- Does anybody still care about music videos? I do – and I’m not alone. But the modern media universe doesn’t give you any good place to see them.
I didn’t want to believe it. A couple of years ago, Last Plane to Jakarta, a web journal I enjoy reading, posted an article ranting about MTV2. It warned that MTV’s sister channel was on a downslide, gradually abandoning its original mission. It was a simple mission: play music videos 24 hours a day, free of format, regardless of genre. Launched quietly in 1996, MTV2 played rap videos next to rock videos, oldies next to current clips, and even juxtaposed videos to let them comment on each other in unexpected ways: clips with prominent pianos, say, or clips by the same director. In short, it did what regular MTV used to do. It was paradise.
But the Last Plane blogger argued that, just a few years into its experiment, MTV was taking the worst tendencies of the main channel and applying them to its younger sibling: grouping videos by genre (e.g., an all hip-hop hour) and “scheduling” the channel in digestible half-hour blocks. At the time I read this, I had just gotten DirecTV, largely because I wanted MTV2. I wanted to see music videos any time of day, the way I did in the ’80s, when MTV and VH1 started. I didn’t want to believe MTV was wrecking their all-music channel just as I finally had access to it.
Sadly, the blogger was right, and a couple of years later, it’s getting worse. Though MTV2 is still music-themed, there are many stretches of the day when they’re not showing music videos at all. MTV2 is now clogged with biography shows about “a day in the life of” some pop star, or “making-of” shows about the MTV Awards or an MTV tour. Gradually, MTV2 is becoming what MTV became about a decade ago – still music-based but with fewer videos, more “programming,” more lifestyle.
Music videos, I believe, are becoming an endangered species. This may sound implausible, given all the TV channels that play them and their importance to record labels’ marketing plans, but I think they’re going the way of the 45-RPM single: virtually extinct, except in small pockets. Labels have begun to determine that videos are too costly, especially given the limited exposure they are likely to get from MTV. Many music fans wouldn’t mourn this loss; indeed, given all the detrimental effects videos have had upon popular music – the increased emphasis on image over songwriting or musicianship – they might cheer this news.
I am not among them.
Truth be told, I love music videos. Or at least, I used to. In a music column I wrote in college, I once called videos “cartoons for the post-pubescent,” and I still think that’s an accurate description. The best creators and stars of music videos move beyond interpretation of song lyrics or fashion-obsessed preening to get at a larger pop-art truth. Directors find ever more inventive ways to translate sound into movement, to represent moods and abstract concepts through visuals. The smartest pop stars know how to present themselves in music videos. In some cases (coughMadonnacough), the only good acting they do is in video clips. Some music-video stars have deepened our understanding of them through their clips – think back to David Byrne’s wide-eyed freakouts, Michael Jackson’s exhilarating dance routines, Kurt Cobain’s fever dreams, Missy Elliott’s coy ghetto fantasias. In short, I truly believe that at their best, music videos are art.
I am happy to learn I am not alone. For the past two weeks, I’ve become reacquainted with the art of music video, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art’s series, “Golden Oldies of Music Video.” MoMA maintains an enormous film archive, and over the last two decades they’ve been building a small collection of music videos as well. In a theatre normally reserved for its film programs, MoMA is screening music videos from its collection over three weeks. As Smily noted in her Friday LiveJournal post, she joined me for week two, which focused exclusively on the early-mid-’80s. The previous week, which I attended by myself, focused on the pre-MTV early days.
Those who dismiss the music video as a post-Baby Boom cultural travesty would do well to explore its history. MoMA traced it back to the 1940s, when the first prototypes of video jukeboxes made their appearances in America and Europe. But the modern videoclip – a filmed, carefully edited pastiche of pop-star images married to a song – was basically pioneered by the Beatles. After two years of dragging their asses around the globe for live appearances, the Fabs decided that something had to give, and that television would be it. As good as Ed Sullivan had been to them, they couldn’t schlep back to New York twice a year to do his show amid a hectic touring and recording schedule. So starting in 1966, they offered Ed “short films” made especially for him and his enormous U.S. audience.
