Blow Up Your Video

We Wanted Our MTV, We Damn Sure Got It

Blow Up Your Video
By Nathan Jensen

Starting today, Austin-area subscribers to Time Warner's digital cable can choose from among 10 music-related video channels and 45 radio-style music channels ranging in format from contemporary Christian to rap. You'll have to make a special request to get the rap channel, though. The good folks at Time Warner wouldn't want Carman fans to accidentally hear Ol' Dirty Bastard now would they?

Twenty years and a day after MTV signed on, outlets for music television have grown exponentially even as ownership becomes more concentrated. Of the channels devoted in some way to music-related programming, from BET on Jazz to our own Austin Music Network, only a handful spend the majority of their day broadcasting wall-to-wall music videos in the manner pioneered by MTV in 1981.

In recent years, MTV and its gray-templed first cousin VH1 have drastically cut back on airing music videos in favor of more traditional program blocks. MTV's long-running afternoon request show has morphed into Total Request Live, a postmodern American Bandstand that trades Dick Clark for Carson Daly and screaming girls giving shout-outs to their fave raves for actual music videos. Then there's VH1's Behind the Music, a series that has cast (or recast) the careers of everyone from AC/DC to the Osmonds in the same rigid rise/fall/comeback mold borrowed from Greek drama.

On MTV's copycat-spawning The Real World, music assumes a subtler role, underlying every scene with soundtrack-of-a-generation pathos. The Real World is often cited as ground zero for "reality" TV, but it was PBS' An American Family, in fact, that introduced viewers to the Loud family's conflict cavalcade more than 20 years before Puck launched his first snot rocket. Rather, The Real World's lasting accomplishment can be found in their co-opting the documentary format in a manner rife with marketing opportunities. Why stop at the soundtrack of a generation when you can market IKEA's furniture of a generation?

If it's rock videos you want, you'll need MTV2 (formerly M2) and MuchMusic USA, a subsidiary of the Canadian music channel. With a smaller budget than MTV2, MuchMusic relies heavily on music videos, performer profiles, and the like. As such, it vaguely resembles MTV circa 1987. MTV2 purports all music all the time, and their range is more adventurous than today's MTV, but you won't get your Jurassic 5 or At the Drive-In fix without wading through gaggles of in-house promos desperately attempting to brand the network as something cooler and less corporate than its parent.

Throw in spots for Miss Cleo's tarot reading and Aussie Nads hair-removal cream, and regulating the amount of commercial time on TV ô la Canada suddenly doesn't sound like such a bad idea. Then again, these ads do provide real entertainment value, if only as a touchstone for parody. Even a 30-minute Time-Life Music "Best of the Eighties" infomercial starring the Chick Who Used to Date the Guy in Warrant can be re-construed as entertainment if there's nothing better on.

After all, aren't music videos themselves advertisements? Just where does one draw the line between what is art and what is commerce? And in today's free-market-as-savior America, does that even matter anymore?

Silly Symphonies

The history of music accompanied by moving images began long before 1981. It was actually Al Jolson's wildly popular 1927 musical melodrama The Jazz Singer that forced theaters across the nation to install sound, though tests for such were conducted as far back as the early 1900s.

In addition to the full-fledged movie musicals that followed in the wake of The Jazz Singer, film studios released hundreds of musical shorts promoting artists such as Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. Walt Disney's series of "Silly Symphonies" shorts culminated with 1940's Fantasia, a sprawling, full-length feature that illustrated eight classical music compositions with some of the most ambitious animation sequences in history.

The most obvious precursor to music video is the "soundie." Soundies were short music clips produced between 1940-46 for coin-operated projection machines called "Panorams," viewed for 10 cents a pop.

Panorams were found in bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, and featured a wide variety of artists including Spike Jones, Louis Jordan, and (smiles, everyone, smiles) Ricardo Montalban, who performed "He's the Latin From Staten Island" in 1941. More than 1,800 soundies were produced in their time, but wartime restrictions on the manufacture of Panorams ultimately killed off the medium.

In 1960, an updated take on the Panoram called the Scopitone was developed and popularized in France via campy, sexy clips by French pop stars like Johnny Hallyday. Unlike the Panoram, the Scopitone showed clips in color and allowed the customer to choose from 36 clips instead of just one.

Scopitones came to America in 1964, but despite a clip of Debbie Reynolds doing "If I Had a Hammer" Vegas-style, the American distributor of Scopitone machines was out of business by 1969. Efforts to introduce video jukeboxes showing MTV-style fare at arcades and amusement parks in the mid-Eighties were met with similar indifference.

