You Can Look

As I promised (threatened?) last week, I’m going to start sharing a range of “lost”/ephemeral presentations here on an occasional basis. I don’t plan on making any revisions to the texts themselves (a bit of format-cleaning and typo-fixing notwithstanding) — and this also means that there will be citational shortcomings, since I have always edited those bits out of whatever version of a text I use when I make an oral presentation. But I will try to offer a few words of additional context and/or reflection up front.

First up is the very first conference paper I ever gave: “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch): Taking the Myths out of MTV” at the Popular Culture Association conference in Toronto in March 1990. Having re-read it just now for the first time in decades, I’m (happily) less embarrassed about it than I expected to be. There are parts of it that I wish I would have phrased a bit differently, and if (for some reason) I were trying to present the same argument now, I would probably tighten it up a bit more. But I can also see a number of themes here (especially the pushback against simplistic, ahistorical understandings of how media and popular culture work) that have stuck with me for the past 30+ years . . . even if this is probably the only semi-extended text I ever wrote about music video.

To say that recent years have seen a dramatic upsurge in the academic study of music television would be a gross understate­ment of the facts; one might more accurately describe the body of scholarly work which has accumu­lat­ed on the subject as a verita­ble flood. What is striking about the academic furor over music televi­sion is how diffuse and varied the debate actually is. It is im­possible to reduce the body of scholarly work on the subject to a specific set of consensually im­por­tant questions and issues. Ex­amining the litera­ture on the subject, it is diffi­cult to tell that this small army of critics are all describing the same cul­tural phenomenon. Ironically, however, most of these scholars are not only attempt­ing to ana­lyze the same medium, they are at­tempting to examine the same specific instance of that me­dium (namely MTV), to the virtual exclusion of all other sites of conjunction between music and moving images.

The manner in which MTV has been isolated from the broader spectrum of music television is itself symptomatic of the way in which critics have wrenched their descriptions of music televi­sion from its place on the wider terrain of popular cul­ture. It is not enough simply to recognize that music television has his­torical forebears if one then goes on to analyze the medium as if it existed in a cultural vacuum. As Grossberg reminds us,

understanding music television requires us to identify and locate its specific complexity. We need to look at it contextually and relationally, to ask what is unique in the diverse practices of music television, and what they have in common with other cultural formations.

From an institutional perspective alone, music tele­vision marks a site where a vast host of practices intersect; its roots include not only the television and recorded music indus­tries, but also the industries associated with radio, ad­vertising, and cine­ma, and given the diversity of music television’s pedi­gree, it be­comes difficult (if not impossible) to understand the medium as an offshoot of only one of its ances­tors.

Music television, then, is an example of what Hay refers to as “recombi­nant culture,”
a sense of culture whose centers (of knowledge, of power, of iden­tity) are reproduced from competing and past discourses; where the sense of the center is thus contingent and mul­ti­ple; and where there is constant struggle over that center via competing discour­ses.

Music television is new only in the sense that it appropriates and recombines various sights, sounds, styles, and practices of previous forms of popu­lar culture in innovative and unique ways. While music television is significant­ly different from older forms of popular culture, its difference is based not so much in a radical break with the past as in its recombination of ele­ments of previous forms into a style of its own.

The body of scholarly literature on the me­dium is riddled with myths: miscon­ceptions based on the misunder­stand­ing of the medium’s variegated roots, and traces of old ar­guments over other media which are car­ried over into the analysis of music televi­sion. This paper will focus upon four of the most common and misleading of these myths, four mis­con­ceptions which serve more to block our under­standing of the role music televi­sion plays in our culture than they do to ad­vance it.

One of the earliest and most prevalent of these myths de­rives from al­le­ga­tions that MTV’s programming policies were un­fairly biased against videos promoting black artists and music. Today, largely as a result of these wide­spread complaints about the lily white na­ture of its playlist, MTV may be immune to such criticism; MTV’s current playlists are more ra­cial­ly bal­anced than in the first half of the decade and “black music” has become one of the network’s most popular offer­ings.

While MTV may have cleaned up its act since then, the chan­nel’s ear­ly playlists were almost completely dominated by white male artists. The problem with the claim that MTV’s pro­gramming was unfairly dis­criminatory lies instead in the choice of MTV as a tar­get for this particular line of critical fire.

Charges of racism, for instance, have dogged rock and roll since the 1950s. Such precedents, however, were largely ig­nored by MTV’s critics in their rush to mark the channel with the “Ra­cist!” brand, despite the fact that MTV’s primary line of defense point­ed directly at existing discrimina­tory practices within the music industry as a whole. The net­work argued that its program­ming was patterned on the formats of rock radio sta­tions, and that, like rock ra­dio, the network’s de­ci­sions to air particular songs were always based on questions of genre (“Is it rock and roll?”) rather than race (“Is it white?”).

This defense was by no means an airtight one. Many critics questioned MTV’s definition of the rock genre, while others pointed out that MTV’s prac­tices weren’t any less offensive simp­ly because other cultural institu­tions behaved in an equally dis­criminatory fashion. Nevertheless, the network’s re­sponse to its critics should not be dismissed so casually. While it is cer­tainly true that MTV’s practices weren’t justified simply be­cause “everyone else does it,” the network’s defense is a valid assess­ment of the discrimina­tory practices of the popular music indus­try as a whole.

