Monday, August 01, 2011

MTV And The Death Of Democracy

It was thirty years ago today, Robert Pittman taught the band not to play.
MTV launched on August 1, 1980 and literally changed the face of music forever, altho you wouldn't know it from the first video Video Killed The Radio Star by The Buggles, a band composed of Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, both later joining Yes. In the video, the lighting and the costuming and set were all designed to be particularly unflattering to a band whose members were not exactly Hollywood star-material.
OK, so Downes was not ugly, but...did you know that Video charted at #444 years before MTV used it?
I digress.
The immediate impact of MTV's popularity was the development in earnest of the music video. Prior to the launch, artists since the 1960s created promotional films for top 40 songs, sometimes even albums. The first true "music video" was for Surf City by Jan & Dean in 1964. The later Beatles' albums featured several of these, which were distributed to variety shows worldwide so that the "Beatles" could make an appearance on the show.
These were mostly performance clips of the band, although with the release of Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles went a little avant garde with theirs.
More and more, bands provided short films for their record companies to show in movie theatres, on television variety shows and to various conferences and conventions to promote a band's music.
The music. Not the band. MTV changed that.
I noticed this over the weekend while watching an old Journey video for the song Seperate Ways, and realizing, damn! That band was uggggggggggleeeeee! The song was released in the MTV generation, to be sure, but the band predates it.
No longer was it enough to be able to sing or play an instrument and/or write a song. Now you had to have "it." You had to be good-looking enough to wet panties and cause wet dreams worldwide. Or, failing that, you had to hire a really expensive and really creative producer to set up your video so it featured really pretty men and women. That means money and that means your record sales and music were beholden to the suits at the label. There was corporate rock before MTV (hello, Monkees!), but the visual aspect and the brand spanking new markets it opened up to songs made corporate rock inevitable.
There weren't bands anymore. They became brands. Brands, the goal of so many people in the blogosphere and even Blogtopia (© Skippy).
Sure, there were exceptions and parodies, most notably Money For Nothing by Dire Straits, but these were few, far between and badly needed.
Corporate music begets a bland, pablum of ear candy designed and honed over the years to not offend but to not excite either. It's meant to not make you think: no longer did you have to ponder the lyrics to a song. All you had to do was turn on MTV and voila! Some suit had decided what the song means to you. It moderates everything. There is no radicality except in small pockets of outliers who never really gain acceptance in the mainstream.
To me, it's no surprise that we haven't had another Beatles since MTV. Nor have we had a significant new direction in music since punk, pre-1981. Sure, there was rap, but rap rose without the benefit of MTV and the moment MTV got its hands on rap, that was the deathknell for bands with a point, like NWA. It stopped being about the music and started being about the heavy rotation.
We all started listening to the same things. Maybe not identical, but all the same things in form. We all needed like-minded entertainment.
It gets worse. MTV created an entire new requirement for film makers, who had to somehow reconcile movies and TV to the new form of entertainment. No longer could the camera linger on a scene, establishing mood. Two cigarettes burning down in an ashtray meant two people making love. Now that all had to be established immediately and undeniably. You couldn't infer. You had to state. The attention span of America was quickly narrowing and no one wanted to think anymore.
Maybe you've already guessed from the headline where this is going, and maybe you've started to put the clues together. I'm tempted to stop here but like I just said...
MTV gave us reality TV, too. It started with "slice-o-life" videos depicting the singer/band in a real-world scenario (usually lost love, or famously Madonna's Papa Don't Preach about teen pregnancy). It moved onto the Real World programs and continues to this day with Jersey Shore. We've become conditioned to accepting, no, demanding a titillating look into people's closets from MTV. We won't accept a thick line between the public persona of someone and their private life. We *know* there's something illegal or illicit or just plain immoral going on behind the scenes that they must be hiding and we want to know, if only to celebrate the fact that, there but for the grace of God, go us.
Birthers are the logical outgrowth of this. Birthers and shrill harpies of the right who find boogeymen in little children camping on an island.
I could probably go on, from talking about how MTV made it possible for fashion to become really pretty crappy to the fulfillment of Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" prophesy to any number of terrible impacts on society.
That's not to say MTV has been all bad. For instance, it was MTV that broadcast Live Aid to try and fight famine in Ethiopia, and it was MTV that gave Bill Clinton the youth vote (and probably Barack Obama, as well.) And Jon Stewart got his start on MTV and became a nightly treasure on a spin-off of MTV's Ha! channel. I'm sure if I really sat and thought more on it, I could probably balance this post out with more positives.
But that would make this corporate blogging :-)