Snader Telescriptions were the first music clips developed specifically for television. Produced by Louis Snader in the early Fifties, local TV stations used the clips to fill odd gaps of airtime. Most of the 754 clips were recorded live, with no playback or lip-synching, and several featured captivating performances from stars like Nat King Cole (view examples online at

The Big Beat

As rock & roll arrived, the ability of strong visuals to sell a song became apparent when Bill Haley & the Comets' year-old minor hit, "Rock Around the Clock," shot to No. 1 after being featured at the beginning of the 1955 film The Blackboard Jungle. Hollywood followed suit with a series of similar films, including The Girl Can't Help It and Rock, Rock, Rock (both 1956), the latter of which was little more than musical performances connected by a thin plot and introductions by pioneer disc jockey Alan Freed.

Freed also had the first network rock & roll TV show, The Big Beat, in the summer of 1957, but it was Dick Clark's American Bandstand (which debuted less than a month later) that successfully demonstrated how youth culture could be marketed without controversy.

Airing each weekday afternoon from the WFIL-TV studios in Philadelphia, Bandstand functioned as a nationwide record hop for teens tuning in to hear the latest songs, learn the latest dances, and see the latest fashions. Clark was the authoritative moderator, and only clean-cut, well-dressed, mostly (but not exclusively) white dancers appeared onscreen. This undoubtedly helped pacify parents and prospective advertisers.

Although the show's popularity began waning in the mid-Sixties, American Bandstand stayed on the air until 1989. Vestiges of Bandstand could be seen in the Sixties on Shindig, in the Seventies on Soul Train, in the Eighties on Dance Party USA, and in the Nineties and today on MTV's Total Request Live.

The Beatles' 1964 film A Hard Day's Night was influential in codifying the visual style of music videos. Director Richard Lester combined elements of French New Wave cinema (e.g., quick cuts, restless camera work) with the upbeat, buy-now energy of TV commercials. The impish, unrestrained personalities of the Beatles themselves defined the classic onscreen pop-group persona that persists even today in videos like Blink-182's "What's My Age Again?" and the Dixie Chicks' "Ready to Run."

The Beatles' television equivalents were, of course, the Monkees. The Prefab Four fused Lester's visuals with Marx Brothers-style antics and the best songwriters and studio musicians money could buy. Though their songs and show have stood the test of time, at their height, the Monkees were widely derided for their manufactured image and for not playing their own instruments. As the Sixties progressed, rock fans demanded more authenticity in their music.

Perhaps as a belated response to this, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert (both 1973-81) featured live, non-lip-synched performances by everyone from K.C. & the Sunshine Band to the New York Dolls. Meanwhile, PBS had WTTW's Soundstage From Chicago and KLRN's (now KLRU) Austin City Limits from the corner of 26th (now Dean Keeton) and Guadalupe.

Despite focusing on concert performances, clips of lip-synched performances were also screened on shows like The Midnight Special. More often than not, these clips came from overseas artists, including Queen, David Bowie, and ABBA. These nascent clips served as stopgap promotional devices in America, because they were much less expensive than touring. Moreover, countries such as Great Britain already had TV shows that relied heavily on promo clips.

Former Monkee and native Texan Michael Nesmith noticed one such show during a tour of Australia. Although a video clip program called Nightclubbing was shown on Manhattan cable TV starting in 1975, and USA Network's Night Flight began showing an eclectic mix of rock videos and movies in 1980, Nesmith's Popclips was the immediate precursor to MTV.

Popclips aired on Nickelodeon in 1980, and its success got the Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company to consider the possibilities of a 24-hour cable music channel. Preliminary planning for this channel involved Nesmith, but his artistic vision of music video clashed with Warner Amex's vision of a heavily formatted and researched album-oriented rock outlet for the eyeballs. Nez balked and Warner Amex went ahead without him.

One Step Beyond

Before we get caught up imagining how MTV might have turned out under Nesmith, let me relate the thrill of coming home from middle school in 1982 and seeing MTV for the first time. Back then, as an underage music fan, you didn't take music on television for granted.

In some cases, you stayed up until ungodly hours of the morning to catch whatever morsel the four or five broadcast stations might deign to show. With MTV, you could watch music 24/7, committing easy rebellion from the comfort of your couch -- at least until your folks commandeered the TV for St. Elsewhere.

In MTV's early days, programmers joked that the channel had 300 videos and 30 were by Rod Stewart. Many were crap -- quickie live shoots from Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Triumph that could only get shown on public access today. MTV even ran these weird, two-minute filler clips of weather footage set to instrumental music with no explanation whatsoever. The five original "veejays" -- J.J. Jackson, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, and Martha Quinn -- announced what videos were at the top of each hour, conducted mini-interviews, read tour dates, and wore satin baseball jackets emblazoned with the MTV logo.

But there were also plenty of indelible images that still resonate today. Madness skanking in crew-cut unison out of a barbershop in "One Step Beyond." Joan Jett yanking off her trenchcoat and exposing her bikini-clad form in "Do You Wanna Touch Me." The snare drum full of milk in J. Geils' "Centerfold." Any early-Eighties teen whose home had cable carrying MTV can probably name 10 more.