With this in mind, it becomes harder to interpret the anti-ra­cist attack on MTV as a natural reaction to an offensive set of policies. This is not to argue that MTV was neces­sarily innocent of the charges against it, but rather that the network was un­fairly singled out as a scapegoat for (and by) the in­dus­try. Through the most heated mo­ments of the criti­cal assault on MTV, there was not so much as a hint of an outcry against the related and equally dis­crimina­tory prac­tices of other facets of the popu­lar culture industry out of which MTV’s poli­cies grew. It is this fail­ure of critics to connect MTV’s poli­cies with those of related forms of popular culture, rather than the inaccuracy of the char­ges against the network, which is at the heart of the “MTV-as-racist” myth.

By contrast, the myth of music television as a destroyer of viewers’ imaginations is rooted in a gross misconception of the medium’s effects, a misconception which itself grows out of crit­ics’ failure to recognize music television’s recombinant nature. Kinder’s account of this argument is a particularly vivid one:

One of the most compelling aspects of rock video is its power to evoke specific visual im­ages in the mind of the spectator every time one hears the music with which they have been juxtaposed on television. The experience of having watched and listened to a particular video clip on television establishes these connections in the brain circuitry; by repeating the experience very frequent­ly within a short period of time (a situation guaranteed by the repetitive structure of MTV), the spectator strengthens these as­sociations in the brain. Thus later when the spectator hears the song on the radio or in a different context in which the visuals are absent, the presence of the music is likely to draw these im­ages from mem­ory, accompanied by the desire to see them again. This process follows the basic patterns of conditioning well established in the field of cognitive learning.

Thus, not only does music video fix the meanings of songs for its audience, but this insidious form of dictatorial control actually brain­washes unsuspect­ing viewers into having ad­dictive cravings for still more music videos. Contrary to Kin­der’s claims, how­ever, the addi­tion of visual informa­tion to the audio text of a popular song, as both Acland and Goodwin have pointed out, is like­ly to make the text’s mean­ing more ambiguous, as such details may expand or con­fu­se, rather than limit or clarify, the possible interpreta­tions of a text.

The problems with this myth, however, run deeper still. The argument that the visual elements of a music video necessarily dominate the musical soundtrack assumes that it is the video which serves as the primary site where the musical text and its audience meet. Music tele­vision is neither the first nor neces­sarily the most common site where such en­counters occur. Its mushroom­ing growth notwithstanding, MTV’s audience is still limited by the reach of the cable television industry, which pales in comparison to the penetration both of radio stations and retail outlets for pre-recorded music.

The implicit counter-thrust to my argument so far is that the power of video lies less in its quan­titative prominence on the musical terrain than it does in the qualitative force accru­ing to it from its visual nature. Music television imposes the stronger force of visual imagery upon the deli­cate sanctity of a purely aural experience, thus over­pow­ering both the sound­track and the lis­tener’s power to cre­ate his or her own men­tal images to accom­pany that soundtrack.

Imbedded in this argument, however, is the problematic as­sump­tion that the rise of music tele­vision has added harm­ful vi­sual stimuli to a previ­ously non-visual medium. More important­ly, however, it is necessary to remember that the sounds of popular music have always been intimately bound up with various sights. Prior to MTV, album covers, photo spreads in the rock and pop press, films, concerts, and television ap­pearan­ces all served to provide visual accompani­ment to the mu­sical sounds made on stage and in the studio. The con­troversy over Elvis’ 1956 television appearances, for instance, did not stem from his choice of music as much as it did over the tele­vised images of his gyrating hips. Music television did not in­vent “the look” for popular music, nor did it add a visual impor­tance to a medium which had previously been sight-less; it merely provided another outlet for the dissemination of those sights.

The third and perhaps most common misconception permeating the dis­course on music television concerns the demographics of MTV’s au­dience. Much of what has been written about the net­work has op­erated under the assumption that MTV is pro­duced for and consumed by an audience comprised almost exclu­sive­ly of teenag­ers. At best, arguments based on this assumption use these demo­graphic “facts” as a justi­fica­tion for the scientific study of MTV. At worst, this notion pro­vides critics with a moralis­tic soapbox from which they can rail about the horrors being per­petuated upon impres­sion­able youth by a callous and profit-cen­tered pop culture industry.

From either perspective, however, the assertion that the primary au­di­ence for MTV is teenagers is never adequately sup­ported with actual evi­dence. While some critics attempt to back up this myth with numbers, they typically do so uncon­vincing­ly:

Critics are concerned especially about the content of the videos because the audience is composed primarily of adolescents, and even younger children also may be watching. Audience surveys have found that 83 percent of the MTV audience is 12 to 34 years old.

That the vast majority of MTV’s audience falls into the 12-34 age range is scarcely adequate support for the claim that the audi­ence is primarily ado­les­cents.

