Rob Patterson

MTV and the Damage Done

The media is wishing MTV a happy 25th birthday. I want to drive a stake through its heart -- not that it has one -- in retaliation for what it did to rock'n'roll.

Not that it matters anymore, since MTV is less a music television channel and far more a lifestyle network that has achieved such accomplishments as taking us back to the Dark Ages of young adult behavior with such puerile twaddle as its babes in bikinis coverage of spring break. During their recent filming here in Austin, Texas, of The Real World -- which must be credited with the dubious achievement of helping propagate the end times sign known as "reality TV" -- one of the residents of the MTV house brutally assaulted a friend of mine, who happens to be a good and hard-working guy who runs a couple of carts serving up sausages and bratwurst to the late night party crowd in our downtown playground.

I asked him why he didn't sue the shit out of MTV, and being the good guy he is, he didn't want to make a civil case out of some drunken jerk. I was just hoping he'd inflict a fiscal blow on the channel I have grown to despise, and I couldn't think of anyone more deserving of a windfall than him.

When it signed on a quarter century ago with "Video Killed The Radio Star" by The Buggles, MTV seemed like a not-so-bad idea at the time. I even profited from it by coming into their offices and writing music news stories for MTV as a freelancer. I also was a regular freelance contributor to video section of the music trade *Billboard* as a result of the momentum MTV gave to that medium. (Not that I cashed in, like my friend who got punched out could have.)

New-wave and post-punk music wouldn't have made the commercial inroads that it did without the play it got on the music channel. Friends and music critic peers like Kurt Loder and Chris Connelly got a boost for their careers and I imagine some serious scratch as on air talent there. And I'll even confess: when MTV was announced and did its pre-debut VJ search, I sent them a resume and headshot.

But what seemed like a good idea at the time in time metastasized into a poison as far as rock'n'roll and popular music are concerned. Sure, it revitalized an industry that had hit a bit of a slump prior to the channel's creation and helped drive music sales for some time to follow. But the damage it did to how listeners relate to music far outweighs those benefits.

One of the wonderful things to me about a great song has always been what I call its "portability." A hit single could come on the radio at a propitious time and come to represent the soundtrack for a cherished memory, forever taking you back to the spirit of that moment. But such songs could also play again and again in any number of contexts and both fit and enhance such varied moments. And the mystical effect of the union of melody, rhythm and lyrical imagery was its ability to allow you to thread it into the circumstances of your existence as well as mental flights of imagination and fancy.

But the music video irrevocably tied songs to the imagery in the clip and reduced them to set themes and meanings. If anyone wonders why the lyrical writing in today's hits is so much shallower than some of it was back before MTV, blame must go to the video clip for reducing the importance of the lyric as a creator of imagery.

We can't assail MTV for the video clip, per se -- music promo films had in England been a standard practice since the Swinging '60s to promote singles in other territories. But MTV did cause the ultimate effects, and they're not pretty.

Well, in a way, they are pretty: sexy chicks and pretty boys cavorting in generally lame scenarios shot in a quick-cut style that could well have had its causal role in the current ADD epidemic. The video clip reduced popular music to a backing track for sex -- which it should be noted, is something I happen to love, except when it becomes corrupted by commodification, as happened with the music video clip -- as well as glitz, glamour and other ultimately shallow pop cultural trappings.

Video didn't kill the radio star. Instead, it created new ones like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and of course the godmother of them all, Madonna, who may have struck some blows for the notion of free expression, but mainly because she was a genius at using shock value as a careerist tactic. The more the meaning of music became associated with the imagery that video clips surrounded it with, the less meaning the music seemed to have on its own. Video if not killed at least damaged lyrical and musical depth in popular music.

Back in the '60s, one saying was: kill your TV. TV today has enough merits that I'd retract that sentiment, but still would say: kill your MTV. But it's too late; the damage is done.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2006

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