Thursday, June 14, 2012

How MTV (Music Television) Ruined Music on Television

The first video ever to be played on Music Television (a.k.a. MTV) was called Video Killed the Radio Star. Though somewhat prophetic, this illustrious Buggles classic was ultimately wrong. Video did not “kill the radio star;” video killed music. What began as an avenue for bands to successfully promote their music, and on occasion even the music’s content, eventually turned into one long music video without the added benefit of music. In its infancy, the music video was relatively innocuous, showcasing bands with ridiculous hair, silly song lyrics, and sets that resembled a Jackson Pollock canvas. At its best, the video even augmented the music, using the images as a means to further explicate the song.

Soon, however, the music took a backseat to the visual spectacle- serving merely as a convenient tool to showcase the artist’s latest provocative pose. This allowed the musician to take a two-pronged sales approach. Whereas the song may have been about nothing, you could still fill the video with a bunch of scantily clad women romping around looking sufficiently purposeful. Thus, if it doesn't sell for the quality of the music, you can at least grab them for the sex. This division in the soul of music could only mean that the music itself would ultimately be forgotten in the endless flood of images.

The pop star Madonna is most indicative of this paradigm. Throughout the 1980s, no other singer/songwriter - save Michael Jackson - drew more attention than she. One of the reasons for this attention was her clear insight that one need not depend on the genuine content of the music in order to sell the product.Yet it was not her music style alone that garnered her the majority of the attention. Indeed, it was also her penchant for being “shocking” and “provocative.”

Ironically, if one were only to read her song lyrics (with a few notable exceptions) one might get the impression that she was nothing more than a relatively wholesome pop star. However, “wholesome” is the last thing that comes to mind when one considers her musical repertoire. What does come to mind is her proclivity for using Catholic symbols as sexually suggestive props; what does come to mind is her use of St. Martin de Porres, a Gospel choir, and lingerie to say God knows what; and what does come to mind is a seemingly innocent love song that devolves into a story about a young boy trying to sneak into a finely choreographed peep show. At any rate, she did accomplish one thing that few other artists can claim; she managed to turn a name that was formerly associated with holiness into something that can only be classified as blasphemy.   

Based on the success of Madonna and other video provocateurs, MTV unveiled in the early 1990s a new concept in video entertainment, a concept that it hoped would introduce new life into a format that had grown increasingly stale. This “fresh format” consisted of removing all of the unessential elements of the music video (i.e. the music), while at the same time maintaining all of the essential elements (i.e. the voyeurism). The Real World, as it came to be called, not only proved to be a success in its own right, but would ultimately usher in the age of so-called “reality television.” In an ironic twist, however, it would be this innovation, appearing on Music Television, that would ultimately mean the end for music on television. As a matter of fact, if you were to turn on MTV today (or VH1) you would discover very quickly just how rarely music is played. It was for this reason that the producers of MTV created MTV2, which then proceeded to do the same thing that the former did. Both channels now consist of shows that either feature some adolescent prankster (who is not adolescent), or some series glorifying teenagers doing everything that we wished they wouldn't.         
But to focus on music videos alone would be to miss the whole point. The truth is the eyes hold a disproportionate place in the hierarchy of man's senses, and unless men learn to shut them, they will never learn the virtue of the other four. Perhaps this is why God has given us eyelids, for without them, our mind, heart, and body would never be able to rest properly- either via the physical rest of the body, or the spiritual rest of prayer.


  1. The problem, as it appears to me at least, is that television isn't a good medium for displaying music. That's not to say that a good music video can't be made, but that the only way to get a wide viewership on national television is to do something to gain attention-- and unfortunately, the only way many entertainment producers understand how to do that is to be unnecessarily provocative (i.e., sex and violence).

    However, this does not excuse MTV in the slightest. To continue to call itself 'Music Television' is now nothing more than a pop cultural joke. Scratch that, the channel is a joke. No one actually takes the channel seriously-- it's awards shows are shadows of their former selves from what I've heard (to be fair, this seems to be the case for most awards shows). The channel's devolved into something of an embarrassment to our culture.

  2. I have to agree with Ladon. This is a good article, but I don't think Madonna is the only one you can single out. She set the trend for the shock factor you can say, but she's more of a display of selling sex rather than shock.
    Marilyn Manson did the same thing in the 90's, where would his career be without him selling all the crazy things he did? He certainly wasn't selling records for his music.
    The whole message of the 80's was exploitation and making money. Madonna as well as countless others were selling sex in the videos. MTV's whole obsession with selling garbage like hair metal and the half baked pop bands is what ruined music in the 80's. Looking back the 80's were a very bad decade for music, and I wholeheartedly agree that MTV played a huge factor to it. For all the great gems in the decade, there is hundreds if not thousands of garbage that was dominating the charts year in year out.

    I don't think television is the right way to sell music. Sure it gets to a bigger audience since Americans are basically TV fed and will watch anything, but some of the best music in the world don't need a video or anything telling you the song. You can use your imagination and let the song speak for itself. There's a reason people listen Latin music and Jazz without the music videos, and MTV has never quite figured it out and never will.

  3. With MTV good looks replaced talent

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