Some random notes after a solid week of switching the cable box back and forth between MTV, the teenage mother of music video, and VH-1, the equivalent created for older folks—like me.
Seeing James Taylor and Carole King on VH-1 is one thing; they were stars when those of us now entering the age of maternity, mortgages and midriff creep were still young and sentimental. But a Dean Martin video? A Tony Bennett video? Interviews with Julio Iglesias and Wayne Newton? This is Geritolvision…. MTV holds contests to give away a hideous car from Weird Al Yankovic or a backstage pass to a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert. VH-1 holds a contest to give away a ride on John Denver’s Learjet…. The veejays—video jocks—on MTV dress like frat boys on spring break. The veejays on VH-1 wear coats and ties…. The tempo of almost every song on VH-1 is identical: music you can jog to. Slowly…. Elevator videos….
The two channels are as different as Madonna and Barry Manilow. MTV, started in 1981, is aimed at the 12-to-34 audience. It reaches 26.2 million American homes. VH-1, run by the same company, came to cable last January and now reaches seven million homes. It’s supposed to be aimed at the 25-to-54 market with what they call “adult contemporary” programming….
MTV is looking better than ever. Take Martha Quinn, veejay: She’s still short, but she’s grown in the job. It seems she’s found makeup, hair and a diction coach—and used them well. Quinn is getting slick and professional, like MTV itself. Between videos she has something to say, telling you where the video was shot or who was sitting in. You feel as if you’re learning something—nothing important, Lord knows, but something. There’s always action on MTV. On VH-1, on the other hand, listen to veejay Don Imus droning. He looks like he’s on the world’s most boring date, racking his brain for something, anything to say. “Interesting evening we have coming up this evening,” he says, rolling his eyes. He can’t convince even himself of that.
But the snail’s pace of VH-1 isn’t really the veejays’ fault or the network’s. The fault lies with the videos’ stars, who are running a quart low on adrenaline and empty on imagination. They find every imaginable way to be shot by a camera and then call it a video. They think that smoke machines are still far-out.
That’s not to say that every video on VH-1 is bad. Far from it. There always should be a place for Willie Nelson to just stand and sing. Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Wonder, Kim Carnes and Lionel Ritchie are all nice to listen to and not unpleasant to watch. But VH-1’s videos look too much alike.
Too many performers have missed the point of music videos. A video is supposed to be visual, unusual, stimulating, just fun to watch. The stars, it seems, think that they are what’s fun to watch. Admittedly, it’s hard to take your eyes off Madonna‘s navel, an icon that ought to be on display in the Smithsonian. And Prince is so adamantly odd, he’s riveting just moving his barely mustachioed mouth. Seeing Kenny Rogers surround himself with dancing nymphs doesn’t carry the same impact.
On both MTV and VH-1, singers use videos to feed egos that should have been put on diets years ago. A music video gives them a chance to show how many adoring fans they have. On both channels—but especially on VH-1—they also use videos to stroke their libidos. The portrayal of women on music videos, mostly in ones by aging males, makes Playboy look progressive. The homelier the male stars, the more beautiful the women they hire to adore them. Women come off as brainless, soulless and sexless; they’re being used to do little more than sigh at the sight and sound of the male star. Bryan Adams shows nothing but a woman’s lean legs. Dean Martin resurrects his Golddiggers. Even Bob Dylan’s done it. It’s no wonder women have started fighting. In VH-1’s I’ll Pass, country songstress Gus Hardin gets to kick, punch, throw, break bottles over the heads of and sic dogs on men.
Complain, complain, complain…. Yeah, the celeb interviews on MTV and VH-1 make Entertainment Tonight sound like 60 Minutes. Yeah, the symbolism on MTV videos gets sophomoric: Roger Hodgson in Had a Dream shows a flying fetus in space and cuts from high school marching bands to the Red Army buglers at the Kremlin. Super-tramp has a Neanderthal man riding on top of a green truck through a purple highway. It all has to mean something. Right? But enough kvetching. On cable, with scores of channels to choose from, there’s nothing more fun to watch than MTV. It’s the freshest thing yet to appear on cable. MTV has inspired Hollywood and the networks to juice up their acts. By now, everybody knows that MTV really stands for Miami; (Trendy) Vice, the only hour-long music video on TV. The networks also run music videos, and so do other cable channels. But it was MTV that gave music videos a home and gave stars a chance to use their imaginations. MTV brought music back to life. That’s why it’s so disappointing to see VH-1 looking like a throwback to the old musical variety show.
Videos are the only form of artistic expression for mass audiences not subject to direct-market pressure. In other words, you, the audience, decide whether you’re going to buy a book, see a movie, buy a record, watch a TV show. You determine what’s a hit and what’s a zit. Music videos don’t suffer that sort of acid market test—you watch them more than you buy them, and they’re so short it would be impossible to give every video a Nielsen rating. That means that artists have more freedom, more of a chance to strut their stuff without worrying about whether every copy is going to sell. Too bad they haven’t flexed that freedom yet on VH-1.
As much as it sounds like one, this column is not a condemnation of VH-1. Instead, it is a plea to the stars to use more imagination, artistry, glitz and gumption when they make a video. So try some intriguing lighting. Or at least do something simple like Lionel Ritchie does when he takes the camera off his face and shows us cute kids dancing. VH-1 does have some interesting videos—the glitziest I’ve seen is an old Culture Club extravaganza, and it’s also fun to see old Beatles movies turned into videos. The channel finally has given lots of black and country artists a chance to join in. And VH-1 is still new. Once a few singers start to show some daring, others could follow. It should improve.
Much of the joy of MTV was that it gave older folks, those of us over that big chill called 30, a chance to see what these kids were up to without having to color our hair green and adorn ourselves with dog collars and go to some strange club. That will always be a reason to watch MTV. But that doesn’t mean that the kids on MTV should have the monopoly on sparkle that they do. So c’mon, you aging superstars, stop acting quite so militantly mellow. You’re not that old. Neither are we.