-tat, violence for violence. Nothing is really achieved - it's more retribution than anything with a clear goal in mind like MLK's civil rights campaign.

Whether or not you agree with the approach the video takes, it's clear that it's an artistic statement, and a pretty powerful one at that. As a video, it's incredibly effective at being provocative and playing on emotion. The focus is the humiliation of the MLK character, and it plays that up to the hilt with memorable scenes such as MLK getting spaghetti poured on his head at a lunch counter sit in. I don't know if that actually happened, but it's pretty effective at getting the point across. As Chuck D will tell you, the video and song comes from a place of anger, and the anger comes through vividly.

Just purely as a music video, there are some interesting choices. Although this is a serious music video, I can't help but laugh at the senator Newman character signing for a heart shaped box of chocolates from a delivery man and then stiffing the guy on the tip (he closes the door as his hand is outstretched). The comically cartoonish bomb under the car is interesting as well. But one of the best aspects of this video are the civil rights-era scenes, which are very well staged.

As the political potency of this video lessens with the diminishing controversy over MLK day as a holiday, I think the main lesson from this video is how much more effective visuals can be than music in being provocative. I don't think this track would have made nearly as big of an impact without the visuals to go with it. Public Enemy and director Eric Meza knew how to push buttons with this video, and they succeeded.

The best part of this whole story to me, though, is the fact that in 1992 when Public Enemy opened up for U2 in Tempe, Arizona, they came on, played this song, and left. Bono knew they were going to do it and supported it. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bono is a lifelong and vocal fan of MLK - he even wrote several songs about him in the late 1980s. One of those song, called "MLK," was played at the Superbowl in 2001 (remember, AZ lost the 1993 Superbowl over the MLK day controversy). We've come full circle.

Adam Fairholm is the co-founder and lead developer of IMVDb. You can find him on twitter at @adamfairholm.

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