MTV, the Distraction Factory, and the Academy

MTV’s newest promotional slogans “The Music Revolution of the 90s Will Be Televised,” “Alternative Nation,” and so forth–are not only bad, but bad in an unprecedented way. When the spots began airing on the network, they were so hoary, so clumsy, so square, that they seemed at first just the setup for a punch line; but no punch line came. The gaffe is a major one, because MTV’s raison d’etre is of course not being square. The network’s biggest asset is an almost infallible ear for hipness and an impressive ability to avoid cant or cliche, or ever seeming grasping.

But one of the great things about MTV is that the slogans are destined for the trash heap. As now-departed founder Bob Pittman put it recently, MTV practices “change for the sake of change.” Being boring would be, well, boring; it’s channel policy to change before viewers start to wander. These two entangled precepts–the infallible ear and incessant transition–have, combined with the music, made MTV the best thing on television.

I’d argue the point just on substance (barring CNN, I’d rather watch rock ‘n’ roll on TV than anything else, and it’s also the most adventurous radio station one could dream of) but also its “identity”–content aside, it does its job with greater panache, serves its audience better, contributes more to society, and is more aesthetically rigorous than any other station or network that’s ever been on TV.

Sure MTV’s owned by a big nasty media conglomerate that’s only trying to get people to buy stuff; so are Scooby Doo and Dan Rather. MTV gets a bad rap every which way: to the layperson, of course, the station is the unquestioned cause of the alleged lack of attention span of today’s youth, and even in the academy MTV is seen as the quintessential symbol of postmodernism, an “ahistorical, apolitical, asocial, amoral” flow (as one critic puts it) of uninterrupted meaningless imagery. A new book, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture, challenges these preconceptions. It’s written by Andrew Goodwin, associate professor at the University of San Francisco, occasional Reader contributor, and old friend of mine. In the book he reasonably but firmly takes on the postmodern analysis of MTV as a pastiche of deliberately unmeaningful images and what are called in the trade “blank parodies” of other “texts.” (Two well-known examples: the Metropolis and Triumph of the Will imagery in Queen’s “Radio Gaga” clip and the reference to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in Madonna’s “Material Girl.” In both instances the references are blank i.e., neither approving nor disapproving.) The book’s very readable by academic standards; as I understand it, Goodwin argues that the idea of the station as timeless and directionless is a myth: it actually follows normal programming inclinations (regular programs, “dayparting” to target certain audiences, and so forth) much like any other TV or radio station, and for most of the same (economically driven) reasons. Secondly, he points out MTV’s patent liberal-left bias, which conforms to the usual romanticized ideals of the rock ‘n’ roll politic. (And even surpasses it: I would add that over the last year or two the station’s notorious promulgation of sexist stereotypes in videos has dropped drastically. Cheesiness remains, but it’s increasingly balkanized in heavy metal or the hardcore rap offerings, to which some of the more enlightened pop and alternative rock and rap videos are in tacit and sometimes outspoken opposition.)

Eighties-style political discourse a la MTV is, as Goodwin says, feeble compared to the 60s or the early days of punk, but the difference is that the station is a mass-media outlet, not an expressly countercultural musical genre. Much of what MTV does is work to make things like recycling or feminism seem cool. Has a similarly monolithic enterprise done that before? The station’s making money off it, of course; but as Goodwin concludes, MTV is “simultaneously involved in the incorporation [academese for “co-optation”] and the promotion of dissent.” Or as MTV puts it in its latest promo spots, already supplanting the dumb “music revolution” ones: “MTV: The T is for variety!”


WXRT’s sixth annual free Fourth of July show goes alternative with a vengeance this year, with Tanya Donelly’s Belly, currently riding a wave of MTV approbation with the video for “Feed the Tree”; pure popster Matthew Sweet; and Minneapolis’s country-rock combo the Jayhawks….Spin and Details are both preparing major features on Urge Overkill in conjunction with its upcoming debut on Geffen, Saturation. The band described the record in Hitsville last month as “old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll,” and they weren’t kidding: leaving their abrasive, undergroundy roots behind, the band has crafted a concussive alternative-pop-metal hybrid–Boston with a cleft palate. Abrasive and energetic, the record salutes 70s classic rock like “Ride Captain Ride” and Grand Funk Railroad. Standouts: the “More Than a Feeling” homage “Positive Bleeding” and an awesomely produced ballad (!) called “Back on Me.”…The headline for Robert Feder’s winter Arbs story was “WGN Ratings Plunge to All-Time Low.” Over at the Trib it was “Stern’s shock-talk show not playing in Chicago”–a rare bit of reticence on the Tribune’s part when it comes to info on one of its sister companies.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lori Eanes.