MTV turns 20 years old this month. And, though this may seem to anyone over 40 like an anniversary that only the brain dead and developmentally arrested could possibly have cause to celebrate, it is in fact a noteworthy cultural landmark. MTV changed us all much more than we might think, or like to admit.
Applying the language and ideas of academic critical theory to popular music, writers like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau—both of whom published their landmark works, Lipstick Traces and Grown Up All Wrong, at Harvard University Press—gave us scholarly insight into the codetermination of politics and rock ‘n’ roll. They lent us the intellectual scaffolding with which to frame the phenomenon, as well as grasp the meaning of mass media as it was uniquely embodied in MTV.
Most profoundly, Music Television changed how a generation and, to a great extent, an entire society, processed information. Its endless barrage of quick, synchronized sounds and images was the natural precursor to the Internet. In its insistence that everything move faster and more colorfully, MTV reduced the sound bite to virtual nanoseconds and made it common fare. The sound bite, in turn, found its way into that ultimate disseminator of information, the evening news. Thus, politics became infected with and began catering to the dictates of what erstwhile University of Toronto professor Marshall McLuhan called the medium as message.
Hence the fine-tuning of “spin” and the elevation of the all-important “spin doctor,” now a given in any viable politician’s stable of factotums. Not entirely coincidentally, Spin Doctors was a popular rock band that aired on MTV. Spin the records, spin the tape, spin the broadcast—the DJ-cum-VJ-cum-The Fox Report with Shepard Smith. “News with a pulse,” Smith announces throughout his blistering hour of recap. “News not boring.”
The millennial mind travels no longer at the speed of sound but at the speed of light. What medium could better represent and reflect the signature conditions—angst and ennui, bald cynicism and burnout—of the generation that grew up in the aftermath of Watergate. Author Douglas Coupland dubbed MTV’s first initiates Generation X—the unknown quantity, the slackers, the latter-day Lost Generation that realized in attitude, if not in intellect, the disjointed stream of consciousness for which James Joyce and T.S. Eliot had written the literary prefaces more than a half-century before. The kaleidoscopic music and image-making infected the zeitgeist, making current events into a noisy, officious blur. Ironically, the MTV kids who didn’t care enough to vote were being admonished to do so by their favorite network, which became famous for its “Rock the Vote” campaign to get its couch-potato constituency to the polls. Perhaps the connective tissue between MTV news anchor Kurt Loder’s take on Reaganomics and Al Gore’s performance of the macarena isn’t that tenuous after all.
Richard M. Nixon, it is said, lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy in large part because Nixon looked bad on television. What a fitting harbinger of our ironic age, an age that Nixon’s breaches of trust helped mightily to shape. Today our politics is television, and television is not facts but lightning-fast entertainment. And so, President George W. Bush, the suspected beneficiary of clandestine abuses of federal power, is suffering the same fate as Nixon. Death by television. He can’t escape the presumption that he’s a moron, mostly because so many of his sound bites are bloopers. He can’t talk fast enough to suit the modem crowd. And so he became the butt of a recently canceled irreverent comedy called That’s My Bush.
The verdict of the attention-deficit society is in. We want our politicians slick as Willy, not tricky like Dick or clumsy like Dubya. To paraphrase the lyrics once sung by Dire Straits—a band popular in the 1980s: “We want our MTV.” It’s hardly a surprise, then, that while Gary Condit is all business-as-usual for the cameras, Chandra Levy’s life has boiled down to a loop of home video ceaselessly and tastelessly replayed and overlaid with the empty speculations of those ever-present “talking heads”—yet another buzzword of our times and the name of another band popular on MTV in the ’80s.
A moment of silence would never occur to us. Because, of course, as MTV and the mavens of cultural studies have taught us, even the real world needs a soundtrack.