Monday, 21 March 2011

And now we meet in an abandoned studio, we hear the playback and it seems so long ago...

MTV and the decline of Music, Part I

“Video Killed the Radio Star”, the Buggles, 1979

“Video Killed the Radio Star” was appropriately the first song to air on the brand new TV station ‘MTV’ in 1981, running 24/7 music videos. It is interesting to note that it was released in 1979. (Yes, I have the original 45!)

It would seem the origins of MTV could date back to 1966 when New Zealand record companies would provide the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation music videos to play on the air at no fee. The problem was few bands could or would pay their own way to be recorded. This concept though, was likely one of the seeds from which the ideas of MTV grew, although as we have seen there was considerable footage of music that was being created between 1966 and 1981when it happened...

Music television or ‘MTV’ as it would be forever known, aired from New York on August 1, 1981. The event came and went unnoticed by most. It did however come into consciousness pretty quickly for the 16-24 year old age group it was targeted at after that. Actually at 12:01 when it aired only a few thousand people on a single cable station in northern New Jersey could see it. It just was not that sophisticated. There would be times when the screen would go blank because someone forgot to put the next VHS video tape in the machine to air.  As far as hearing about it to check it out - remember, there was no internet so you did not get a tweet, it was not on face book and you didn’t even get an email.

 So pray tell, how did we find out about this? There were commercials on ‘regular’ television, but as we did hear about most things it was by good old fashioned word- of- mouth. (The internet is such an explosion of communication and information – and music!).  It took months, but eventually record stores started to sell artists work that MTV showed, that the local radio stations were not playing. Examples of this were Men at Work, The Human League, The Motels, etc.  This was the turning point – where the real change occurred! This was the absolute commercialization and bastardization of music for the sole purpose of selling to a target audience. The herds of young people largely seeking to be told what they liked, and having no ability to discern a good song from a bad song, a tight band from a sham, like sheep turned down the rocky road of intoxicating MTV. It was hell on earth for true musicians, music lovers and ugly rock bands alike.

I often hear when people looking at older music video - “Gawd the seventies bands were ugly” or ‘Why didn’t she get her teeth fixed”, or “That guys face met with the backside of a shovel one too many times”. I just cringe. They were musicians! Have you heard a note they are playing or word they are singing?

Yes bands that had nice looking musicians had a bit of an edge, but none of them were so blatantly, singularly directed at selling product to us as was MTV.  (You could argue that the top 40 radio at the time was pretty blatant in its commercialism but that is a whole other blog).

The point at which the record-buying habits were largely influenced by MTV created a secondary tsunami effect - the influence MTV had on the record companies was enormous. MTV could scare them into thinking that they could make or break them. The record companies were running scared. No one told them what to do! (You may remember the mention of the Brill Building for example in my previous article – they were and had been very powerful since pre-war times.)

What would the success of Blondie, Pat Benatar or Duran Duran have been without MTV? They were nice to look at and they had catchy pop tunes, perfect for MTV. The dinosaurs of the late seventies got hit by the meteor called MTV - arena rock male-dominated bands worked very well at a distance in the dark and on the radio, but no matter how talented they may have been they just did not look as good as Deborah Harry or Simon Le Bon.

And who made ‘New Wave’ music?  Did MTV just have great timing to take advantage of this thing called ‘New Wave”? Or did they really have a hand in creating and shaping it?

Nonetheless, New Wave ruled the day and flourished for two principal reasons:

1)      It was safe. Although it inherently tried to personify the defiance, anarchy, and free-spirit  of earlier punk, garage bands and blues-based rock, it was a shadow of its former self (We had to keep our loyal sheep safe from crazy things like real punk or ideas that could make them think (especially if that distracted them from thinking about what we were selling) .
2)     It was pretty. The most important attribute of a musician on MTV was how good they looked. It was hard to put lipstick on a pig, so it helped if you were working with good raw materials.  It didn’t matter what crap they were spinning, or in some cases if they could even play an instrument.  

Before you get me completely wrong here, I should clarify that I did like some New Wave music, (ever keeping an open mind), actually quite a bit of it as it turned out - but I am a sucker for music after all. Bands like Men at Work, The Cars, Prince, Katrina and the Waves, The B52s, Nina, to name a few,  and to some extent the Police, and Van Halen (who I am not sure fit in this category but got MTV play) all had some great music at the time. Bands like the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dire Straits, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel were more or less forced to get with the programme. The music was not deep and was not meant to be. It was fun, mostly dance music. At the time that worked.  It was the ‘80s answer to disco and all the kids’ parents were at work. People now emulated their pop stars who they now could study carefully on MTV - sometimes with uproarious results – it was great.  How do you think all the ‘dos of the 80’s were inspired? It was the self-fulfilling prophecy that was New Wave!

Stay tuned for Part II of Davo-rama Music: MTV and the decline of Music.

What impact did MTV have on you?

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