That’s where MoMA picked up the story. Week one of their showcase began with short films for 1967’s “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (not the Beatles’ first videos, but the first really interesting ones). I had seen these clips before, but it was fascinating to watch them with a modern audience in a movie theatre – things that would seem charmingly dated to me at home became hilarious in front of a savvy crowd. Later in the showcase, MoMA traced the video’s evolution through rock-star pomp (Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”), pop art (Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen”), even actual storytelling (David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”). The most stunning find for me was Suicide’s 10-minute clip for the utterly terrifying song “Frankie Teardrop.” This post-punk oddity, in which Alan Vega lets out the most bloodcurdling screams in rock history, is accompanied by an impressionistic video that looks like a collection of camcorder shots from the gloomiest imaginable ’70s urban landscape. The video was discomforting, at times strangely beautiful, and unforgettable.
What was a little disappointing about MoMA’s week two, the ’80s segment for which Emily joined me, was the sterile collection of clips. Here was the most fertile period in music video’s history, and MoMA would have you believe most clips were effete art-school projects. It was a selection suffocated by good taste. Yes, it’s interesting that Miles Davis and Philip Glass made videos, but that doesn’t mean we had to see them. Yes, it’s historic that Andy Warhol made a clip for the Cars just three years before his death, but just because he’s Andy Warhol doesn’t make the video any good. Thankfully, MoMA remembered to include a better Cars clip, “You Might Think,” and Michael Jackson’s West Side Story-manqué masterpiece “Beat It.” But by and large, this was a collection of videos clearly chosen by pretentious, art-damaged New Yorkers. Largely left out were the populist classics, the “Hungry Like the Wolf”s, “Every Breath You Take”s and “Take on Me”s that kept the form vital through the Reagan years. They didn’t even include anything by Madonna, which is like doing a 20th Century art show and leaving out Picasso.
That’s a shame, because what excited me about MoMA’s series was that someone was finally taking this mass-appeal art form seriously. The power of music video derives, in part, from the fact that they are designed not to be appreciated but consumed. From the Beatles on down, videos were designed to move product, and there’s no shame in that; the fascination lies in the ways directors and rock artists used the form’s limitations (length, acting talent, budget, artistic freedom) to their advantage.
If films can be protected, restored and lovingly remastered for public appreciation, why can’t music videos? I am probably one of the few people on the planet worried about the preservation of short films made by record labels to sell product. But the fact is, videos have been treated shabbily, both by the low-rent profiteers who rely on them and the high-art gatekeepers who should be protecting them. Most were made cheaply and are probably rotting on aging videotape. I’m sure a call to the average music conglomerate to ask about their efforts to preserve their music videos would result in loud laughter before the label rep dropped the phone.
I remain thankful that MoMA appreciates videos enough to protect even a handful of them. The only other high-end organization that showed similar respect and love for the form was the DVD company Criterion, who produced the utterly stellar two-disc Beastie Boys DVD Video Anthology in 2000. Criterion pioneered the restoration of films for home consumption – back in the laserdisc era, they literally invented DVD bonus features like director commentaries. They showed the same care for the videos on Beastie Boys they show to Francois Truffaut films, surrounding the clips with background material and even supplementing certain ones with alternate song mixes and camera footage.
I thought Beastie Boys would herald a new era in video presentation, that other artists would demand that their clips receive similar treatment, but I was wrong. Music on home video remains dominated by warmed-over concerts and quick-buck compilations of current acts. I have long had a dream that someone would compile a multi-label, best-videos-of-all-time compilation – price it at $50–75, give it some prime-time exposure, count them down like Casey Kasem. It’s something MTV could put together in its sleep. But then, MTV doesn’t really care about videos anymore, as they’re hard to package for Nielsen ratings. It’s so ironic: if I want to see an hour of music videos from more than one genre, I have to trek to a New York City arthouse movie theater and depend on the tastes of a bunch of museum curators. It’s enough to make me rethink the meaning of the age-old chant, ‘I want my MTV!’”