American Culture

Random thoughts about the record album – part 5: they want their MTV

Video killed more than just the radio star.

“It made the record industry a one-trick pony. It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over. The corner was turned at that point, I think, away from believing in the power of the music, and [to] believing in the power of the market. Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.” – Michael Guido, entertainment lawyer“I think that there’s always been two different kinds – at least two different kinds of music fans. There are people that just are into songs, and there are people that are into artists.” – Danny Goldberg, record executive

The Buggles:

The Buggles: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first video aired on MTV

(Read part 1, part, 2, part 3, part 4)

During the era of the record album’s dominance, from 1967-1981, audiences listened to music. For young listeners it was more often a solitary rather than social experience, often taking place in a teenager’s room, sometimes made even more solitary by the use of headphones. It was easy to lose oneself in the experience of interrelated songs telling a story, as the concept album sought to present, or share in the intimate experience of the singer/songwriter’s soul baring compositions. If a fan went to college, the experience might become more social, though still in a fairly intimate way, sharing favorite albums with a roommate or a couple of suite mates, sometimes the experience enhanced by a few beers or a joint. And such listening became part of the mating rituals of countless romantic relationships formed during one’s college years.

If a music fan watched television during this period at all, it was perhaps a concert show like ABC’s excellent, short-lived In Concert or NBC’s long-lived, less excellent faux concert show Midnight Special. One listened to music; one watched TV.

That changed August 1, 1981.

Madonna and Michael Jackson, MTV’s biggest stars (image courtesy Fanpop)

MTV changed a number of things about the music business but two are worth commenting upon in relation  to the record album. Both are mentioned in the quotes above: one is the triumph of the individual song (or “track,” as it is more commonly termed); the second is the concept that music is disposable, a concept that has proven more enduring than many older music fans have been able to comprehend.

Though album oriented artists certainly made successful videos in support of their releases (notable examples: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, U2, REM), the triumph of MTV is that, because the formula for music videos is one video = one song, MTV decidedly privileged the individual track over the album. Those familiar with the channel in its American heyday well remember that it proliferated the (seeming) one-hit wonder. A few names should jog memories: A-ha, Toni Basil, Flock of Seagulls, Thomas Dolby, Gary Numan, Dexy’s Midnight Runners. (Special mention should be made of Modern English who kept re-releasing their hit “I Melt With You” and charting with it, a sort of wonderful/terribly sad feat in itself.)

The masters of the single track game are the king and queen of MTV, the above pictured Michael Jackson and Madonna. Their success, enormous as it was, was certainly enhanced by their enormously successful videos.

Madonna, who had worked as a dancer and model, focused on making her songs visually appealing by referencing other videos, classic movies, and fashion magazines. Songs such as “Holiday” (though clearly a pinch visually on the estimable Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”), “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl,” “Vogue,” and “Express Yourself” allowed a visually oriented artist like Madonna to make fashion sense more important than music. These videos were enormously influential culturally in influencing the style/appearance choices of young women. Musically? They are infectious, ultimately forgettable dance pop. Her albums, eponymous collections of these single tracks, resemble play lists more than artistic statements.

The same is true of Michael Jackson. MTV’s failure to acknowledge the work of black artists was finally resolved with its airing of Jackson’s monster success “Billie Jean.” Its signature style (remember seeing kids aping his wearing of that single white glove?), and Jackson’s even more theatrical staging of subsequent tracks from the ultimate eponymous album (which is as much a greatest hits collection as a cohesive album), Thriller, especially “Beat It” and “Thriller” (which is a movie short and an homage to horror films that’s even more memorable than the song) upped the ante on video making and many memorable videos were shot (I think immediately of the Petty/Heartbreakers video based on Mad Max for “You Got Lucky” and of REM’s fascinating homage to Fellini’s 8 1/2 for “Everybody Hurts”). Jackson continued producing memorable videos even as his songwriting skills eroded and he became more (in)famous as a deeply troubled celebrity than as a musical artist.

There is much great work from the MTV years. However, the work, as is, I hope, evinced by these examples, is more about picture and less about sound. The album as statement’s reign was over. It would have one last resurgence (as would rock music), but if one wants to argue for a date when the album lost it primacy as mode of musical expression, one could date it to the playing of this video, the first ever aired on MTV:

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