The Polishing of Metal
Part 4 - MTV

By Derek McDonald

The Revolution Will Be Televised

On August 1, 1981 a revolution occurred. Not satisfied that the ears were enough to enjoy the fun of rock music, MTV (Music Television) was launched in America. They kicked it all off by playing the Buggles' prescient novelty hit Video Killed The Radio Star, appropriately enough.

No discussion on Music in the 1980's would be complete without a section on MTV. MTV would revolutionize the rock culture but it is important to note that the music video existed long before MTV or its rivals.

Originally the form of the music video was a frill not a threat. Initially it was a joke done by German filmmaker Oskar Fischinger. Music had been used to accompany film since the very beginning, but Fishinger reversed the process by constructing animated shorts to accompany the popular music of the day (the 1920's). The apotheosis of this work was Walt Disney's 1940 production of Fantasia (to which the German filmmaker had contributed). This would be the first, unintentional, long form music video.

In the '40s there existed something known as "soundies,” Jukebox like contraptions that unspooled the pop singers of that day. By the time Rock came on the scene in the 1950's this was an extinct pastime.

During the '50's, '60's and '70's, TV appearances and promo shorts were all one could hope for in the way of seeing their music on the tube. In 1975 a short for Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody seen on British TV made that song into a chart topping hit instantly. The perfect experiment to prove the worth of the music video.

Although it took a little bit longer for MTV to start churning hits (18 months actually) it would influence popular culture just as quick. Since then critics have slammed it as: miniaturizing our attention spans, robs artists of their mystery, objectifies women, ruins the individual experience of a song, destroys the boundaries between a song and a commercial, etc. Some of these points are valid, others are worth thinking about and still others are utter nonsense.

As for miniaturizing our attention spans it can be said that the nightly news or the radio stations that play 20-30 second "sound bites" do less good for our attention than a 4 minute MTV video.

Robbing artists of their mystery is a farcical comment due to the fact that most rock artists like to be seen. After all it is part of their job.

Objectifies women? Remember TV only reflects what society does already. It is generally agreed, however, that too often women were portrayed in compromising roles too often.

Ruins the individual experience of a song? Viewed after one has heard the song a video can enhance ones pleasure of a musical piece. Often the videos are mini-movies and help to understand the song better. When seen before or when a video is poorly made (which is often the case) the opposite effect can be true. It is generally accepted that when a video is seen it destroys the need for one to imagine the artist and story in their own mind...

Destroys the boundaries between a song and a commercial? This is a fair assessment and logical statement of MTV’s purpose. They are a business, entertaining the viewer is only a hobby. Each music video is, indeed, a commercial for the artist and his/her record.

To MTV the videos were for the most part free, provided by the record companies and video production studios so they could advertise the latest hit songs. But beyond the commercialism it set trends. By the mid '80s everyone wanted to look and act a part of the 'youth culture.’ Even movies like Flashdance and shows like Miami Vice glorified this idea. MTV also spawned hits of its own. Now artists who were marginally musically talented could be a hit simply because they looked sexy or had a great video, many more simply used the music video as another form of radio station: "Here’s my song and here's me singing it." sort of notion.

But, like all good things it has to come to an end. By the late 1980s just as MTV revolutionized sight and sound it also became a cliché. Videos were rife with slow-mo liquid shots, writhing babes, sex and artists who simply had no business in rock music. MTV which had been a trend setter was becoming a trend follower and as a result destroyed any appeal in some musical forms while making themselves rich.

Pop, Metal and Glam Metal, Rap and Dance. Name the music band-wagon and MTV has jumped it. It started with the outlaw leather-clad warriors of Heavy Metal fantasy and in the 1990's ended with the "alternative," all the way jumping from one wagon to the next and leaving the fans behind.

It was so bad that by 1996 they were not even playing as much videos as they once did and instead hosted game shows and old reruns of sitcoms like Partridge Family and The Monkees as well as animated flicks, like Beavis and Butthead, which were only marginally funny and did nothing but to stereo-type people (in this case Heavy Metal fans). Some of us are not amused! Heavy Metal, once the light of their life, was left behind for whatever trend came next.

MTV was split. In the mid '80s they branched out into Europe and found that the music market was more demanding. Heavy Metal and other styles were still on and much of the trash was finally chucked for the rest of the world but in the USA the network continued its bandwagon jumping ways. Obviously the executives of the network just didn't get it and in 1996 a new MTV was proposed. Essentially two networks. One like we now see it and a new one that would wind the clock back and start again. It thus far has not happened.

I want my MTV (but I'll settle for Much Music)

MTV is not the only player in the music video game. In Canada, a country that was left out of the MTV revolution, started its own empire. The unlikely source was a local radio and TV broadcasting company in Toronto: CHUM Communications. CHUM, broadcasting from the corner of Queen and John Streets (299 Queen St. W.) set up Much Music. Modeled after the MTV style, MM broadcasted 24 hours and 7 days of rock It would later grow to rival MTV as a world player. They watched the mistakes of MTV and did exactly the opposite.

In 1984 when it started, Much Music "the nations music station" was first only seen on a typically 1980's "pay TV,” where people pay extra to get specialty channels. This concept, as expected, didn't go over very well in money conservative and frugal Canada and by the end of the 1980's Much Music was provided to cable subscribers as an extended service with dozens of other specialty channels. This, as it turned out, boosted MM's popularity as now millions more were willing to give it a shot.

By the turn of the 1990's Much Music had also expanded into Europe, boasted the worlds largest music video collection and, finally, in 1995 went Satellite providing its services to the entire world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in Stereo including, as it happens, to America: MTV's home turf. And the Americans liked the Canadian style better!

Much Music never completely abandoned its past fans. Heavy Metal, although much reduced in favor of the here-today- gone-tomorrow alternative sound, is still represented regularly.

But for all its victories Much Music didn't have a smooth ride either. It, too, faced pundits who were willing to shoot it down, a country where the government taxation policies make it more difficult to do business and broadcast regulations that its American counterparts didn't have to deal with as well as the fact that Much Music also supported a second station: Musique Plus, a French version. Factor in the huge MTV giant to the south and you can see a David and Goliath battle arising. Although the big battle between MTV and Much Music is still up and coming the other differences is what makes Much Music a viable alternative to the MTV revolution.