PRINT December 1983


THE NEW MUSIC SEMINAR is the convention of the pop music business; everyone is buying and selling, with a number of panel discussions and conferences serving as an excuse for the gathering. At the 1983 seminar the panel discussions were dominated by rock video, which has recently become the most important promotional tool in the music business. Critics denounced MTV, the rock video cable-television channel which dominates the scene, as racist. There were complaints that the videos will prevent bands from touring since it’s cheaper for record companies to make a video that will reach the world than to support an extensive tour. One of the more surprising complaints was made repeatedly by the British musicians on the artists’ panel, who were virtually unanimous in denouncing music video as thinly disguised advertising, and advertising, it was implied, is the work of the devil.

Rock videos are not products in the usual sense. Although there are rock videotapes for sale or rent, and although the video jukebox has already arrived in Europe, rock videos are not usually made to generate profits directly. Rock videos are made to sell records. That is what makes them like ads. But, as Laurie Anderson pointed out, the fact that they may be ads doesn’t mean that they cannot be art. (Are not ads sometimes the most artful things on the tube?) I don’t think these British rockers realized it, but by dismissing videos as ads they were implying that if these tapes were sold then they would be art, and therefore defining art as something to be paid for. No art for art’s sake here.

Rock videos may actually have greater artistic freedom working in support of the consumer product than they would if they themselves were the product. They are not judged by unit sales, and their makers may be getting away with something good more often than if they were. In their current form, rock videos will never be big-money sellers or rentals. This was proven by their ancestor the Scopitone, which appeared in the late ’50s and was the first visual jukebox; it was supposed to revolutionize the music business. It was to that business what the Edsel was to the auto industry.The Scopitone could not hold as many films as an ordinary jukebox could hold records. The films were costly to produce, and the selection was always limited; half of them seemed to star Frank Sinatra. But what really killed the Scopitone was the fact that while people might pay to hear the same tune a hundred times, they were sick of the film after two plays.

Supply is not a problem for the rock video outlets, but viewers do tire of videos, even of the best of them, long before they tire of the music on them. Perhaps videos would be interesting for longer if they were more abstract, as music is abstract. This is something that video-makers haven’t explored much yet. One of the best videos I’ve seen is actually a cartoon accompanying Lou Reed singing “My Name is Mok”; the visuals are very high quality—computers seem to be returning animation to its Disney-heyday potential, and this tape is like a Futurist Fantasia. Animation, being more abstract than conventional film, may have a great future in rock video.

Aside from MTV and other cable and broadcast television outlets, the principal venue for rock video is in nightclubs. The modern rock club or disco is invariably equipped with banks of televisions. I always feel a bit sad when I see kids watching television in a nightclub, but maybe, like me, they live in a neighborhood where the cable company will not venture. Marshall McLuhan likened the television to a tribal fireplace, a cool rather than a hot one, and nowhere is this analogy more apparent than in the video lounge of a rock club. These glowing tubes hypnotize like a hearth, but they are anti-hearths. Instead of warming viewers the televisions cool them, taking away rather than giving light and warmth. I’m not suggesting that the tube be banned from nightclubs, but I do think that it poses a challenge to video artists. I like to watch Monday Night Football in bars; television becomes a social event. An entire bar crowd will yell at Howard Cosell. When rock video achieves real power it will get those passive kids talking back to the tube.

Some of the issues facing the new industry are transitory. There have been many allegations that MTV is racist in its programming. It’s true that when it began MTV had almost no black artists on its playlist. Now one can see Michael Jackson, Prince, and other nonwhite performers, but it is still basically a channel of white faces. I don’t think MTV executives are racists. I think they looked at their demographics and realized that most of their audience is white. (Many of the companies MTV transmits to have been slow to install cable in black or Hispanic neighborhoods.) MTV thinks that rock is for white audiences and funk or disco for black. It doesn’t understand that people of every racial background often like the same kind of music, or may like it if they are exposed to it. But the real reason that MTV is so conservative in its programming (many tapes are rejected as too “far out”) is that it is basically a monopoly. This will change. Already broadcast television is imitating MTV with shows consisting mainly of videos. When MTV has to compete, it will show whatever it must show to be popular.

Hot rock video—makers are usually TV-commercial directors. Such directors are schooled in maximalist film making, getting a point across in the shortest possible time. For them three minutes is epic length and many of them have shown themselves to be true artists. There is some unfortunate fallout, however, from the advertising school of video. Rock videos tend to be excessive in the montage department. Other formal problems are that rock videos tend to conform in their styles (Richard Lester is still over emulated 18 years after Help), and that there is still a hangover from what went before, with many videos too much like embellished band performances. Just as early film imitated theater and photography imitated painting, video rock imitates rock, but it will probably get over it before long. I’ve seen some entertaining videos that make great use of documentary footage, painstakingly researched and imaginatively edited; these are signs that rock video-makers are realizing that video is here to do what cannot be done live.

Video art has always had the problem of finding access to an audience, not to mention making money. It has been a luxury art, dependent on grants and patronage. Now, if video artists are willing to collaborate with musicians, they may find a substantial audience and the remuneration they deserve. There is a lot of good, artful rock video already, though it’s certainly in the minority, but big changes will no doubt occur in the near future. The worn-out formulas will be perceived as obsolete, even by the MTV programmers, who always seem to be the last to know what is popular. Now, most rock videos are made on film, and often they are quite expensive; it may be discovered that cheaper is better. Someone may make a video with six cuts in three minutes rather than the usual hundred, and be hailed as a genius. Maybe someone will discover black and white. Maybe someone will have the intrepid notion of allowing the band to do something other than romp around lip-syncing. Some genius may even let the band stay home.

Rock video often backfires on the artists it is supposed to promote. Musicians can’t all be Renaissance artists, and it is common for an act that is thought to be tasteful to be found out by the gap in quality between their music and their video. They are musicians first and image-makers second, so they hire someone who is supposed to be good, and oops, there goes a reputation that took years of hiding to achieve. But this problem of mistaken identities will surely resolve itself as a new generation of video-makers arrives.

Rock ’n’ roll is perfect material for video. A recorder and camera can be had for about the same price as a guitar and an amp, and bands of the future will make their own tapes to showcase their own music. Most of today’s tapes haven’t dealt with the essence of the medium, and one of its essential qualities is cheapness. Today’s rock video makes the performer more distant than ever, when it should be the other way around; rock ’n’ roll is big business but it always begins in fun, and it works best when it doesn’t outgrow being fun. Rock video, like rock music, will be an amateur’s medium. Every once in a while a kid with a camera will come along and blow the pros away.

Glenn O’Brien