There are two “obvious” possible reasons for this mis­con­ception. The first of these is the problem­atic prac­tice of reading the demo­graphic characteristics of MTV’s au­di­ence from the network’s programming con­tent. This practice is flawed not only because of the wide variety of audi­en­ces the net­work seems to address, but be­cause reading the audience off of any text is always a chancy business. The second and more common ex­plana­tion for the perpetuation of this myth stems from the mis­taken notion that only teenag­ers listen to popular music. Rock and roll, some critics ar­gue, is an adoles­cent fix­a­tion which a normal child will even­tually grow out of. The claim that popular music and adulthood are mu­tually exclu­sive en­ti­ties, how­ever, is not only highly elitist in its stance towards popular cul­ture, but it also fails to take into account the fact that significant numbers of adults do, in fact, listen to rock and roll.

Significantly, those critics who recognize the recombi­nant nature of mu­sic television not only fail to see the medium as a form of youth culture, they recog­nize it to be a site where the very notion of “youth” is strug­gled over:

Whoever MTV addresses it can’t be “youth” as defined by rock and roll. . . .The rise of pop video has, in fact, been dependent on (and accelerated) the decline of the ideology of youth-as-opposi­tion. . . .Rock, too, has become a form of domestic entertainment.

What far too many critics have failed to see is that popular music can no longer (if it ever could) be understood as “belong­ing” to a particular genera­tion of listeners; its audience is too fragmented and di­verse to be reduced to a specific set of age-based demograph­ics.

The fourth and final myth I wish to discuss here is that of music tele­vision (and especially MTV) as the ulti­mate commodifi­cation of rock music. MTV, the argument goes, is the epitome of the growing trend towards commer­cialized, commodi­fied, and cor­poratized music. “Rock,” it is argued, “has wed it­self to video, acqui­escing to the burgeoning industry belief that success lies not in ar­tistry, not in music, but in marketing a product to the proper psycho­graphic.”

That music videos are advertisements for particular songs, albums, and artists is hard to deny: MTV and its cousins are profit-motivated, commercial-sponsored vehicles for disseminating videos. The problem with this notion is, once again, not that it is incorrect to see video as a marketing tool, but that the ar­gu­ment carries with it the problematic assumption that, prior to the rise of music television, rock and roll was a “pure,” non-commer­cial­ized art form which MTV has managed to sully with its profit-minded ways. Rock, however, has always been a com­modified pro­duct, and critics who claim that mu­sic television somehow “sells out” rock and roll fail to recog­nize that the music has been packaged and sold as a com­modity since its birth. Sam Philips, for instance, is often quoted as having said, “If I could find me a white man who had the Negro sound and Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Though he didn’t make a billion dollars from his “discovery” of Elvis, it bears emphasizing here that Philips’ desire was a profit-centered one: he was not look­ing to rev­olutionize the aesthetics of popular music (even if he ulti­mately helped to bring such changes about), he was trying to run a prof­itable business.

None of my refutation of the “commodification myth” is in­tended to imply that MTV has not helped to change the ways in which rock and popular music are packaged and sold. However, to critique music televi­sion as the root cause of the problem fails not only to recognize that “the problem” pre­dates MTV by several decades, but that rock and roll is neces­sarily a commodified form of popular culture. To hold music television accountable for selling out rock and roll, then, is to fail to recognize the me­dium’s musical roots, and the history of commodification those roots carry with them.

At the heart of the four myths discussed above lies the problematic ten­dency to examine music television from too narrow a perspective, a failure to recognize the ways in which music te­levision recombines other forms of popular culture into a unique form of its own. The difficulty with such approaches to music television is that they attempt to simplify their ob­ject of study by re­ducing it to a smaller, more manage­able ques­tion, a simpli­fication which in­ev­itably and necessarily serves to lim­it (if not invalidate) the conclusions ul­timately reached.

One might argue that while individual examples of approaches which “flatten out” the recombinant com­plexity of music televi­sion into a one-di­men­sional image of music television as an iso­lated offshoot of a single medium are not useful by themselves, the ag­gregate total of such work, particularly if represented by a suf­ficiently diverse set of approaches to the topic, will pro­vide us with the desired broader perspective on the subject. Examining the subject from three (or five or twenty) different perspectives and then somehow tri­an­gulating from the resulting fragments fails to account for the constant in­ter­play between the various levels at which we choose to investi­gate music tele­vi­sion. As Grossberg puts it,

the complexity of music television is defined by the particular links it builds and builds upon, between economic, textual, and communicative practices, historical relations, and sub­jective identities and experiences.

It is these links between diverse sets of practices which provide us with a richer understanding of music television, but which have all too often been lost amidst the sea of monolithic ap­proaches to the subject.

As critics wishing to understand the subject of music tele­vision, our task is more complex than it has typically been seen to be. We must approach the subject of music television nomadic­ally, moving onto its terrain from all of its “multiple entry­ways” simultaneously, examining it, not as an offshoot of a sin­gle medium, but as a site where other cultural forms intersect and in­teract. The recombinant nature of MTV necessitates an equal degree of mo­bil­i­ty on the part of the critic who wishes to escape the myth-strewn paths of previous research and move to­wards a richer understanding of the role music television plays in our culture.

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