Special Report

The Rise, Fall, and Strange Rebirth of the Music Video

YouTube is a worthy successor to MTV.

By 3.28.14

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More than a decade after MTV effectively ditched music videos, and almost a quarter century since their last album, the Pixies have released the best music video of the post-MTV era. What a very oddball, Pixies thing to have done.

In retrospect, music videos appear more advertisement than art. They played as commercials, albeit ones that viewers wanted to watch, that sold vinyl, cassettes, and finally compact discs. The problem MTV encountered fairly early on involved the discovery that cable customers watched the unpaid commercials promoting records and turned the station once the spots for Noxzema and Teen Spirit deodorant appeared.

“MTV played music videos as stock programming, those are three to four minutes long,” former MTV exec Andy Shuon told ’90s VJ Kennedy in a recent interview. “[I]t’s difficult to get ratings with short-form content versus long-form shows that carry you across a commercial break…. TV ratings are made of two things: how many people are watching and for how long. MTV had a lot of viewers, but they didn’t watch for very long.”

So, the Human League and Quarterflash morphed into Remote Control, which morphed into The Real World, which morphed into Laguna Beach, which morphed into 16 & Pregnant. The continuum may miss a few milestones, but the path from music to programs with secondary musical content to ones devoid of it which either make us feel envious (Cribs) or superior (Jersey Shore) captures the regress. Like the History Channel, MTV eventually mismatched its content to its brand. If video killed the radio star, then remote control—the device more so than the show—killed the video star.

Like commercials for beer or cars or clothes, the “pretty-girl advertisements”—as turn-of-the-last-century marketing geniuses who stumbled upon sex appeal called them—moved records the fastest. ZZ Top’s “Legs,” Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love,” Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” and Mötley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” remain running on the memory reel of many a grownup teenage boy. The songs, in some instances, remain forgotten—just like the “M” in MTV does.

Videos surely stimulated other parts of the anatomy. Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight,” set to a very good song, nevertheless made bellies laugh and crippled the rocker’s career in its choreographed preening and pink tank-top wardrobe. “Ashes to Ashes,” featuring a bizarrely-dressed David Bowie marching ahead of a frontloader-tractor, suspended in utero, and crouched in the corner of a rubber room, played tricks on the brain. Anything by Michael Jackson moved the feet.

The paradox of music videos is that they grew worse as their budgets grew better. Initially, too-literal visual interpretations of lyrics, cheap, clichéd images such as smashing glass, and singers earnestly acting as actors signaled disaster. Later, when the productions resembled, in budget at least, a typical James Cameron film, the pretentiousness clashed with the inherently kitsch format. Think “November Rain.” Aspiring to make an epic music video misses the point.

The jarring new Pixies clip for “Snakes” depicts paper-mache piñata people escaping encroaching predators. It is as off-kilter as the band that doesn’t once appear in it. The disturbing mini-movie makes more sense after a few viewings, which makes sense given that, unlike real movies, music videos aim for hundreds of repeat screenings. The surprise ending, positively Shyamalanian if not Hitchcockian, makes clues, meaningless upon first glance, exude meaning after repeat YouTube visits.

YouTube appears as a worthy successor to MTV. Surely its manner of monetizing—brief ads as payment for watching a clip—works better than the expectation that an inherently impatient demographic, clicker in hand, will waste two-minutes waiting for the songs to return. It’s also less one-size-fits-all MTV, and more user-friendly ’50s jukebox, in its all-request approach. Alas, no Martha Quinn or Triple J walks you through the process, and, like so much on the web, you must go knowingly in search of cool—cool isn’t going to come find you.   

Still, making one of the best music videos ever after musicians have largely stopped making, and fans have stopped watching, music videos evokes the idea of a great radio serial broadcast in the 1980s or an eighteenth-century army going into battle with bows at the ready. But with devotees of the proto-Nirvana alternative band craving the short-haired rock they’ve been denied since the early ’90s, why not package the familiar sound in a familiar promotional vehicle?

Here’s hoping fans buy the cassingle.

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.