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I Want My MTV

by Matthew A. Munich

The concept of the music video, a short film in which video images interpret a song, is not a new one. The beginnings date as far back as the 1960s in the Beatles' full-length film A Hard Day's Night or later in the Rolling Stones' movie Gimme Shelter. With cable television and some of its subsidiary channels, however, the music video has received a tremendous amount of attention and popularity. MTV, a channel devoted solely to showing music videos twenty-four hours a day, has made the music video not only a new medium but also a new form of art. While it may not be fair to judge the popularity of the music video as a cultural step backward, neither can we consider it, in its display of violence and sexist attitudes, a cultural step forward. Music video can be thought of as a step timed to society, a form that meets a new criterion of entertainment.

Music videos did for music what television did to radio; in fact, MTV is a television station for videos. Before music video, listening was a more active process. The listener created a personal image of the song. With MTV, however, so compelling is the visual image that it imprints on the brain, the song cannot be divorced from the video. This phenomenon resembles television's "laugh tracks" in that not only is the television showing us a picture but it's telling us what we should think is funny. In this sense, music videos do not require the viewer's active attention or imagination.

Music video does provide a place where new and important film techniques can be tried and developed. The Cars' video, which won best video of 1984, exemplifies this stage of technological advancement. This video employed some of the most recent discoveries in film computer graphics. Music video can help exploit new ways of using film as an artistic expression.

While the methods used by music videos might be new and innovative, the content seems stereotypical and trite. The figure of women in music videos is a large part of this stereotyped content. The "Spellbound" video by the group Triumph is a good example of the treatment of women. The video shows a man driving at night, and as he approaches a nebulous figure his car starts to break apart. When he sees that the figure is a woman with fluffed-out hair, wearing ripped white fabric, the car falls completely apart. He emerges from the wreckage and follows her in a trance. She stops to let him reach her, kisses him, and turns him into a statue. The video ends with the band playing the song on stage with the statue. The video suggests that, while women may be beautiful, they possess evil powers that will be the downfall of men. Modern props notwithstanding, this woman is a version of the Medusa who has been turning men to stone for centuries.

Regressing to an earlier stage than classical myth, people in music video frequently dress in tribal garb. We see people in tattered clothing, nonhuman hair styles, jungle skins, and face paint. Although the medium is new, then, these painted creatures portray the primitive thrust of music video. A typical example is the "Talk to Me" video by the group Iam Siam, which shows a young girl taken by force to some tribal ritual where she is encircled by natives wearing face paint and loincloths. Watching this happen is a bald person painted blue and white from top to bottom. He decides to rescue this woman from the ceremony and, once he gets her back to safety, he touches her, instantly transforming her to a creature with the same paint job. Although music video advances technologies, it returns ideologically to a primitive state.

The concept of the music video invades our lives in other ways than just on television. Movies that appear to be nothing more than two-hour music videos are becoming popular. The Talking Heads' movie Stop Making Sense is nothing more than an extended music video. Clearly the toleration for this new art form reflects popular taste; Flashdance and Footloose are other immense successes that reflect the music video mode. Who is the audience for the hard-imaged, fantastical, and sometimes amusing but always loud and rhythmic sounds? What, if anything, does the form tell us about our culture?

If music video is art, it is art you can do your homework to. It speaks of a culture that loves gimmicks and quick fixes and noise. MTV has a mesmerizing effect, almost hypnotizing us and offering a visual counterpart to a drugged state. Like a dope peddler, the video station fosters addiction by promising total coverage: we can watch it all the time; we never have to give it up. It reflects our culture's fascination with and, more ominously, return to a more primitive state. There is no subtlety; every idea and theme is spelled out, not once but many times. Natives beat drums, beat their chests, and beat women. Women, conversely, are the stereotypical downfall of men. Music video is quintessentially modern because it's so thin: quickly replaced, dispassionate, disposable. In the nuclear age, MTV is us.


[Annex]
Index

Policy

Syllabus

Assignments

Handouts

Resources
[Help]