MTV turns 25

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MTV turns 25

Twenty-five years later, MTV and the music video rock on. But, my, how things have changed.

By ANDREW DANSBY

Plenty of people still want their MTV, even after 25 years. Others still want their music videos.

But like 20-something siblings, MTV and the music video have moved on, even though they still manage to get together from time to time. Both are unlikely survivors of a fast-paced culture of abbreviated appreciation.

In the 1980s, MTV and the music video were as intertwined as English pop bands and hair spray; each seemed unthinkable without the other. Then MTV got real. The channel celebrates its 25th anniversary Aug. 1 in no small part due to its discovery of non-music-related programming.

With The Real World, launched in 1992, MTV essentially birthed reality TV and nearly killed the video. Half-hour and hourlong programming brought with them a more readily identifiable audience. Out were daytime videos that might inspire an instant channel swap. In was edgy programming, often reality-based TV, that continually catered to subgenerations of youth culture.

"It's a total transformation of the original concept, an extreme makeover of MTV," says Ron Simon, assistant curator at the Museum of TV and Radio. "The irreverence and extremity remained the same, where you can both critique and celebrate culture. But reality became the new music."

When approached about discussing MTV's history for its anniversary, the show's reps were quick to deflect attention away from the past.

Christine Norman, the network's president, talks about MTV's present and future with a rapid-fire delivery that reflects its programming.

Rather than cutting loose failing programming, she looks for ways to make it work online. Then there are shows like Total Request Live, where the challenge is to maintain allure.
"People love to take potshots at it," she says, "but we've been able to find great new ways to present it to the audience" including airing it simultaneously on TV and on MTV Overdrive, an online broadband offering. MTV has also fared well by courting a broad base of youth culture. Norman mentions an upcoming MTV documentary on the war in Iraq. "Our audience is over there fighting," she says.

MTV's survival is worthy of awe. The channel has never, and likely won't ever, find a show to put up viewership numbers like a network hit. But it has consistently found shows such as Punk'd, Jackass, Laguna Beach and The Osbournes that pull in a dedicated slice of the youth market.

"Youth culture," says Simon, "has always been their bread and butter."

But youth culture is a moving target. Norman says MTV likes the challenge.

"Evolution is in our DNA," she says. "Young people are always changing and evolving. That keeps us juiced here coming to work and not knowing what's around corner.
"Young people lead the charge, and we're there with them."

***
What's a major anniversary without a few old snapshots?
Impressive as MTV's continued success has been, its initial launch shouldn't be underestimated. In TV terms, it was as risky 25 years ago as the moon landing co-opted into the network's logo.

The network had no precedent for success, so it made it up as it went along.

The Museum of TV and Radio's Simon likens MTV's original splash to that of the Beatles in '64. Timing, he says, was everything.

"You have to have that industry symbiosis, with something on the rise," he says. "That's what created MTV. It came at the perfect time, with a whole new type of music and a new type of star: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince. Those three carried MTV almost the entire decade."

It's a thought echoed by Duran Duran's Simon LeBon when I interviewed him six years ago. "We were the right age to catch video because video was about looking great as well as sounding great," he said. "And we were very lucky because, one way or another, we ended up looking bloody fantastic in our videos. . . . We came along at the right time, but conversely MTV came around at the right time to have us."

But being videocentric had long-term costs. If music could be locked in time for future ridicule, fashion and haircuts were even more susceptible.

So our archetypes changed with our music trends. Those that worked in the '80s -- the lovable schlub (Huey Lewis, Phil Collins), the gearhead guy's guys (ZZ Top), girl-power cheerleaders (Cyndi Lauper, Toni Basil) -- were out of favor by the '90s. Early-'90s totems -- angsty gripers (Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots) and so on -- ultimately gave way to the next thing, be it rap-metal or boy-band redux, both of which ran out of vogue by the early '00s. (It should be noted that demand for hip-hop videos has been less susceptible to fickle tastes over the years.)