Given the rock-radio pedigrees of MTV co-founders Bob Pittman and Les Garland, they probably would've liked nothing better than just playing what was on AOR radio. After all, MTV's target audience was young suburban white guys. But the dearth of videos, let alone good ones, by established American artists forced MTV to be more adventurous and play British groups like ABC and Depeche Mode. By 1983, a second British Invasion was in full effect. It's impossible to imagine Duran Duran achieving such success without MTV.

Something you didn't see on early MTV were videos by black artists. By positing itself in the guise of AOR radio, MTV could systematically deny airplay to artists like Rick James and Grandmaster Flash, because they "didn't fit the format." But this refusal smacked of institutionalized racism since MTV was the only game in town. When rock writer Dave Marsh and others objected, co-founder Pittman characterized them as "little Hitlers" (see below).

Then along came Michael Jackson with the video for "Billie Jean." Thriller was already a monster hit and "Billie Jean" a compelling video, yet MTV still hedged on airing it. CBS Records, Jackson's label, reportedly threatened to pull all CBS videos from MTV if "Billie Jean" didn't air.

Of course, "Billie Jean" aired, Jackson became the King of Pop, and the video revolution was ignited in earnest. Today, MTV portrays "Billie Jean" as the video that broke the color barrier, even though the channel itself was responsible for erecting that barrier in the first place. So much for institutional memory ...


In 1983, Rolling Stone's Stephen Levy wrote, "MTV's greatest achievement has been to coax rock & roll into the video arena where you can't distinguish between entertainment and the sales pitch." This remains MTV's legacy, but its implications stretch far beyond rock & roll.

With programming supplied free by record companies, MTV spent its early creative energy on establishing an identity, which was crucial as cable expanded viewers' choices; "I Want My MTV!" became an effective rallying bray compelling cable operators to add MTV to their lineup. Meanwhile, the eye-candy overload in MTV's on-air promos was the video equivalent of the zip-bang jingles produced for Sixties Top 40 radio by Dallas-based PAMS Inc. Before long, MTV's branding techniques and visual styles were all over television.

MTV's status as a visual panoply of texts no longer than five minutes meant rock stars now had to devote considerable energy to their image. A few artists protested this new order. After trashing MTV in song on "Seen Your Video," the Replacements' 1985 clip for "Bastards of Young" consisted of a single still shot of a stereo speaker playing the song. But this was an anomaly. The new reality quickly made a mega-star of Madonna and a mockery of old-guard acts like Toto who didn't have the looks, style, and/or media savvy to re-create themselves at the speed MTV demanded.

Another MTV legacy was bringing viewers closer to the stars in a manner that makes Tiger Beat look tame by comparison. The channel first introduced this concept with extravagant meet-the-stars contests (e.g., "Win a Pink House from John Cougar Mellencamp!"). Today, a show called Becoming takes lucky fans on an adventure where they actually "become" their favorite pop star. After the obligatory makeovers, dance rehearsals, and a video pep talk from the stars themselves, fans shoot look-a-like videos that can be frighteningly convincing.

Over at VH1, Bands on the Run updates the battle of the bands concept by sending four unsigned bands on the road in logo-covered, burglar-magnet vans to compete against one another for prizes including $50,000 and a video in heavy rotation on VH1. That VH1 pays for two hotel rooms, gas, phone cards, and a $20 per-diem veers far from the reality of most indie tours, but the petty squabbles, alcoholic egotism, embarrassing sex, and fart jokes are all right on the money.

Whatever becomes of Real World-style "reality" TV, it's a pretty sure bet that the need for cheap content will keep cameras pointed toward civilians. And who can blame viewers for desiring celebrity in an age where even peripheral hangers-on like Kato Kaelin can turn happenstance into paid personal appearances? Constant MTV-style exposure to celebrities is bound to make you feel vaguely inadequate just sitting there on the couch.

Free Tacos for Everyone?

Advertising has always been the economic force behind mass media in America, but MTV transformed advertising into an art form to be analyzed and reviewed as a cultural product. The artistic pretensions of promotional music videos compelled advertisers to go the extra mile to engage consumers. Consumers, in turn, now accept the prospect of watching the Super Bowl just for the ads.

The greatest promise ever advertised used to be everlasting life. The new greatest promise is that the market is the supreme and omnipotent arbiter of human desire. And let's face it, buying your way out of everyday boredom is much easier than submitting to a more challenging belief system. This promise will continue to flourish as long as market forces continue encroaching upon every aspect of our daily lives.

Right now, Blink-182 is on MTV's Diary, the show that follows pop stars around with cameras to create the sensation of being privy to their everyday lives. They've just arrived back home in San Diego from an overseas tour. Guitarist Tom DeLonge is hungry for Mexican food. Destination: Taco Bell.

"It's kind of a California thing," he says before ordering a sack full of tacos. Usually, MTV blurs out logos that appear incidentally on its programs, but not this time. Then the show cuts to a commercial for Taco Bell -- the official fast food of Blink-182.

I hope they got reimbursed for the tacos. end story

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