Sharpening our wits on the grindstone of Life: I never looked at music the same way again .comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sharpening our wits on the grindstone of Life

Thursday, August 03, 2006

I never looked at music the same way again

25 years ago this week, a revolutionary new concept was introduced to the TV watching public - music television. No longer were we teenagers limited to just albums, cassette tapes, and FM radio. Now we could see our favorite bands perform, and if we were lucky, they would have some rock babes in their videos.

Sure, recorded visual music performances were around long before MTV came along. My first taste was the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. But somehow the canned performances on MTV were different than the canned performances on network television. It wasn’t so obvious that they were lip-syncing, and there were plenty of flashing lights and images to keep our adolescent minds entertained.

Not only that, but no longer did we have to wait until our favorite bands came to town to actually "see" them. Sure, it was recorded, but compared to just listening, it was a quantum leap forward in music appreciation. The younger generation probably won’t be able to grasp this, with music videos commonplace today ("like, what’s the big deal?"), but back then it was a breakthrough concept.

The first actual music video I ever saw was Meat Loaf’s "Paradise by the Dashboard Light". It was shown every weekend right before the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a theatre downtown. We saw it dozens of time and never got tired of it. In fact, it was a huge disappointment if we showed up late and missed the Meat Loaf video; although it never stopped us from staying for Rocky Horror anyway.

Then MTV came along, and you could get music videos right in your house (assuming you had cable, which less than half of us did). Bands that we had listened to for years took on a whole new dimension. Bands like ZZ Topp, Peter Gabriel, and the Rolling Stones embraced the concept with open arms and open legs.

Which brings us to the downside of MTV: by attracting fans with eye candy, it was no longer necessary to produce good music. The bands mentioned above were prolific with their videos, but the music produced was far from their best work. Pop buried rock & roll, and buff posers dominated airtime. Attractive crooners without talent became stars, and ugly rockers had to have a gimmick to get noticed; both of which contributed to the decline of the music’s quality.

Music video production became standard operations for bands as they rolled out new music; when they came out with a new album, the singles were made into videos. At first, the practice was used to sell more albums, like radio airplay. Eventually, though, the video became the medium of choice, and videos were made for the sake of making videos. Some bands used humor or drama to tell a story, but most just tried to push the envelope, using shock value and sex for the sole purpose of selling more videos.

Eventually, it wasn’t about the music anymore; it was about the culture. Within a few years, MTV dictated urban youth culture, and fans marched lockstep with the image presented by the artists. From the Pat Benatar look in the 80’s to Shakira wannabes in the aughts, every post-adolescent hipster wants to look like she just stepped out of the video studio. Pimpin’ rides and dissin’ playas became the new national pastime for the under-20 set. The east-coast/west-coast feud was played out all across the country, and what used to be called a waist ended up being worn around the thighs.

Nowadays, MTV doesn’t even play music anymore. I guess attention spans got even shorter, and now a three minute video is to long to spend without some kind of jolt to the adrenaline. Reality shows, talk shows - basically anything to keep the viewer from changing the channel - have replaced the novel concept of showing visual recordings of music performances.

One good thing has come from MTV, though. Once it was demonstrated that visual performances is marketable, a lot of good concert footage has been dug out of archives, dusted off, and put on a DVD. So even though I don’t watch MTV anymore, I’m building up a respectable collection of classic concerts, and I can watch them anytime I want.

And like the original MTV tag line said, I’ll never look at music the same way again.

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