Tragically Hip: How MTV Dismantled the Video Star
"I've often said in the past that I thought MTV was sort of evil incarnate and signified the beginning of the end." - Martha Plimpton
People like music; people love television; people are obsessed with image.
Knowing these three fundamental truths, it didn't take an astronaut to launch Music Television (MTV) in the summer of 1981, but rather a radio announcer from Brookhaven, Mississippi named Robert Pittman. Several production companies had attempted to vault the music video to prominence in the 1970s, but, ultimately, their efforts had failed. The accepted reasons for these failures was a disconnect between the companies' marketing campaigns and their targeted teenage demographic. In hindsight, it seems like the real reason for this lack of success is simply that the world wasn't entirely ready for this new fusion of sensory media.
However, by the time the '80s rolled around, music had become much more accessible with the rise of FM radio, the Sony Walkman, and the cassette tape. These advancements resulted in a booming audience, which naturally led to an increase in popular music's influence on the larger cultural milieu. As music became more readily available, people began clamoring for more access to the actual bands themselves. Fans wanted to know more about the artists that they loved: their interests, their motivations, and, particularly, their fashion sensibilities. Enter MTV.
This closer relationship between musician and listener prompted the latter to mimic various aspects of what they felt were the essential qualities of the latter. Clash fans wore leather jackets to look like Joe Strummer, Springsteenians wore plain white t-shirts to resemble The Boss, and Madonna enthusiasts wore roughly three dozen cheap bracelets on their forearms to look like materialistic trash. Of course, impressionable humans have been emulating their hero's fashion sensibilities from time immeasurable, but MTV arrived on the scene at the perfect moment to finally capitalize on this idolization, and the videos they aired accelerated this phenomenon on a global scale like no other media outlet before or since.
It can't be argued that MTV didn't have a powerful cultural impact on the way that we experience and interpret musicians and their art. But what can be argued is whether or not this impact has actually been positive. Somewhere along the way, MTV shifted their position from merely a medium for a new artistic expression to the authority on youth culture chic.
Music is an art form of substance. Can we really argue that MTV is a purveyor of the same, or that they ever have been? In much the same way that ESPN's primary cultural export is the celebration of celebrity narcissism disguised as athletic competition, MTV has always been committed to selling what it means to be cool rather than what it means to be an artist. In fairness, since being an artist is, in itself, very cool, there have been a few notable exceptions that even MTV couldn't deny - Peter Gabriel, REM, Nirvana, and The Strokes come to mind off-hand. Unfortunately, as MTV began to galvanize its identity as the proprietor of all things hip, the network also began exercising its power to define exactly what was and wasn't considered cool. It abandoned any ounce of broadcast integrity it might have originated with, opting instead to become a hype machine for pretty people who danced well or feigned a minor degree of musical acumen.
Here's the unspoken secret that everybody knows about MTV: Despite the fact that it used to be completely dedicated to airing visual representations of our favorite songs, the channel was never really about music at all. Sure, MTV has shamelessly sold out and is now only pandering to the semi-moronic/semi-naive demographic of increasingly reckless high school sophomores with equally reckless programming centered around increasingly moronic and naive individuals - that's a given. But it's always been this way, even when we all loved it, even when they played videos at 8 pm on a Wednesday night. There's a mutually catastrophic relationship between the network and it's viewers represented by an insidious mosaic of kitsch, marketing, sex, and loneliness. "Here you are confused young person; watch whatever quasi-pornographic music video or television show we've decided should define your generation while we sell you Trojans and tell you how to dress, speak, and think. See ya in ten years!"
