Nobody listens to pop music anymore; they watch it. They flick on MTV, plop in a couch, and let the images take over. What was once a drumbeat is now a cue for the video editor, jump cut, jump cut, dancing bodies, lips, hair, ocean waves, naked girls, gangs waving their fists, guitar players sticking their tongues out.
This is killing pop music, if it’s not dead already. Perhaps you were unlucky enough to be near a television Thursday night, when the “MTV Video Music Awards” aired. With Arsenio Hall as the host — that should tell you something right there — they actually gave awards for things such as best choreography, art direction, cinematography and “breakthrough video.”
Can I ask a simple question: What does any of this have to do with music?
When I was 12 years old, I went to a dance. It was my first. I mingled nervously as Janis Joplin and Marvin Gaye played on the stereo. I ate potato chips while Otis Redding sang about the dock of the bay. There was this girl my age. She had brown hair. Wore hip-hugger jeans. Although she made me shiver just being around her, somehow, toward the end of the night, I found the courage to ask her to dance. The music was slow. She said OK. We awkwardly hooked bodies, her arms around my neck, mine around her waist, and we swayed back and forth in the corner, the first time I was ever that close to a girl. The music was “So Far Away” by Carole King. If I died today, I would remember that song tomorrow.
So far away,
doesn’t anybody stay in one
It would be so fine to see your
face at my door.
Every time I hear that music, I am a teenager again, my eyes closed in her hair, my heart pounding softly. No need for imagination
I need no video to paint that picture. That’s the wonder of music. You hear it, and all by itself it can strum your emotions, make you sad, happy, nostalgic, wistful.
Video, on the other hand, robs your imagination. It packages the pictures with the song until the two become inseparable. During the MTV broadcast, they made a big deal of naming a special award for Michael Jackson. Sure, Jackson is a talented singer and dancer, but his videos are so arresting — and so frequently played — you can’t forget them. As a result, whenever you hear his song “Bad,” you picture a bunch of gang members dancing in a subway, while “Thriller” makes you picture Jackson growing hair on his hands and turning into a werewolf.
I believe this sells a lot of CDs and videos. I don’t believe it helps music. Not at all. Kids are no longer interested in instrumentals, for one thing. They have no appreciation for melody. They hear a song today and they say, “Have you seen the video for that yet? It’s great.”
Listening is out. Watching is in. Made for Madonna
Of course, this keeps folks such as Madonna in business. Madonna may be the single biggest beneficiary from MTV, as well as its biggest star. Her music, by itself, is usually too mechanical to stand on its own. Half the time, it’s nothing more than an electronic drum beat with a few vocals thrown on top. Try whistling “Justify My Love.” It’s not much of a melody.
But as background music to her latest shock video — it’s terrific. And that is all it is. The music becomes the picture. The picture becomes the marketing. The marketing sells the records.
And that is exactly what the record company wants.
Record companies like image. It can be controlled, shaped and sold. It’s easier to create an image that to trust your artistic ear — the way Sam Phillips once did when Elvis walked into his studio, or Berry Gordy did when he heard Smokey Robinson sing.
I was a musician once. Dreamed of writing hit songs. This was in the early
’80s, just when MTV was starting up. One day, I heard that a European group called a-ha had been signed to a record contract based solely on its photo. No one had even listened to the group. Its members looked right — cute, long hair, high cheekbones. “We’ll make them work,” the record company figured.
Shortly thereafter, I left the business.
After MTV Thursday, I have no regrets.
But this is my fear: We are raising a generation that won’t be able to appreciate music unless it comes with special effects. They are missing all the magic. There’s a story about Gustav Mahler, the 19th-century composer, who drew his musical inspiration from the scenery in his native Austria. Once, when a friend came to visit his country home, Mahler said, “Don’t bother looking at the view. I have already composed it.”
Today, they would say, “Don’t bother listening to the music; we already filmed it.”
And Gustav would be wearing Spandex.