Then what?

Five years ago, the music video was a babe in the woods. After the smoke from a TRL explosion (Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc.) dissipated, the video lacked an identifiable purpose. Plus, videos were expensive to make, with no guarantee for airplay, especially since MTV's programming, certainly during the era, was decidedly not videocentric. With record sales slipping, such gratuitous promotional costs were headed toward the chopping block.

"It used to be common to spend $250,000 on a video," says Andy Gershon, president of V2 Records, home to the White Stripes. "And if MTV turned it down, there you go. . .You just lost a quarter-million dollars on a roll of the dice. For a few years there, it looked like they might go away."

***

The Internet and cheaper "film production" that doesn't involve film at all helped bring the video back. Once a contractual blessing and curse for artists, videos are no longer the same financial risk.

"I think the video is more important now than ever as a promotional vehicle," says Gershon. "Because of technology and the Internet, you can make a video for a fraction of the cost and always have an outlet for it.

"I've seen phenomenal videos made for $2,500 and not so good videos made for $125,000."

A valid point. Much like MTV, the video has evolved over the years. Well-regarded filmmakers (Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese) have dabbled in music videos, but more important, young no-name filmmakers have, through music videos, earned their shot with film studios.

Director Spike Jonze was birthed by MTV. His videos -- Weezer's Buddy Holly, the Beastie Boys' Sabotage, the Breeders' Cannonball, Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice -- were weird and contemporary. They were buzzy and pop-culturally literate, just like the feature films he'd go on to make: Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.

"It's a great way for future great filmmakers to cut their teeth," Gershon says. "We've been seeing some phenomenal new filmmakers come up through videos."

Production company Palm Pictures tried to affirm video directors as artistes with the Directors Label, which collect video work of directors such as Jonze. Not surprisingly, several of these directors found their way to cinema: Michel Gondry, who created the White Stripes' Fell in Love With a Girl, directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the upcoming The Science of Sleep. Mark Romanek, who did the poignant video for Johnny Cash's Hurt, made One Hour Photo and has a new project in the works.

Montreal's Musee d'art contemporain even hosted an exhibit earlier this month that treated such videos as art.

***

So where do these videos go to live these days?

MTV hasn't abandoned the action entirely, be it the stylish stuff or less urbane fare.

MTV Overdrive and MTV.com offer more than 8,000 videos.
But even if MTV were to go back to romancing the vid full time, the market is too big for one player. Sure, TRL scored an exclusive premiere with Justin Timberlake's new SexyBack last week, but Yahoo.com recently sent out an e-mail alert that Chris Brown's Say Goodbye would make its world premiere on Yahoo Music.

Video is a bigger game now, with more varied outlets and opportunities.

Gershon suggests that there could be financial rewards selling videos like songs through iTunes, after years of having to wait for 10 videos to assemble a DVD. But such transactions could grow difficult when the merch is free for the picking. Bands can, and do, offer all sorts of video footage on Myspace.com. YouTube.com has become the definitive archive for music videos, past and present.

Where videos were once shot with money fronted by a label, bands, which have long had a love/hate relationship with video production, have begun to take them back.

Acts like Radiohead, Bjoerk, Modest Mouse and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have assembled a body of smart, stylish or smartly stylish videos, and their fans seem to respond, especially now that they're readily available.

"Video ties in with a band's online identity," says Gordon Moakes, bassist/singer in alt-rock band Bloc Party. Bloc Party is a fine example of a band that can benefit from a well-timed, well-crafted video: a group of photogenic, edgy and contemporary rockers with its second album close to complete.

"It has also reinvented the record. You stick the CD into your computer, and there it is. You visit Web sites, and there it is.
"They're just so horrible to do sometimes. So tedious, especially the performance ones. Just hours and hours of standing around having to redo the same thing. It can be soul-destroying."

Yet bands continue to do it. Because the Internet saved the video star.

Courtesy Houston Chronicle

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