Today we continue our third instalment of Turntable Talk, where we’re happy to have some fellow music fans and writers weigh in on music subjects. Hopefully you were able to take a look at our first couple of topics, Why we’re still talking about the Beatles, and then the Pros and Cons of Live Albums. Today, we are asking “Did Video Kill the Radio Star?” The Beatles began making music videos as early as about 1966, and Britain had a few TV shows featuring videos weekly in the ’70s but in the ’80s, the form took flight with the appearance of MTV and all-day videos in the U.S. Love ’em or hate ’em, they undeniably altered the music world as we knew it. So what are the thoughts on the music video? Today we welcome Christian, from Christian’s Music Musings, who grew up apart from MTV. He tells us:
Did Video Kill the Radio Star?
Thanks for inviting me back to “Turntable Talk”, Dave. I enjoy your series, and I’m happy to share more of my thoughts!
At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the topic of ‘80s music videos and MTV. While the name MTV had been hammered into my brain since 1985 when Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing was all over German radio, my first exposure to music videos didn’t happen until early 1993 when I came to the U.S. At my parents’ house back in Germany, we didn’t have cable until the early ‘90s, so essentially missed the ‘80s MTV era.
When I finally had the opportunity to watch music videos on TV in the U.S., I ended up embracing VH1, not MTV. And for the most part, it wasn’t for music videos but for their Behind the Music documentary series, which I loved.
When to comes to music, to me, it’s always been first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. Lyrics tend to be secondary. Videos rank a distant third. I’m speaking in broad strokes now.
There’s no doubt in my mind that MTV and music videos have had a huge impact on the music industry. And as you’d expect, it’s a mixed bag. Initial criticism of the channel for largely ignoring artists of color was justified, though fortunately by the mid-’80s things started to change.
MTV kickstarted the breakthroughs of artists like Cindy Lauper and Whitney Houston; and of course, The Buggles whose Video Killed the Radio Star was the very first video played on the channel. MTV also boosted the careers of already-established artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince.
Moreover, the channel had a role in popularizing genres beyond pop. For example, their heavy rotation of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit brought grunge to a broader audience. It also isn’t surprising that the compelling combination of audio and video helped music become part of Hollywood. It boosted the popularity of big ‘80s soundtracks like Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984) and Top Gun (1986). I leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a net positive or negative.
During my reading that inspired some of the content of this post, I came across a series of interviews the PBS program Frontline conducted for a May 2004 documentary titled The Way the Music Died. I haven’t watched it (though it sounds interesting) but read some of the interviews. The following excerpts offer some additional perspectives I thought were worthwhile sharing:
Music journalist Touré Neblett: “I mean, Duran Duran — were they a great group? I don’t think so. I mean they had some great songs. I love “Rio,” I love “Girls On Film,” but this is not a great group. But they were one of the first big video groups that really thrived in the MTV era because they looked good.”
HITS Magazine co-founder and editor-in-chief Leonard J. Beer: “MTV is the most powerful force that’s probably ever happened in the music business. You can make a star overnight if they make the right video, and if the right magic happens. It also burns them out quicker. You know, you saw somebody like Pearl Jam who had the biggest videos on MTV for years and then all of a sudden they decided they didn’t want to be on MTV anymore because they felt it was hurting their long-term career.”
Entertainment Attorney Michael Guido: “I think MTV was the beginning of the end for the recorded music business, in that it solidified a mindset that exalted marketing over substance… It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over…Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.”
Music industry executive Danny Goldberg: “I think that the emergence of the music video has just expanded the palette of tools available to artists to connect with an audience. I know when I worked with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain cared as much about the videos as he did about the records. He wrote the scripts for them, he was in the editing room, and they were part of his art. And I think they stand up as part of his art, and I think that’s true of the great artists today. Not every artist is a great artist and not every video is a good video, but in general having it available as a tool, to me, adds to the business.”
Finally, I’d like to provide some thoughts about my favorite ‘80s music video. As I was thinking about it, the first videos that came to mind were Michael Jackson’s Thriller for its over-the-top mini horror movie production, Genesis’ Land of Confusion because of the amazing puppets of band members and various politicians; and a-ha’s Take On Me with its artistically compelling integration of cartoons and animations.
But, as I said before, when it comes to music, to me, it’s first and foremost about melody, sound and musicianship. With that priority keeping in mind as well, my favorite ‘80s music video is Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, a song I dig to this day. Yes, it’s definitely a pretty busy clip that at times can even make you dizzy. Still, I love the way how it’s done.
According to this article from April 2016, the filming required Gabriel to lay under a glass sheet for over 16 hours! But he’s convinced it was all worth it, and that without the video the song wouldn’t have become a hit. Numbers don’t lie. “Sledgehammer” reached no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, knocking “Invisible Touch” by his former bandmates from Genesis off the top spot. The single also topped the Canadian charts. Elsewhere, among others, it climbed to no. 3 in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and no. 4 in the UK. Oh, and it also became MTV’s most played video of all time!