Sunday, August 1, 2021

Music Television: Forty Years On

"Are we living in a land
Where sex and horror are the new gods?"

- Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Two Tribes”
Forty years ago today, at 12:01 AM on August 1, 1981, MTV went on the air. We didn’t get our MTV until early 1983, but its influence was already being felt as HBO (Video Jukebox), NBC (Friday Night Videos) and other networks sought to capitalize on all the new material that was suddenly being generated to feed this new medium.

A short list of songs that were featured during the first twenty-four hours of MTV might seem confusing as it’s not very “80s” but then, what would you expect. They could only play what was available, and the 1980s hadn’t really started, anyway.

Why so many Rod Stewart videos? It’s weird.

The major impact of MTV, as I saw it, was the mainstreaming of non-traditional culture. Even as America was course-correcting from decades of increasing liberalism into a decades-long slide back into Puritanical conservative authoritarianism, young citizens dwelling away from the coasts were suddenly exposed to a non-stop Weimar Republic cabaret of sex, androgyny and synth.

Even those elements of pop culture that eventually made their way to the Midwest, used to take months or years to reach us. Commercial television was never very good at pushing trends, only reflecting them, and the internet was a long way off. Suddenly, we were receiving the avant-garde in real-time.

"Girls On Film" (1981)
Duran Duran
There are those who argue that music videos promoted vapid music in favor of attractive imagery. But how any artists who flourished in those first years were inarguable music geniuses whose identity were as visual as musical? David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Talking Heads, Prince – you can listen to their music on its own, it’s brilliant. But it would be a different world without their videos.

Even MTV had to cleave to arbitrary social mores. They censored several videos due to nipples. Blurring the double bass drums in the Tubes clip for She’s a Beauty or zooming to focus on faces, creating fuzzy moments in the Golden Earring video Twilight Zone. No tits, please, we’re American.

Three music videos stand out to me as iconic, specifically because they were edited for broadcast or just not scheduled for broadcast. I hesitate to use the word “censored” because only a government can do that. But the short film which accompanied each songs – songs I would have been listening to regardless – were inspirational to me, for better or worse.

The first, the clip for Girls On Film by Duran Duran and directed by Godley and Creme, a racy piece of work in which the band is depicted playing in the background as staged performances of scantily clad women sumo wrestling men, massaging men, and playing wading pool drowning for a lifeguard.

While this is all presented to satisfy the male gaze, in each case she entirely dominates he, in the last instance leaving the lifeguard unconscious one-inch underwater.

This piece was edited, shadowing, obscuring, or editing skin. The original version had been shown in clubs and on the BBC, but as I learned reading Annie Zaleski’s book on Duran Duran, when it came to releasing it for home video, they actually added additional, provocative material. I thought I was purchasing something I hadn’t been allowed to see on MTV, while what I was really getting was something that had never been broadcast anywhere.

"Relax" (1984)
Frankie Goes to Hollywood
The video for Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood wasn’t just edited, MTV insisted upon a completely different video or they wouldn’t play it. We got what must have been an intentionally boring video of singer Holly Johnson toying about with the “laser beams” from the lyrics in order to shield the American public from the original clip, directed by Bernard Rose, which featured an orgiastic brawl in a gay bar.

The thing about FGTH was this … for a few years we had all been playing the androgyny thing. Many gay anthems of the early 1980s are couched in vagueness. We could pretend George Michael was into those girls, and that Boy George was just an act. Because they didn’t come right out and say it, in their lyrics or during interviews.

But Frankie was up front about it, and that meant we had to choose. Not whether we were straight or gay, you can’t choose that, but were we going to open ourselves to the difference?

You could rent the Duran Duran video from the local store and I did, several times. I had to order and purchase the Frankie Goes to Hollywood VHS. Almost ten years later you couldn’t even buy the Nine Inch Nails video “album” Broken, it was a widely-distributed bootleg recording of a simulated snuff film that Trent Reznor commissioned but never released.

Included on the many-times dubbed-over copy I picked up at Record Rev was the video for Happiness in Slavery, directed by Jon Reiss. The supposed “single” from the new EP (no commercial station in Cleveland would play that song nor any other from the record) the clip presupposed censorship and Reznor didn’t provide any alternative for the song until the Woodstock ’94 live performance version.

"Happiness In Slavery" (1992)
Nine Inch Nails
Performance artist Bob Flanagan stars in this darkly hilarious scene, filmed in black and white. A mockery of faith and trust, Flanagan enters a room, lights a candle, strips naked and voluntarily sets himself into a machine that tortures, rapes and disembowels him before grinding up and shitting out his corpse.

Why is that funny? No idea. I can’t remember, it sounds horrible. But there was something deeply troubled in my soul in my mid-20s and I had to see it. By the 1990s music videos were beside the point and MTV was already in the process of transitioning from those to original, episodic reality-based programming.

Which means of course, the only people who bemoan the fact that MTV no longer plays videos must be well over forty themselves. They don’t actually wish MTV was still playing music videos 24 hours day – they wouldn’t like what they’d be seeing.

To put it another way: No one misses music videos on MTV, they miss the person they were way back when they watched music videos on MTV. 

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