MTV is the first television network to look as good as its commercials. That isn't surprising since MTV is a commercial, a 24-hour-a-day advertisement for the pop music business which is frequently interrupted by advertisements for products like sexy jeans and movies about libidinous adolescents.
Whatever else it is a triumph of, and not many encouraging things come to mind, MTV, which celebrates its fourth birthday today, is a triumph of merchandising. Not for nothing is the network's own fourth birthday tied in with hype for a forthcoming film, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," starring Pee-wee Herman. Not just a forthcoming film, but a forthcoming Warner Bros. film, from an MTV corporate sister.
MTV is a shrine to the religion of cross-promotionalism.
Its merciless pervasiveness pinpoints a difference between the mind-sets of the '60s and the '80s, maybe a key difference. In the '60s, kids wouldn't have accepted a culture handed to them from our television sets by Warner-Amex Communications, or any other corporation. Television was suspect and corporations were bad things then; rock music was a way of expressing contempt, or at least disrespect, for them, even if a corporation did own the company that released the record. Rock never quite worked on TV. This was taken as a sign of rock's populist authenticity and refusal to be tamed. MTV has tamed it.
The emergence and dominance of MTV represent unquestioning surrender to the corporate ethic by Ronald Reagan's figurative grandchildren. How appropriate that as MTV observes its fourth anniversary, currently or recently popular video titles include "Material Girl" by Madonna, "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits, and "Money Changes Everything" by Cyndi Lauper. MTV celebrates conspicuous consumption nonstop, and nobody thinks a thing of it.
Words and phrases like "commercialize," "selling out" and "the establishment" seem irrelevant in the context of an MTV culture. Rock stars adopt poses of surly rebelliousness, but what they portray themselves as rebelling against are things like table manners or having to go to school, never against the corporate or political powers that be; the corporate powers that be are footing the bill and it's just considered corny to get passionate about political matters. All you can get passionate about is "the music." Political and social content is almost entirely absent from MTV because it is built on the illusion that rock music is a political and social system in itself; that the world is divided into pro-rock and anti-rock forces, that to be a fan of the music or of particular groups is somehow to stand for something.
Raising a fist in the air, once a defiant protest gesture, is now just a piece of visual rhythmic punctuation to a rock song. MTV takes symbols and images and ideas from previous cultures and reprocesses them as decor. "MTV" spoken aloud can be mistaken for "Empty-V," hardly an inappropriate similarity. An alarmist who watched MTV for more than 30 minutes at a stretch might leap to the conclusion that it is creating a generation of Stepford Kids, but the kids were already drifting toward Stepfordism. MTV just staked out the territory for commercial development. MTV's dim, insipid veejays, prattling on with "Music News" about who is with what group and back in which studio cutting a new album, were chosen apparently because they have no identity, an ideal state of being in an MTV world.
MTV promos regularly ridicule the idea of being informed about the real news of the world and recommend vegetation via MTV as a happy alternative. A current MTV promo begins with an announcer pretending to discuss the big bang theory and the possible existence of "a higher intelligence." This is chased off the screen by a jolly voice saying, "Who cares? It's party time!" MTV is a land where it's always party time, but a wan sort of partying, temperate and tidy, just as a corporation would mandate for its employees during business hours. As a business, MTV is run like a fortress, like something out of "The Parallax View"; inquiries from the press during non-celebratory periods are met with chilly officious evasiveness and Byzantine bureaucratic obfuscation.
Even if MTV is not actually watched, just having it on in the room has a strangely numbing, lulling effect, more so than with regular TV. You can feel this voice in the corner beckoning you to stop thinking and go zonko. You can tell pictures are flying by, but usually in pointlessly hectic profusion. MTV proclaims all imagery equal and therefore all imagery neuter. It's a big black hole of the soul.
The dominant political message of rock as seen and heard on MTV is that every kid has the right to be a star on MTV and to turn up the volume on the stereo set. Every kid has a right to make his or her own statement as long as it is essentially an innocuous statement -- that rock and roll is here to stay, or that starving to death is a bad thing. One envisions the typical MTV kid to be like the ditzy poet played by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen's "Sleeper," imagining that her airheaded odes to little boys and butterflies are scintillating nifties.
MTV used to be interesting for the sum of its parts. Now it is interesting for some of its parts. Certainly its influence is widespread. Splishsplash MTV imagery has been incorporated into such prime time shows as "Miami Vice" and "Hunter" and, according to a Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency forecast, will be apparent during the coming season in new arrivals like ABC's "The Insiders," which costars a Prince look-alike and a George Michael (of Wham!) look-alike, and "Hollywood Beat," which features "a throbbing MTV-like sound track."
The smash-hit facile novel of the year, "Less Than Zero," is significantly littered with MTV references; the doped-out Southern California characters in the book seem always to have it on, whether they are engaged in meaningless chatter or meaningless rape. Bret Easton Ellis, the 21-year-old author who will surely be known as Brat Easton Ellis before very long, will be appearing on William F. Buckley Jr.'s PBS "Firing Line" program next month and make the observation, "The actions of the people in my novel are pretty much symptomatic of this new generation that's coming about, this generation that was sort of brought up under the looming guidance of MTV . . ."
Ellis says MTV "has a pretty harmful effect in the sense that it's been taken too seriously" but he also says it has "altered the entire state of youth culture in the last three years at an alarming rate." The irony here is that the aptly titled "Less Than Zero" seems unmistakably the first true MTV novel. You don't so much read it as watch the words go by.
MTV's defusing effect extends even to criticism of MTV. It doesn't seem worth a condemnation, any kind of impassioned denunciatory trouncing. Truth be told, one out of every 10 videos, roughly speaking, flirts with a beguiling idea or introduces some intriguing new video effect and makes a gratifying sensory impression. Contributors like the chic and naughty Madonna, the outrageously self-parodistic David Lee Roth, the nerdily whimsical Weird Al Yankovic, the cheerfully oblivious ZZ Top, and many others, seem able to survive the consuming MTV terrain. In many videos one can sense bad movies that never got made because, mercifully, they stopped at the video stage. In some videos, there are true hints of brilliance. At the moment, David Byrne and The Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" not only seems a sublime fusion of musical and visual components but also a shrewdly apt anthem for the new lost generation.
A provocative topic for debate, comparatively speaking anyway, is whether the Levi's 501 jean ads on MTV are better than the Lee jean ads or the "Live-It-to-the-Limit" Indiana Jonesy jean ads from Wrangler. Also, MTV's graphic arts department, and the contractors who supply its impeccably bright and witty animated logos, do the best work of its kind. MTV is on more than one cutting edge, for good as well as for ill.
Besides, MTV hasn't reached truly decadent perfection in one crucial sense: There is still some content to it. The next step is bound to be worse -- a 24-hour white noise channel, perhaps? Television has been called chewing gum for the eyes. MTV is a sitz bath for the brain. If you stay in it too long, you get the feeling, shrinkage is bound to occur.