Monday, November 28, 2011

Watching music

In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Video Music Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum chart the rise and fall of a cultural movement

The following review was posted last weekend on the Books page of the History News Network.

Before there was Facebook, before there were iPhones, there was MTV. After an unprepossessing launch in 1981, the cable network became a powerful force in American popular culture, exerting a much-noted impact not only on the music and television industries, but also on film, fashion, and even politics. Some of the attention MTV got was celebratory; some of it highly critical (from a variety of directions). About the only thing more striking than the network's dramatic impact is the degree it has receded since its first decade of cultural dominance. So the time seems right for an assessment of its trajectory.

Former Billboard editor Craig Marks and music journalist Rob Tannenbaum make a shrewd choice in rending the MTV story as an oral history, taking a page from Live from New York, the 2003 Tom Shales/James Andrew Miller history of Saturday Night Live (and before that, George Plimpton's ground-breaking 1982 biography of Edie Sedgewick, Edie). Tannenbaum and Craig conducted hundreds of interviews that that they arrange in a kaleidoscopic array of voices that include corporate executives, performers, video directors, and so-called "VJs" like Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman.

From its inception, MTV was a slick corporate product. Underwritten by the somewhat unlikely duo of Warner Cable and American Express -- which at the time hoped to sell financial services via interactive television -- the network's commercial premise rested on an audacious concept: to use one kind of advertising (musical acts promoting themselves) in order to sell another (ads that would be sandwiched between the videos). Even more audacious is that MTV got programming, at least initially, free, as it expected record labels to supply the material it broadcast, though the actual cost of the videos was typically charged to the artists in the form of an advance against royalties. There was widespread skepticism in just about every direction that this business model would actually work, but it proved to be spectacularly successful.

Like the advent of sound in motion pictures, the rise of music video rearranged the power structure of the music business. British musicians, who had long been using video clips for shows like the much-beloved Top of the Pops, were better prepared, both in terms of having content at hand and their willingness to produce more, in exploiting the opportunity, spawning a second British invasion in the early 1980s that included acts like Flock of Seagulls, Culture Club, and the Human League. Similarly, established acts with photogenic and/or charismatic lead singers, such as the Police and U2, were also able to exploit the potential of the new genre. By contrast, those without such assets or an inability to fully understand it suffered; there's an amusing chapter in I Want My MTV that chronicles the way rock star Billy Squier's video "Rock Me Tonight" was directed in a gay-friendly manner that wrecked his credibility among his core audience.

In aesthetic terms, music video evolved with remarkable rapidity, its development greatly accelerated by Michael Jackson, who overcame early resistance to having his videos broadcast and took the form to a whole new level. Madonna was similarly successful in bending the channel to showcase her talents, not the least of which was creating a sexual brand. But MTV was finally a director's medium, and was important in launching a series of careers, among the most important of which was that of David Fincher, whose apprenticeship in music video became the springboard for a distinguished, and ongoing, Hollywood career.

But almost from the start, MTV had a remarkably decadent corporate culture that over time sapped its vitality. In part, it was corrupted -- insofar as the term makes any sense in the music biz -- by an unholy alliance between executives and artists, who collaborated in a regime of sex, drugs, and rock & roll that made the counterculture of the 1960s seem tame by comparison. But MTV's indulgences were not only sybaritic. The network cultivated incestuous commercial relationships with certain performers, as well as indulged in racist, sexist and other questionable practices. Above all, it was corroded by money, chiefly in the form of inflated video budgets that gave accounting precedence over art.

Marks and Tannenbaum chart these developments at the network with surprising detail and clarity, the panoply of voices showing both multiple perspectives on the same video as well as the way in which prevailing perceptions were widely shared. The authors also document the many memorable highlights and byways of MTV's history, like Madonna's notorious appearance in a wedding dress at the 1984 MTV Awards ceremony, for example, or Tipper Gore's notorious crusade against Twisted Sister and other bands with the Parents' Music Resource Coalition (PMRC) in the late eighties. They also chart the network's gradual move into hip-hop, which revived the vitality of pop music as well as video in the early 1990s, and the role of MTV in electing Bill Clinton president in 1992.

By this point, however, the vast center MTV had created -- for much of the eighties it was the de facto national radio station, creating and/or sustaining huge mass audiences for the likes of acts like Prince and Bruce Springsteen -- was beginning to crack. A rotation that included R.E.M., Debbie Gibson, and Public Enemy was intrinsically centrifugal, and as such less attractive to advertisers. The rise of grunge rock, particularly that of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, represented a bracing new chapter for MTV, but that's because such bands overtly challenged much of what the network stood for. At the same time, the channel found other sources of cheap programming, like The Real World, that squeezed time for music videos, which gradually but inexorably disappeared from sight. Finally, the advent of the Internet, which empowered viewer choice to an unprecedented degree, balkanized audiences to the point of no return. As Marks and Tannenbaum note, "Offering MTV to a kid in 1993 was like offering a board game to a kid in 1981."

Today, MTV is just another cable channel, albeit one that enjoys commercial success with Jersey Shore, a tawdry show that honors the network's brash roots in style, though not in content. Music video lingers, chiefly on Internet sites like You Tube, where it remains the marketing tool it always has been. It's much less important than it used to be, but something closer to what its more modest champions imagined three decades ago. Reliving the glory days of MTV in this book is entertaining but sobering: the things that once seemed to matter so much now seem so small. Sic transit gloria mundi, Facebook. As Elvis Costello put it so memorably way back "Girls Talk," his 1979 song from before the MTV era "You may not be an old-fashioned girl but you're gonna get dated."