Today we wrap up 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 start 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?
Thanks to the five guests who gave us different takes on the “Video Revolution” of the ’80s…it was great to get different points of view. I have a few closing comments.
First, no one can doubt how much music videos shaped our listening, and viewing habits in the ’80s and ’90s, and with the biggest market, MTV was the main driver of that. Of course, as people like Christian and Deke pointed out, not everyone had MTV. In fact, I don’t think it was available anywhere outside of the U.S., at least in its heyday. But its success and the power of the music companies ensured similar stations would spring up in Canada, Australia and any number of other lands.
Lisa pointed out that the idea behind “videos” wasn’t new to MTV or the ’80s. The Big Bopper made one in the ’50s and there were video jukeboxes to play them in the mid-’60s. But they really hit the mainstream when MTV signed on. Oddly, Nielsen didn’t measure cable TV viewership in the early years of the station, so we don’t know how many people were actually tuning in at any given time because they found themselves saying “I Want My MTV…”, but it was well into the millions … mostly people in their teens or twenties, aka the main music-buying market. So it’s little wonder that what was popular on MTV was usually quickly popular in record stores and, because of that and Billboard‘s sales reports, on radio coast to coast as well. This likely contributed to the homogenization of radio in North America that Max pointed out (and which most of us, I think dislike) – the end of the free-wheelin’ local station playing new acts unknown in other cities and actually paying attention to listener requests. Instead we now have syndicated DJs in L.A. playing the same Lynyrd Skynyrd or Eagles track in 200 cities simultaneously and no room for innovation or offbeat music by and large. Hard to see that as an improvement, but also I think, part of an inevitable trend created by fewer and fewer large corporations buying up independent radio stations by the score and looking to maximize profit by reducing costs (such as program managers or round-the-clock disc jockeys.) How much MTV accelerated the trend is anybody’s guess.
As to how it shaped the sound of the ’80s, again it’s a debatable point since we have no control group of society without any videos, obviously! There’s no real dispute that music videos greatly helped some existing artists take their career to the next level (Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, Michael Jackson…) and perhaps was the springboard needed to launch some big careers (Madonna, Duran Duran, A-ha…) but again, we have no way of knowing if they would have taken off on their own or not without the MTV bump. What is clear to me is that ironically, short-term gain resulted in long-term pain for some of those “video stars”. Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, even yes, A Flock of Seagulls, put out some very good records back then. And they were multi-million sellers, helped along by the oh-so-popular videos… “Hungry Like A Wolf”, “Girls on Film,” “Karma Chameleon,” “I Ran”, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and so on. It made them household names quickly. But, it seems to me because they got noticed for their visual gimmick – the hair, the outfits, the makeup – people failed to take them seriously and in the long run, this may well have hurt their careers. I will boldly say songs like “Save A Prayer,” “Time (Clock of the Heart)”, “”She Bop,” “Wishing” , and others by those bands were songs which hold up very well and added a breath of fresh air to the old, slightly-fusty acts that had for so long dominated the airwaves. It even helped some of those like Queen and Styx go out on limbs and try something a little bit new. But many people still look down their noses and write off those acts automatically because they think “stupid-looking hair” or “just pretty boys in scenic locales” when they hear their names. That’s a bit of a shame. At their worst, they were unimaginative, offensively sexist or ridiculously over-the-top and drawn out. But, at their best they were creative, ground-breaking works of art on their own – think of how extraordinary “Sledgehammer” or “Take On Me” seemed when we first saw them. It’s not a huge stretch to understand why Godley & Creme went from making impeccable, boundary-pushing music with 10CC in the ’70s to primarily creating music videos for others in the ’80s – a lot of artists think visually as well as aurally.
In short, I think it was a fun part of the decade, and one that fit it well. Maybe it’s my age – in the ’80s I went from finishing high school to being a young, single guy out on his own. A fun time of change in life. And the ’80s really were a time of fun, experimental music, of breaking new ground. Not all of it was great, by any means, but at its best it meant some of the best music around. And videos were fun as well. I’m not disputing what some others have said – for instance, it robbed us of our own imagination when it came to what a song should “look” like (probably more of a problem when dealing with a Springsteen or Dylan song than Madonna’s “Borderline” or ZZ Top’s “Legs”) , it boosted some careers into the stratosphere that didn’t deserve it and it added to the problem of the unification of music being played continent wide. But now that we don’t have round the clock music videos on TV, we still have artists putting out flat out bad records who are stars, and we hear the same songs on every Oldies station from St. John’s, Newfoundland to San Jose, California. Honestly, I think the biggest surprise I have is how little music videos have really changed the world of music in the past 40 years.
I enjoyed watching Canada’s equivalent Much Music a lot in that decade, though I still spent more time listening to still-great radio stations and playing CDs and records. I saw some great , creative videos, saw some interesting interviews with musicians I loved and found out about some superb acts that seemed to even get passed over by radio. I heard “Pretty Persuasion” by REM once or twice on radio, but didn’t really become aware of them until Much Music decided the video for “Fall on Me” should be seen every hour on the hour for awhile. Others had the same experience later when “Losing My Religion” became MTV’s go-to in the early-’90s. How long would it have taken me to notice them if I had to rely on hearing their stuff that often on local radio stations?
Rubik’s Cubes, collarless neon-colored shirts, impossible hairdos, narrow leather ties, something new to hear every week…and music videos. The ’80s weren’t bad at all.