What MTV says about us

This is, you may have heard, the 30th anniversary of MTV, when music videos made their debut on their own channel in the United States; they’d already been prominent in Europe for years.

Other than the overexposure of the Buggles — just as bad now as they were then — the commemoration and “best” video articles that have been written today seem to ignore the contributions of music video as true art form.

On The Current’s music blog today, Steve Seel remembers some of the music videos that were played on August 1, 1981; none of them were particularly good.

The website, Mashable, says technology killed the music video because channels like YouTube made them available instantly.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the writer didn’t really live through the MTV years, because if she had, she wouldn’t make the mistake that many young people make when it comes to evaluating media and technology. Sure, instant access is great, but what about the substance? (The “news” parallel here is the net effect of the death of the newspaper. Without it, you’re far less likely to stumble into knowledge — simply by turning a page — you didn’t already have.)

We’d sit and watch MTV, not because we thought our favorite music video would be the next to play; we watched it because we didn’t know what video we’d never seen before would blow us away.

That’s the flaw of “instant access.” You can only access instantly that which you’re looking for. And you can only look for that which you already know. Where’s the serendipity of finding something new in that?

Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the defining moment of MTV; it’s when music videos became more than small skits with lip synching pop stars. It was when structure, and plot, and artistry — in the old days we paid money to sit in a theater for something with those ingredients — migrated to a new platform. And it was, indeed, thrilling.

Jackson, with John Landis (and others), was the person who brought a true filmmaker’s eye to this new popular culture.

You could get 8 minutes of wonder 24 hours a day if you were patient enough…

In the end, the filmmakers’ eye gave way to a medium that gave everyone the ability to make videos of their cat. MTV threw in the towel and gave up the idea of providing a quality product to a nation that wasn’t that interested in it anymore. The channel mirrored the times.

It still does.

  • Heather

    You nailed it again, Bob. I first heard The Clash on MTV, late on a Friday night, babysitting the neighbor kid. Jaw-dropping.

  • Matt B

    Having been born in 1982 I don’t remember life before MTV. I do remember watching it when I was 4-5 though and loving the music videos.

    One of the things that I like now about Pandora Radio is how easy it is to find artists you’ve never heard of. True that they are similar to things you already like (a song style, an artist style) but they do offer a broad range of music to discover.

  • Josh

    While people are talking about how great Spotify is, it only exposes you to music you look for. I still need some other entity, like the Current, to expose me to new music.