The vids are all right: Hank Stuever celebrates vitality of music videos on TV

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 4, 2010

Here is a band, in a desert. The band is called Neon Trees, and the single is called "Animal," and in the first video for the song (there wound up being two versions -- one "viral" and one "official"), the band plays in the middle of nowhere.

How many music videos have there ever been that feature rock bands banging away on instruments in the endlessly metaphorical TV wasteland? Deserts, tundras, oceans -- but mostly deserts. More deserts than I could possibly count, since I started watching music videos in the Martha Quinn era. (Martha who? Music videos are what? Shush, you.)

Music videos, as seen on an actual TV, have once again become my favorite escape. A little over a year ago, I started DVR-ing video block shows and top-hits video countdowns on cable networks such as MTV and VH1 (and their multiple permutations, such as MTV Jams and VH1 Classic), but also from BET, CMT, Fuse, Logo and anywhere else I could dig them up -- including the rather cumbersome act of ordering them song-by-song through on-demand services.

I prefer to watch them in a zenlike trance, when I am momentarily safe from all other forms of TV. I watch video after video, and it's as pleasurable and eye-opening to me now as it was almost three decades ago, in the nascent days of MTV. The only thing missing is my mother telling me to mow the lawn.

Widely believed to be a moribund form of TV programming that was left behind in the mass exodus to the Internet, music videos are alive and well. In fact, they have never looked better or seemed more clever and true to their original purpose, which is not merely to sell music (and clothes, hairdos and everything else), but to sell an entire vibe. It's time to watch music videos again, on your television, instead of on specialized niche-music Web sites.

The only trick, of course, is figuring out where all the music videos are hiding among the 800-channel grid. Whenever the subject is MTV, it's usually about "Jersey Shore" and "16 and Pregnant," which draws forth predictable gripes that MTV stinks because it no longer shows videos in prime time, like it used to, back when.

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But MTV does show videos -- as does MTV2, MTV Hits, MTV Jams, MTVU, and on and on, so long as you're willing to pay a monthly cable bill that soars past $100.

The question now is, do we have the attention span to watch videos, especially when we're not in control of what video is played next? Trusting someone else's curation and song choices runs counter to our 21st-century independence from mass media. And yet, every online scheme to capitalize on bringing music videos to fickle Internet surfers sort of fizzes out. Is it the computer screen? Is it the haste? Does it feel too much like work -- having to know where to go, what to choose, what to link to?

Plain ol' MTV still shows videos to insomniacs in the middle of the night, mainly, or weekday mornings on "AMTV." Liberate oneself from the duty of NPR and the drudgery of the "Today" show, and shower instead to Lil Wayne conjuring up a fiery gangster apocalypse in "Drop the World." ("I'm-a pick the world up and drop it on yo' head" makes for excellent soaping thoughts.)

I can be brushing my teeth and step out of the bathroom to gaze admiringly upon the new Timbaland and Justin Timberlake video, "Carry Out." AMTV shows it every day, and will, until something better comes along -- a la Ludacris featuring Nicki Minaj in "My Chick Bad."

Or, there's "Jump Start" every morning on VH1, as Michael Bublé serenades a cutie (his fiancee) in the frozen-food aisle in "Haven't Met You Yet." Such fun, when all the customers dance out into the parking lot, filled with the glee of '80s-style video infatuation. You can do your hair to it, if you have hair. You can know all the Taylor Swift videos. You can know who Jason Derulo is, and what he looks like, and why love songs like his "In My Head" sound better when you've seen the video (which takes place in a 7-Eleven parking lot) at least 10 or 15 times. Repetition is a key part of the music video bliss-out.

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