05 August 2006

MTV @ 25; Ho Hum

So it was probably 1983 or 1984, over at Nate's place in Stillwater, that I first saw MTV. I lived in Afton then, and I don't know if you can get cable there now, so one had to go 'to the wire' back then.

Yea, it was cool and revolutionary. Everything is when it's the first thing out there. MTV was radio that had something for your eyes. Of course, you can argue all day long about whether this was a good or bad thing. As a fan of short-format conceptual video, I was always very interested in how a filmmaker would interpret a song into something visual. However, now it's easy to look back and damn the whole process, since, to this day, I can't hear Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More" without seeing a Lewis Carroll-gone-wrong treatment.

Not that I'm listening to a tremendous amount of Tom Petty.

More than CNN or ESPN, MTV drove cable TV into American households. It also was the first legitimate chink in the armor of the big 3 networks, and since the cracks are still widening, we should be grateful to MTV for starting a broadcasting revolution.

MTV was like watching the Olympic Games live for the first time as opposed to tape-delayed and edited recaps. You had to keep watching because you really didn't know what would come up next. The idea of unpredictability was unheard of in music programming. God knows KQRS and other living-on-borrowed-time FM dinosaurs weren't going to give me the B-52's, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Pretenders, Todd Rundgren, etc., etc., etc.

Then, (whenever then was) MTV really dropped off my radar. By the admission of it's founder Bob Pittman, the channel would have to teardown and reinvent itself every couple of years (which is a very healthy attitude to have from day 1), but the problem came when MTV went from lots and lots of music to less and less music. You're now hard pressed to find much time devoted to new music, and the overwhelming majority of programming are docudramas and reality shows that have nothing to do with music.

There's the killer: MTV has turned its back on the music. The content is no longer all about the artists. It's now all about the audience. As a nearly 40-year old with a wife and a house and a degree and a job and friends and a life, watching shows about MTV's audience couldn't be a worse use of my time.

You always hear about the very first video played during MTV's first hour on the air in August of 1981; "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. Well, in their zeal to make a statement, MTV was too myopic to realize the irony of their selection. Let's go to the lyrics:
They took the credit for your second symphony.
Rewritten by machine and new technology
and now I understand the problems you can see.

And now we meet in an abandoned studio.
We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.
And you remember the jingles used to go.

Video killed the radio star.
In my mind and in my car,
We can't rewind we've gone to far.

Say what you want, that's not a kickoff, it's a death watch.

Can you imagine CNN with no news, or ESPN with no sports? Hey, Music Television, where did the music go?

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