Liner Notes: Reality Killed The Video Star, Pt. 2

In continuation of last week’s Liner Notes, where we looked into an abbreviated history of MTV, this week is the second-half of the two-part series documenting how MTV rose to pop culture iconoclasm and where it finds itself today in the rank of youth culture and music medium.

Thriller was the single-most important music video ever made. It would forever change how youth culture and business executives would view the music video template and the MTV network. Put out by the world’s most famous pop star at the time, Thriller blew the doors off of MTV and music forever. Michael Jackson, together with his female counter sensation Madonna (The Material Girl herself), began a new generation of MTV cult followers. The effect of videos like Thriller, Material Girl, Billie Jean, and Money For Nothing by Dire Straits (with the appropriating line, “Look at them yo-yos / that’s the way you do it / You play the gee-tar on the MTV”), were so great the moniker for the 80s youth became “The MTV Generation.”

MTV went on to enjoy a great twenty to twenty-five-year run. From 1980 to only a few years ago, MTV was a great source for new music and an accurate marker of forever-changing youth culture trends. It is safe to say that MTV had its finger on the pulse of American pop-culture for almost three decades. And, while MTV may be enjoying greater financial success than ever these days, its role in the music world has ceased.

For die-hard music fans, unfortunately, MTV and big corporate record labels are a necessary evil. Without them, pop culture would fall into an abyss. For decades now, they have provided an outlet for young people who are looking to fulfill that necessary psychological stage of youth-rebellion. I would be a hypocrite to completely lash out against big record labels, for most of my favorite artists signed with at least one of them at some point or another in their careers, and it is because of that label that the artist became available for exposure and put them on the map for someone like me to discover. My argument here is that both big record labels and MTV have flipped from concerning themselves with music and musicians and into concerning themselves only with bottom line revenue. As CEO, one has a responsibility to his/her shareholders to increase the value of the company’s stock. As long as he/she is doing nothing illegal, the shareholders offer little concern as to what the vehicle is to the stock’s monetary increase.

MTV doesn’t play music anymore. Think about that! A television station designed by music lovers to play videos of new bands to get music out to people and now it doesn’t even play music! Why? Because there was no longer revenue in doing so. Still calling themselves “MTV,” they have been forced to 100 percent reality programming. The effect this is having on youth culture is obvious. It is causing young people to create reality series of their own lives, through Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and other digital means, in adulation of their “real life” heroes on TV. The executives at MTV are smart. Cashing in on the craze, they have shifted their TV spots to reality shows only, and moved music videos to online streaming.
But the music is still there, sort of. Instead of music videos, snippets of songs are played during the reality show with a flash card on the screen informing the viewer who the band is and the title of the song. The viewer can then log into MTV’s Web site and buy the song from iTunes, or at least listen to it immediately on their computer. Each episode even has it’s own “Featured Artist.” For example, the show The Hills has its own “Songs From the Show” web page where visitors can access each song played in The Hills by episode.

MTV has transformed from music videos that sell albums into TV shows that play clips, recalling the mantra from the first half of this piece last week, “exposure, exposure, exposure.” The business model is simple: kids watch the show, hear the band that we tell them their heroes like and listen to, visit the Web site, buy the album (produced on their label of course) and tune back into the show. Just look at what The Hills did for Death Cab for Cutie. It’s a money making machine. The problem I have with it is that the music has been taken out of the “garage” and into the boardroom. TV and Advertisement Executives sit around and come up with a jingle to play during a dramatic scene in a reality TV show and title card it, with a predetermined artist.

This is a long way from writing music as a form of expression. One has to wonder at what point are pop-musicians becoming more like Hollywood composers and less like young rock n’ roll bands.
MTV ceases to be Music Television. I wonder if it has considered changing its trademarked acronym to RTV (Reality Television).

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– Kory French


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