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Rock Out

Why MTV had to destroy rock and roll in order to save it.

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MTV was a quintessential New York product, dreamed up by the kind of wiseasses who are always converging on us from Scranton and Tulsa and Jackson and Aurora. And it changed rock and roll forever. Sure, rock would have been corporatized, canonized, and trivialized even in a world magically deprived of “music television.” But MTV certainly speeded fate along. The exclusive contracts the channel forged with the major labels—free of payola laws—granted the big companies dominance over the hottest promotional medium of the eighties as they assured MTV control of music-video programming. But after a faddish flurry, ratings for promo-clip shows dipped ominously, so the channel got into the rockumentary racket as well. Through its gravely researched, glibly theorized tributes, retrospectives, and 100-best specials, MTV has exerted as much influence on pop history as its close personal friend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Inevitably, MTV undercut its own archival reverence. The Behind the Music profiles on its “adult” imprint VH1 reduced the tragedy, pathos, and ridiculousness of the celebrity system to a self-pitying, self-aggrandizing formula: Utter has-beens milk ravaged visages for whatever paydays they have left. Since exposure generates overexposure, everything else about MTV turns rock artistes of hugely disparate levels of achievement and integrity into parodies of themselves. The admiring critiques, the playful digs, the gossip posing as news, the chance afforded fans to share their cunningly parceled-out thoughts, limos, or overpriced repasts—all render them more banal than their music could ever be.

Not that MTV has no pride. From eternal megastars Michael Jackson and Madonna, who stand as musicians whether celebrity destroys their lives or not, to teen idols Pink and Justin Timberlake, who’ve exploited MTV to sell records more adventurous than Norah Jones could understand, the channel has seeded much crucial pop. In its underdog beginnings, it broke arena rock’s hold on the post-disco marketplace by pumping dubious New Wave and then—under duress, but hey—two key African-American innovators, Jackson and Prince. Later, it promulgated hip-hop and Nirvana as well. Rock video’s jump cuts fulfilled the neo-surrealist prophecies of underground cinema and gave Hollywood Spike Jonze. Anybody who didn’t enjoy what Ed Griles did with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is beyond help. So is anybody who never guffaws at The Osbournes.

But MTV’s health benefits only go so far. Perceptual determinists claim video robs pop fans of their imaginations, forging a link with one set of images when a song might inspire countless others. Nonetheless, the right videos have enriched good songs and salvaged mediocre ones. The musical effectiveness of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (or OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson”) isn’t diminished an iota by its clip. Still, in an era when “design” has bum-rushed every aspect of the culture, music has been visualized, too, with MTV in the forefront. The loss is major, and has nothing to do with the ineluctable modality of the visible. It’s about the cumulative content of all those pictures of the stars: their clothes and hair, crotches and entourages, sly grins and sensitive moues—all the unmistakable signals that they’re special and you’re not. Like baseball, where fat guys who can hit have been turned into anachronisms by the weight room, rock and roll was never wholly a glamour game. Now it’s so polarized that few go for the gold without a burnished bod and a barber who makes more money than most lawyers. Talents with a weakness for jelly doughnuts retreat to the indie circuit or work behind the scenes.

MTV’s recent programming, The Real World and Jackass, makes rock and roll a tributary of a myth of youth lifestyle. The fantasies it now sells aren’t about songs. They’re about encouraging the young to pretend they’re special by emulating the excesses their heroes have jawed about for decades. This has had especially dire consequences in sexual mores—covering spring break, MTV becomes the date-rape channel. It has also diminished hip-hop, where videos have normalized the hypermaterialistic bling-bling ethos. Of course, to see those videos, you’d better tune to MTV2, Channel 128 in Manhattan if you get it. MTV itself doesn’t play many videos anymore. Music television has left the music business behind, wondering where the money went.


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