Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Martha Quinn, Phone Home

(Edited to add link at the bottom.)

Today is the 25th anniversary of the debut of MTV, although as this interesting retrospective by the AP's David Bauder notes, the channel is planning no observance on the air. And why should they? The typical MTV viewer can't remember life without it. It would be like celebrating the discovery of oxygen.

The first time I ever heard of MTV was in the early fall of 1981, mere weeks after the channel premiered. Bob Pittman, erstwhile radio programming genius, spoke at a conference I was attending, and told us about this new video venture he was involved in. Around the table that night at dinner, my college-radio colleagues were skeptical. I forthrightly predicted that it would never fly. Which is why Pittman is still considered a genius and I'm an ex-radio programmer with a blog. I first got MTV on my cable system in 1982, and watched it on and off for the next five years. In those days, I was still into contemporary music and, for a while, programming a Top 40 station. So watching MTV was something I did for entertainment, but also something I did to keep tabs on the competition. MTV ceased to be relevant to me in the late 80s, as it began to program more rap and metal, in addition to the non-music programming that's its staple today, and I quit watching.

(Digression: After MTV, I switched over to VH-1, and watched that on and off into the mid-90s, at least until its transformation from a 60/70s/80s adult-contemporary format into an alternative rock channel striving to be ├╝ber-hip--so much so that its audience research was visible on-screen, down to the clothes the VJs wore and the furniture they sat on. I would have given up on it anyway, though, even without that transition--I'm convinced that there's a switch in the human brain that shuts down its interest in music video when that brain reaches its mid 30s.)

You can argue that, 25 years after its birth, MTV as just one channel is largely irrelevant in the multi-channel universe it helped to spark. But that's only because its ethos is everywhere now. You can argue that MTV is largely responsible for the overpowering importance of image in our culture--how you look and/or what you seem to be are far more important in the long run than what you actually are. You can even argue that MTV is largely responsible for redefining the American Dream for millions of Americans. That dream used involve mundane considerations like owning your own home or being in charge of your own destiny. Now, it's about becoming a celebrity. But MTV also helped create the media environment we swim in today, as comfortable as fish--the bite-sized (or, if you prefer, byte-sized) programming style of contemporary TV and the Internet is cousin to MTV's smorgasbord of videos, news segments, and VJ bits. That we're comfortable with the Internet's instant click-and-go environment, or the process of channel surfing, may have something to do with the jump-cutting style of music video we got used to back in the 80s.

That's just my opinion, though. I could be totally wrong.

Recommended: It's also my opinion that MTV killed Abba, although that could be wrong, too. Lost in the 80s has an appreciation of their last major album, The Visitors, including two versions of the title track, which was an un-Abba-like as anything they ever recorded.


At 10:44 AM, Blogger The Stepfather of Soul said...

I think you are absolutely on-target about how MTV changed the pace of our culture in many ways. I went without MTV almost all of my childhood and teenage years (we didn't have cable), so I never had the nostalgia for it that many people I know have, although in my college years I certainly watched my share of videos (mainly on MTV2) and those college staples of that time, "Beavis and Butthead," "Loveline" and "Singled Out."


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