August 1st marks 30 years since MTV went on the air. Many young people today may look at what the station has become and wonder, so what?
Every American I know who grew up in in the eighties has a little hole in their heart for what happened to MTV. It’s similar to the way one might remember a clever acquaintance who fell to addiction. They shake their heads, bite their knuckles and look wistful. Whether the thing MTV was hooked on was reality programming itself or the ratings boost it provided, I can’t say, but lost it is. I remember in my teens I would stay up late to record Matt Pinfield on 120 Minutes, because by the mid-nineties the only time they played music videos was in the middle of the night.
But in the heyday of MTV, you could watch videos any time, day or night. What was so great about it was probably all the things the executives behind the scenes hated. The VJs were unscripted; there was little product placement. I have an MTV t-shirt that my mom won from the station in the eighties, when they would do giveaways as if they were just another station on the radio. You could pick it up on your radio, too. Even as a tween I had an inkling that their slot in the TV Guide which said nothing but “Music Videos” for six hours couldn’t be a dream for the person who sells their advertising. But that authentic, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience was a fine fit for rock and roll: that ever changing, never planning, tumultuous beast. Rock and roll never sounded better followed by “We’ll be right back after these messages.”
The funny thing is, the way people watched MTV didn’t really change. The people who watch reality shows are the types to use the telly as background noise. MTV was perfect for that: no plot, no characters that would distract you for more than four minutes. Everything they were showing would show again in several hours. It was all that made cable wonderful and terrible. With MTV on, mom could balance her checkbook and I could do my homework. Hell, MTV probably invented the idea of using the idiot box for background noise.
Thus if you ask anyone over 25 they will say that the golden age for music video was the eighties. Not because the videos were better. No, they were low-budget and jakey as hell. CG wasn’t even a word then. It was a golden age because people actually watched them. Today’s youth may share Internet memes, but back in the day if you met a kid from the other coast you could bond of your shared memories of videos. There is a whole generation of people who can’t hear “Take On Me” without thinking of a cute girl caught in a comic strip. If you’re one of those people, you might think Rick Ocasek has the body of a fly. For better or for worse, Dire Straits is more than a band. They’re also a bunch of singing, animated blue collar workers bitching about rock stars and Sting’s voice harping I want my MTV was the voice of the nation. We all saw it, we all loved it. You could not disconnect the song from the video.
I say for better or for worse, because there was a downside. I’ve often wondered if I would have liked Van Halen’s “Right Here Right Now” if it didn’t have such a kick-ass video. We got this idea that the tiny movie was somehow the musician’s vision, when really the director’s vision usually had very little to do with the conception the artist had when they created the song. The nostalgia we have for music videos is the same we feel for any song, but it’s based on something false, that little three minute story. Wyclef’s “Gone Til November” came out after MTV had fallen to disgrace, so that song will always remind me of Spring Break at Siesta Key. It’s an association I share with only a handful of people but it’s an actual memory of my life. But when we were in love with Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” who can say for sure if it was the song we loved–or the fact that it had one of the most adorable videos of all time? Who can say what that song would mean to us, if it didn’t mean dancing bees? It seems to me to be a song about individuality, but that is the message of the video not the song.
I think we may be embarking upon, if not a Golden Age, than a yet-unnamed new era for music videos. For me it began when the site I use for radio streaming started adding Youtube videos to its search. But I think for most people the preponderance of music video has come about slowly as we have faster Internet connections. Now that two gigs of RAM is a standard, our computers are finally fast enough to manage them. A second factor is the dropping price of hard drive space. While most of us aren’t downloading the videos to keep, cheap disc space means that more video and blogging sites are willing to let us park the videos on their servers. It is easier than ever before for bloggers to post them. If the dastardly censors haven’t gotten there yet, it is often as simple as pasting a YouTube url. Finally, because Youtube is the third most popular site in the world, often when people want to find a song they go to the video site to find it. Either way, more and more people are watching them these days. Big hits like Gaga’s “Telephone” are gaining the collective association the MTV videos of yesteryear commanded.
What’s different this time is that we control the remote on what videos we see. Not only have I seen more videos this year than in the last five combined, they’re videos I would never have dreamed even existed. I would never have thought that anti-establishment punks like The (International) Noise Conspiracy and Operation Ivy made videos. I have delved into the studio recording and music videos that came before MTV. Acts like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Nina Simone, that I have treasured for years now, have videos online just waiting for my discovery. And of course new bands are still using them to promote their new albums. It’s come full circle, as the indie bands of today are using the same low-budget filming techniques, some for budgetary reasons and others to hearken back to the same shared nostalgia of the MTV that is dead and gone. If there had never been an MTV, there wouldn’t be a generation of musicians who think setting their songs to tiny movies is a worthwhile marketing effort. After all, video wasn’t a new idea when MTV came around. It is only because these same musicians were watching MTV while they played with Transformers and ripped the heads off their Barbie dolls that the Britneys and Kanyes create videos costing a million dollars a pop. And the bloggers posting the low-budget masterpieces to their little blogs are like the video jockeys of yesteryear: unpolished, unprofessional. We love them because they’re fans first, in it for the love of the music. So it is that while the zombie of MTV continues to ravish the flesh of washed out celebrities in a never-ceasing voyeurism, its spirit lives on. MTV is the Phoenix, rising from the ashes as Youtube and Vimeo. MTV is the Ouroboros. She has shed her mythical skin and we have emerged, with our own cameras and our own blogs and our own video channels. We no longer need the VJs, we have become the VJs. MTV is dead, long live MTV.
Some of the essential videos mentioned above after the jump. Next week I’ll be posting some of my favorite videos that I’ve discovered since the fall of MTV.