In his excellent, albeit disappointingly brief, synopsis of MTV and the music video, simply titled "Music Television," Gary Burns examines the bulging cultural muscle that MTV was able to flex after being on the air only a short while. "It soon became apparent that MTV could 'break' a recording act (move it into prominence, even star status), just as radio had done for decades." In some cases, this was a good thing. Sometimes, despite the brilliance of a band, they need serendipitous circumstances for their art to be heard and appreciated, and MTV provided the perfect platform for this to occur. For instance, it's hard to imagine grunge becoming the cultural dynamo that it was if it hadn't been for the video for the retrospectively sub par "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Of course, there was also a flip side to this coin. There were several musical trends that probably could've been avoided had it not been for MTV's existence, but the one that immediately comes to mind would be the boy band explosion that occurred in the late '90s. It's entirely possible that, if the perpetually and professionally manicured contributors to this phenomenon had been relegated strictly to the radio rather than receiving incessant airtime on MTV, they would have faded away quickly and quietly, or better yet, maybe never have entered the pop music conversation in the first place. After all, that whole scene was about selling second-base eroticism to 15-year-old girls, not creating transcendent bodies of work.
With the exception of Justin Timberlake, nearly every member of every boy band has become something of a wink, a nod, and a sardonic smirk toward the silliness of that regrettable period. They've become a punchline over time, but MTV took them very seriously in 1998 and implied, through repeated airtime, that we should do the same. Of course, this seems totally ridiculous now, but no one blames MTV for this stain on our rich musical history. Instead, we take the easy way out and chortle at the Nick Carters and Brian Littrells of the world when they were merely the death agents of one massive fulcrum of FM destruction perpetuated by sleazy industry insiders and carried out by MTV.
Sadly, as bad as the boy band era was, it was nothing compared to the entree already heating in the microwave.
Three years ago, MTV issued a press release stating that they were removing the words "Music Television" from their logo. There are two things about this that are completely insane. The first is the obvious removal itself. How can a cable network ostensibly based on the illusory notion that they are a visual/musical entity entirely disregard their initial mission? Music television sans music. The second, the public's reaction to this move, is perhaps more insane, but less surprising and definitely less palatable: No one thinks it's that strange that MTV still calls itself MTV. What does the "M" stand for? In fact, I brought this up with a friend of mine the other day, and he looked at me as if I were some kind of neurotic. The only reason I can think of for no one finding this alteration shockingly remarkable is that the process of phasing out music from the channel was so gradual that people just stopped caring - normal people that is, not neurotics.
Once the network could find the most effective way to mainline their non-musical content into the veins of the intoxicated masses, they pushed, and they pushed hard. By the early '90s the novelty of the music video had worn off, and the network's ratings had begun to dip. But thankfully for MTV, Mary Ellis-Bunim and her nothing idea was there to save them financially and doom the rest of us metaphorically.
When the Real World first arrived on the scene in 1992, a bastard child of the 1973 documentary An American Family, many people viewed it favorably as an interesting anthropological study on the nature of human relationships. What they didn't know then, and what we all regret now, is that the Real World was merely sowing a seed that would eventually reward us with such captivating programs as The Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives of Who Gives a Damn, and Whatever a Kardashian Just Said or Did. That's right; they couldn't just leave well enough alone. From the promising foundation of Pedro Zamora, we're now left with the rubble that is Pauly D.
This was always where we were going to wind up with MTV. The fact that it took this long is actually pretty impressive. The most important thing for MTV is to remain current despite the fact that the channel itself is aging rapidly, and the way they do that is by introducing new trash, calling it treasure, and convincing the world that this is how we really are. They've been airing narrative programming for over twenty years now, slowly phasing out the less profitable music video along the way.
This new form of supposedly unscripted television spread like a virus and now infests our once-favorite channels with its insipid numbness. The negative effects this has had on Western society cannot be understated, nor can it yet be accurately understood, as we're still in the middle of this telecultural upheaval. Succinctly put, the premise of reality television is that life imitates art and vice versa. This is true, and it's actually kind of a beautiful truth, but what should never happen, and what will have disastrous consequences whenever it does, is life imitating kitsch. At that point, kitsch becomes validated and art becomes elitist.
This is where we are. MTV has brought us here. There is no turning back.
Burns, Gary. "Music Television." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Web. 9 May 2013.
Holmes, Linda. "MTV's Musical Legacy: How 'Unplugged' Sold the Radio Star." NPR. 7 May 2013. Web. 9 May 2013.