History, Critical Thinking, and MTV

It is always surreal to happen upon a retrospective on MTV.  Sunday night, I was watching a retrospective of MTV’s Total Request Live show, which ended that day after running for a decade.  Most people over 25 probably are not overly concerned with its departure, but my understanding from the little MTV I continue to watch is it represents the last of their prime time video-oriented programs on the main channel.  However, thinking this as someone no longer within MTV’s target audience inevitably begs the question I saw on another MTV retrospective that took place during their 20th birthday on August 1, 2001: is MTV getting worse or am I just getting older?

Carson Daly and Britney Spears on the set of “Total Request Live”, 2002. (MTV) Image from nytimes.com

In order to maintain a close relationship with teenagers, MTV has adjusted its format to fit current technological trends, including adding Mtv2 and MtvDJ to round out their digital cable offerings, as well as an extensive website that includes a series of blogs (primarily oriented towards celebrity gossip) and an online archive of 16,000+ videos that begins with the definitive “Video Killed the Radio Star.”  The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever noted during MTV’s 25th anniversary in 2006,

“The network is understandably cautious about nostalgic reflection or cutting much cake; its publicists are unhelpful about digging up archival photos, claiming even that no such history exists, that at MTV, it is always about the now. Its only nod to the occasion was to begin airing last week as ‘A.D.D. Videos,’ showing just a glimpse of iconic music clips from each year of its history, in five-year chunklets. (‘A.D.D.’ for attention-deficit disorder, which is one of MTV’s proudest legacies.)”  (“25 Years Down the Tube”, Washington Post C01, 8.1.06)

The “A.D.D.” style of music videos in general, with their narratives and non-narratives told through rapid images flashed around the screen, anticipated the multiple windows, sidebars, and popup ads of the Internet visual culture now standard for the “Millennial” generation (born approx. 1982-2001).  In 2001, Chicago Sun Times pop music critic Jim Derogatis commented on how,

“MTV has always been more about ”pop” (as in mass popularity, massive sales, and catering to mainstream tastes) than ”rock” (traditionally the music of excitement, rebellion, and individualism).” (“MTV’s 20th Birthday”, Chicago Sun Times 7.29.01)

Derogatis 100% correct.  A music video is not about music the way a song on the radio is about music.  Many criticize videos for limiting the interpretation of song by juxtaposing it with imagery often selected based on its appeal to a consumer market.  Likewise, TRL was disiked by many for its incessant promotion of mainstream pop music, beginning with Britney Spears and the endless stream of boy bands in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.   However, TRL based its model on the radio, allowing the audience to create the weekly top ten video list through their telephone and Internet votes.  In other words, the show was done Web 2.0 style before Web 2.0 fully existed, giving a few screaming teenagers their 15 seconds of fame weekly as they proclaimed their love for a particular video on live television.

This week MTV has been revisiting the TRL top 10 lists from the last decade, and there was clearly more generic slop than substance.  However, these were the teens’ choices during a time when arts education was fading quickly from public schools.  It may frequently have been an exercise in selecting between “bad” and “worse”, but ultimately, TRL can be understood as a teenager’s opportunity for critical thinking as it applied to visual culture. 

When the show first aired, I was a sophomore in high school.  While they certainly were not the most intellectual conversations of my life, I still recall afternoons with friends spent defending and arguing against the videos on the TRL list, as well as those that earned the coveted annual MTV Video Music Awards.  Videos by the Smashing Pumpkins and Fatboy Slim were briefly favored by the channel but remain formative in my visual memory.  It was only while in college several years later that I instantly connected with the 1902 Le voyage dans la lune during a film theory course because of its recreation in the 1996 Smashing Pumpkins video for “Tonight Tonight.”  Likewise, I was familiar with Doug Aitken first through Fatboy Slim’s video for “The Rockafeller Skank,” as contemporary artists were never discussed during my K-12 experience.

I don’t intend to “wave my cane”, begging MTV to bring back the video-oriented programming that dies with the end of TRL.  The meaning of the music video has been altered by both the prevalence of reality TV (now MTV’s mainstay) and the on-demand qualities of video on the Internet (see the Top Rated of All Time video on in the MTV archive).  The one video program that remains on the main MTV channel is the fully Web 2.0-inspired FNMTV, which now airs at the unfortunate hours of 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. daily.  The question is simply, are the tweens missing something MTV once provided, or are they simply getting it somewhere else that an old Millenial era-fogey like myself wouldn’t understand.