Arts | Books

March 6, 2007

The Rebirth of Music Videos

Left for dead by MTV and VH1, a genre finds new life online. An excerpt from the new book 'Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes.'

Saul Austerlitz

Abandoned by MTV, the music video did not die; it merely mutated, clamping onto a new host: the internet. Once solely the property of television programmers, music videos have become the province of bloggers, music websites, and internet portals seeking new content. Yahoo, Google, and AOL are among the internet titans with video services that put thousands of music videos a mere click or two away. YouTube and MySpace both have grown into internet titans by virtue of their music-video holdings—YouTube's contributed by amateur collectors and band obsessives, MySpace's mostly posted by up-and-coming groups. Even MTV belatedly has gotten into the act, adding a streaming-video program with much of their video library available for perusal.

The music video has gone from being centralized in the programming of two or three cable channels to being diffused all over the internet, and what is lost in efficiency is made up for by the dazzling array of choices now available to music-video buffs. The internet is now a 24-hour music-video jukebox, with everything from the latest U2 video to obscure indie-rock clips available for viewing somewhere in the World Wide Web's wilds. In fact, indie-rock and electronica videos thrive on the internet, those genres' tech-savvy fans passing around links to their favorite acts' latest clips, or posting them on their blogs.

The music video has regained some of its underground, samizdat cachet, transmitted virally from one true believer to the next. It has also become a surprisingly central application in the new-media universe, played on computers, downloaded to cellphones, and purchased on DVDs. And with the latest generation of MP3 players (like the video iPod) capable of playing video in addition to audio, music videos are now just as portable as individual songs.

An assemblage of snapshots and shaky handheld footage of apartment towers, hotel lobbies, and subway trains, burrowing deep into the heart of our post 9/11 trauma. The video teases the edges of our collective trauma, raising memories of the destruction of the World Trade Center without explicitly mentioning it.

Shunned from their original home, music videos have found a new home practically everywhere; and having lost their initial function as television fodder, videos have become impressively cheap, flexible, and omnipresent. Rather than killing them off, the cable channels' unceremonious dumping of music videos gave the form new life.

If this book had been written two or three years ago, any closing thoughts on the future of the music video would have been pessimistic in nature. The music video, having been so important to an earlier generation of music fans and culturally astute teenagers and young adults, had grown stale, made obsolete by digital culture and the ever-increasing puerility of youth-centric television. Music videos had apparently had their run, and were now set to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

A clip that borrows its guiding principle from John Carpenter's 'They Live' but hijacks the film's magical-sunglasses premise and twists it into a self-aware update of the '80s hair-metal video.

Instead, music videos have been reborn, reanimated for the era of the internet. While it seems unlikely that the video's splashy cultural moment will ever return, or that big-budget, blockbuster videos will make a comeback, the music video is alive and well. In the absence of much interest from MTV, VH1, and BET, the music video has become devoted more to breaking new bands, or to targeting a particular constituency, than maintaining the cultural dominance of a handful of superstars.

In the late 1990s, when MTV first began turning its back on music videos, it was the moderately popular or up-and-coming band that was hit hardest, often barred by their labels from shooting videos. Now, the worm has turned, and the music video has become a far more receptive medium for the little guys out there than for the superstars. The music video has rediscovered democracy, dispersed to the four winds of the internet. Music sites like Pitchfork and bloggers such as Sasha Frere-Jones post links to videos, fan sites and MySpace pages offer exclusive clips, and sites like YouTube offer access to thousands of music videos past and present.

A hilarious recasting of 'Rushmore' as an Iraq-war fable of Model United Nations intrigue and American imperialism.

YouTube in particular offers a glimpse of potential video nirvana—a single site at which all (or most) of music-video history is available with the click of a button. Music-video fans lament the difficulty of tracking down individual videos, particularly old or obscure clips, and the hope is that some day soon, one video site will obtain the necessary permissions to house a record label's entire video library. While that would make the task of future music-video scholars infinitely easier, it also is somehow entirely appropriate that so fragmentary a medium as the music video is scattered all across the internet, entirely decentralized and disorganized. For an art form dedicated to fleeting pleasures, momentary genius, and disposable triumphs, this only seems fair.

And yet, the music video stands in a cultural position not dissimilar to that of the feature film prior to the success of the video-cassette recorder. Before the VCR, once a film disappeared from local theaters, it was gone for good, unless, like Gone With the Wind or some other blockbuster, it was occasionally trotted out for a re-release, or screened at a cinematheque or repertory theater. These were the rules of the game, until the VCR upended the entire system, and the entirety of film history became available to home viewers.

A wicked satire of heavy-metal excess and pseudo-mystical claptrap. Starring laptop rocker Forrest as lead singer of a Led Zeppelin-esque hard-rock group on its triumphant world tour.

The same process holds true for music videos, whose back pages remain mostly blank, entirely inaccessible to the curious and the devoted. Soon, though, the music video archives will be wide open, and the work of sorting through its treasures, by fans and scholars, will begin in earnest.

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Article by Saul Austerlitz

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