Courtesy of Fred Seibert, via Flickr.

MTV Logo, 1981

September 21, 2020

PONTIN | Video Did More than Kill the Radio Star

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It was the dog days of the summer of 1981, and hedonists from the Hamptons to the Hills were slowly settling into the hushed monotony of the unyielding heat. While the high temperatures may not have broken by the first of August, something else was on the verge of doing so — something that was practically brimming with the allure of a new age for media.

On August 1, MTV surreptitiously emerged from some shadowy corner of the multimedia universe and invaded the television scene. For 24 hours each day, the channel offered a mechanism for the mass production of a dimension of music that had previously been available only in concert. Quite appropriately, the tune selected to christen the channel was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, an ode to the dynamism of technology that somehow manages to sound more rosy than reaping.

Before MTV’s energetic arrival, video had bridged the rift between music as mere soundtrack and music as the ultimate multi-sensory experience. Historians have traced the dawn of the music video all the way back to 1895 with William Dickson’s so-called “Experimental Sound Film,” which paired visuals and a phonograph in a singular device. As film and audio technology boomed in the first half of the twentieth century alongside the development of a burgeoning mass commercial society, similar iterations of this concept took hold in theaters and social halls across the country. Perhaps the most familiar of these installments were soundies, the three minute standalone productions screened in lively venues throughout the 1940s.

Throughout the 1960s, the Beatles helped test the waters of video on a larger scale with projects ranging from short-form marketing material to entire movies. In the decade that followed, films like Grease and A Star is Born (long before Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper would step into the spotlight) succeeded in bringing this hybrid audio-visual creature into the public eye. On the whole, though, moments like these were the exception to the rule. The one-dimensionality of conduits like radio and cassette tapes continued to command the market. Although forums like Video Concert Hall, which debuted in 1978 and functioned much like a precursor to MTV, had made music videos available, they loomed far from ubiquitous — that is, until MTV’s advent a few years down the road.

The popularization of the video format did nothing short of restructure the music industry. Artists hoping to make it mainstream could no longer afford to lurk behind clunky boomboxes or eight-track tapes as they crooned in pursuit of stardom. Each musician was instead pushed to concoct an image that would come across as seamlessly through a visual medium as through a purely audible one. Over-the-top, showstopping productions transitioned from the sidelines to the limelight, steadfastly asserting themselves as the new norm. Audiences quickly became accustomed to seeing their beloved idols and icons on screen, and those who could not measure up to the major players in the pack were doomed to fall off the radar. Boasting a particularly gritty or soulful voice would no longer suffice — the bar had been indisputably and indelibly elevated.

Even a cursory glimpse into some of the most dominant powerhouses of the 1970s and 1980s reveals the pervasiveness of this changing tide. In the former decade, the success of artists like Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac and James Taylor demonstrated the power of creating intimate, genuine connections between musicians and their constituents. These creators were committed to honest, no-frills deliveries of their craft, and any existing technology to tempt them in the opposite direction was not yet widespread enough to sway. The 1980s, however, fostered a complete reversal from these values as artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and David Bowie worked tirelessly to elicit an allure from their music that simply could not be communicated through audio alone. Widely well-received videos such as a-ha’s “Take on Me” or Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” did not take long to clinch legend status, serving as popular cultural templates for modern media.

Even in the context of these extensive reverberations, the development still seems quite simple. Music lovers were granted more ways to consume the products they were already devouring in droves, and music makers were presented with opportunities to broaden their listener bases by opening more channels to reach potential devotees. What was occurring on a more obscure plane, however, was an increasingly unignorable move not merely towards the commodification of art, but of those responsible for its creation.

By the dawn of the 1980s, the products of the creative process had long been treated as items fit for purchase and sale. The commercialization of their creators, though, was largely unfamiliar — until music videos invited audiences to witness a palpable, concrete linkage between the music they loved and those responsible for its delivery. This connection between art and artist was coming to fruition on an unprecedented scale, scrapping any sense of anonymity that had previously subsisted in the music industry. At this point, the process of equating artists with their art became all too swift, leading to a market that upheld megastars not as people capable of producing lucrative products, but as the lucrative products themselves.

While today’s generation clearly appreciates the accessibility and quick pace of streaming services and 15-second clips as means of acquiring music, videos remain indulgences to be splendidly savored by creative junkies around the globe. Music videos simultaneously construct and unravel the tracks they accompany, implanting foreign narratives in our minds and subsequently stranding us in worlds that are oftentimes chillingly yet excitingly absent context. The medium demands multiple senses, our full attention, tearing us away at least for a few minutes from the relentless multi-tasking that has become our society’s default mode. Video may have killed the radio star, but declining attention spans haven’t killed video just yet.

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.