Who cares about mu­sic? MTV still top of the heap 28 years later

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - Brian Boyd on mu­sic bboyd@irish­times.com

It’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Fac­tory for grown-ups, where a river runs vodka and Red Bull, the piz­zas are topped with caviar, and you can play Gui­tar Hero against house­hold mu­si­cal names.

MTV is throw­ing an af­ter­show party in a Berlin air­port hangar, and the guestlist is so big that there are 12 en­trances de­pend­ing on which let­ter of the al­pha­bet your sur­name be­gins with. Ear­lier in the evening, Bey­oncé, Jay-Z and U2, among oth­ers, were all present and cor­rect for the award cer­e­mony it­self.

You at­tach your mouth to the vodka and Red Bull tap and chuckle to your­self, think­ing: but MTV doesn’t even show any mu­sic videos th­ese days.

When MTV de­buted in 1981 with the synaes­thetic slo­gan “You’ll never look at mu­sic the same way again”, it was Mar­shall McLuhan pix­i­lated. Mu­sic was the medium and the mes­sage. MTV con­nected the most pop­u­lar mass-me­dia in­stru­ment (TV) with the multi-bil­lion dol­lar youth spend on mu­sic. Within a year it had be­come the fastest-grow­ing ca­ble sta­tion of all time. It seemed im­pos­si­bly ex­otic. It was as if we had gone overnight from watch­ing The Rior­dans to Si­mon Le Bon in a ca­nary yel­low suit danc­ing on a speed­boat in the Caribbean overnight.

MTV had a seis­mic ef­fect on pop­u­lar cul­ture. It was a be­spoke cre­ation for a pre­vi­ously marginalised de­mo­graphic (twen­tysome­things), and the ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lar em­braced and French-kissed it. Back then, leisure spend wasn’t be­ing lost to mo­bile phones, X-boxes and Gui­tar Hero.

MTV was “cool” tele­vi­sion for “cool” peo­ple, and its modus operandi are more pop­u­lar now than they ever were when the chan­nel was a globe-strad­dling me­dia mon­ster. MTV de­buted in­no­va­tive graph­ics, quick ed­its, jumpy pro­duc­tion val­ues and a hith­erto un­known ir­rev­er­ence to­wards the ma­te­rial it was cov­er­ing. You see its in­flu­ence over “youth-ori­en­tated” TV sta­tions in both pre­sen­ta­tion and pro­gram­ming styles, and in how most of to­day’s web pages are de­signed.

The mu­sic in­dus­try and ad­ver­tis­ers re­garded it as The Sec­ond Com­ing. Pre-MTV, a band had to schlep around in a tour van spending months, if not years, break­ing a “ter­ri­tory”. One big video hit on MTV could ac­cel­er­ate your in­ter­na­tional ca­reer by a good five years. Even acts such as A Flock Of Seag­ulls achieve chart­top­ping al­bums on the back of it.

For the same rea­son that you still don’t see that many black faces on the cov­ers of glossy fash­ion/beauty mag­a­zines, the ad­ver­tis­ers ex­erted sub­lim­i­nal pres­sure to keep MTV “white”. Of the first 750 videos played, fewer than 25 were by black artists. This was to­tally dis­pro­por­tion­ate to the num­ber of black acts at the top of the mu­sic charts.

It took the pres­i­dent of Michael Jack­son’s record la­bel, Sony, to ring up the sta­tion and tell them it wouldn’t be get­ting the Thriller video or any­thing by other Sony acts (Spring­steen, Dy­lan, etc) if they didn’t do some­thing about their nasty “Jim Crow” ways.

In other ways, MTV was pro­gres­sive. It was the first me­dia out­let to em­pha­sise Green is­sues (which no­body was talk­ing about in the 1980s), and it gave a plat­form to Amnesty In­ter­na­tional be­fore rock stars thought it would made them look all car­ing and con­cerned.

Its most im­por­tant move, though, was to ditch the mu­sic and em­brace Re­al­ity TV. Pre-YouTube, iTunes, Nap­ster and Spo­tify, MTV saw what was hap­pen­ing and cleared its sched­ules for the then-new con­cept of re­al­ity pro­gram­ming. Its de­ci­sion was vin­di­cated by the suc­cess of The Os­bournes, which gave the chan­nel its high­est ever view­ing fig­ures.

For good or ill, Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity . . . , Strictly Come Danc­ing and The X Fac­tor would not be dom­i­nat­ing the telly now if MTV, years ear­lier, hadn’t cleared the way and found an au­di­ence.

If you want mu­sic on MTV now, you’re redi­rected to the web­site. There may be pe­ri­odic bouts of self-flag­el­la­tion over mov­ing from mu­sic to re­al­ity, but in a world where we al­ready know what the Christ­mas No 1 will be, MTV got it ab­so­lutely right.

You can laugh at MTV’s “Thou­sands have died in an earth­quake in China but mean­while here’s Paris Hil­ton judg­ing a lip gloss com­pe­ti­tion” im­age, but never un­der­es­ti­mate its prodi­gious cul­tural weather vane. It’s why Bey­oncé, Jay-Z and U2 still turn up to grip and grin.

Jacko and Sony gave a MTV a well-de­served scare over rights to air Thriller

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