Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Rant #782: Video Killed the Video Star

Today is the 31st anniversary of the launch of Music Television, better known as MTV.

Some people rue this day, others celebrate it.

I lean towards the former, but I understand its significance in music--and television--history.

Prior to 1981, many pop acts filmed videos. Actually, music videos probably date from the 1930s, when big bands filmed performances that were often played in movie theaters as part of the schedule of a cartoon, a short feature, and a major film.

In the early rock era, through the foresight of dad Ozzie Nelson, Ricky Nelson built his reputation on filmed music scenes that were inserted into the "Ozzie and Harriet" TV show. And let's not forget David Seville and the Chipmunks, where cartoon scenes with music were part of their weekly TV show.

Anyway, moving into the rock era, videos--often called romps--were also filmed, especially by acts that wanted to spread their music to other shores. Thus, British acts often filmed their romps to entice American audiences, and American bands often filmed their romps to entice European audiences.

Even the Beatles made these types of videos, and they continued to make them when they stopped touring in 1966. Many were shown on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

1966 was an important year for what became known as the music video.

Although other acts built their reputations on their regular TV work--Including Paul Revere and the Raiders on "Where the Action Is"--it wasn't until the Monkees came on the scene during that year that the power of television to create music stars was fully envisioned, and based on their success, fully accomplished.

Heavily influenced by the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" film, each weekly show featured at least one or two songs interspersed into the storyline, and some were actual music videos that purportedly showed the foursome playing their instruments and singing. Others were just interspersed as part of the storyline.

This phenomena lasted about two and a half years, but the Monkees' TV show set the groundwork for such acts as Bobby Sherman and the Partridge Family to emerge and sell millions of records through their TV shows into the early 1970s.

Michael Nesmith, who was at ground zero of the emergence of rock music videos as a member of the Monkees, took his knowledge and talent and created something called Pop Flicks, which was a very late Friday evening/very early Saturday morning show that showcased rock videos of the time (mid to late 1970s) from such acts as Adam Ant, Doug and the Slugs and Nesmith himself.

Viacom liked what they saw, and thought that a cable channel showing these videos--and nothing but these videos--would be a hit. They made Nesmith an offer to head what became MTV, but he declined, selling them the idea only.

And in 1981 on this day, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles was the start of an incredible run.

MTV made stars of everyone from Pat Benatar to Blondie to the Police to Weird Al Yankovic, but it also ruffled a lot of feathers along the way.

Suddenly, style became much more important than substance, and videos that looked good, but didn't feature good music, were making stars out of acts that really needed a bit more seasoning.

And then, there was the racist cries from some, asking why MTV only played acts that were white. Of course, in the early days, it was programmed as a rock station, and thus, not too many current acts of the day geared to the black audience were playing rock.

Of course, once they were permitted to re-format the station, acts like Michael Jackson and Prince really revolutionized videos and what pop music was back then.

MTV became so big that it was making the music stars of the 1980s and 1990s, not radio anymore. Not since the days of the Monkees had this happened, and yes, MTV made huge stars of the Monkees again in 1986 by replaying their old shows.

But music was changing, and MTV had to change too. Since the mid to late 1990s, MTV--and its group of sister stations--have had less of an influence on pop music, simply because these stations have lessened their airplay of rock videos. Viewers became bored of the format, and today, while videos are played mainly on MTV's sister stations, it is not a necessity that an act have a video on heavy rotation to become stars anymore.

Pop music is so scattered today that I doubt that most people could name today's No. 1 in the country. People don't buy physical disks anymore, they download files with music that they like. Music charts are really a thing of the past, not meaning very much.

And some would say that MTV holds little value today too, what with its slate of reality shows like "Jersey Shore."

But while it was new and hot, it changed music, some say for the worse.

People often date modern music by MTV's launch, often forgetting that without acts like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, there would be no MTV and no rock music to speak of.

Most rock music from the 1960s through the 1970s is dismissed, not even part of the conversation when talking about top acts, top songs, etc.

As MTV moves through its 30s, it will be interesting to see what it comes up with next as a new generation of kids gravitate toward its programming.

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