After watching so much MTV over the last ten years, they can no longer think straight. They have the attention span of a mayfly, as evidenced by their apparent inability to follow the plot of a video clip from beginning to end. Their obsession with visual imagery blinds them to rational discourse. They are unable to distinguish image from reality. Their notion of logical thought is a confused stew of non sequiturs and suppressed middles. Am I speaking of the culturally impoverished, illiterate teens who make up the “MTV generation”? Not at all. I am describing the idiots of MTV analysis.

Last month the tenth anniversary of MTV brought the critics out in force. With all the gravitas of English literature professors bemoaning the Decline of Civilization As We Know It, these critics picked out all the usual tired riffs, displaying the same lack of rational thought they decry in MTV. MTV has lessened our attention span. MTV is like a dream. MTV doesn’t make sense. MTV has replaced rock rebellion with consumerism. MTV has limited our imaginative response to songs. MTV has “created a new breed of visual pop star” (this classic from the ever-hip Newsweek, which, as we know, is quite unconcerned with picture value). And the ultimate reduction: MTV is responsible for Milli Vanilli.

Sifting through this display of third-generation philosophizing, it’s hard to know who’s conning whom. MTV, clearly enough, is one of the most intriguing postmodern cons of the 1980s. But while its critics may like to think of themselves as hip ‘n’ critical, or maybe even hypercritical (following recent Parisian fashion), hypocritical is surely closer to the mark. Or is this a strong enough adjective for commentators who berate the supposedly airheaded MTV audience without thinking longer than it takes to input the cliches and modem the copy? The immediacy and newness of MTV is uppermost in many critics’ minds, but which of them has stopped to notice that Club MTV is a direct copy of the 20-year-old Soul Train? And what of the academics who are so concerned about establishing the immediate and superficial nature of MTV, but who apparently have hardly ever paused to listen to the song that underpins the video clip they’re supposed to be analyzing? It does, after all, take a particular kind of superficiality (and I suppose a certain bravado) to pronounce upon one of the most important developments in the music industry over the last decade without using ears.

If you think watching MTV is like dreaming, ask yourself this: when have you ever experienced dreams that exactly reproduced the same conventional structures, night after night, year after year? Verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, chorus. These structures are so familiar that we hardly notice them. But they are there, making sense out of MTV. Making MTV largely predictable. And it isn’t just that the sound track reproduces the same highly ordered patterns; the visuals illustrate and highlight what we hear with such emphatic redundancy that MTV often seems to be screaming at you: Listen! Which, of course, it has good reason to demand, as loudly and often as possible; ultimately it’s the commodified version of the sound track (on vinyl, cassette, CD) that generates the revenue for promotional video clips.

Because the clips need to sell the songs, they tend to mirror the music that’s being promoted in a variety of ways. As John Walker wrote in his book Crossovers: Art Into Pop/Pop Into Art: “What the makers of music videos discovered was how to provide visual experiences equivalent to musical ones.” This has been evident since at least the 1960s, when directors of promotional film clips provided “psychedelic” sequences to complement the music, and when camera operators on American Bandstand were obliged to zoom in and out frantically to illustrate what was supposedly an exciting musical moment.

In the clip so often cited as the “first” music video, the 1975 Jon Roseman/Bruce Gowers promo for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the multiplication of the band members’ faces is used to mirror the stacking up of harmonies and the electronic addition of delay (commonly thought of as “echo”) that occurs in the central, largely a cappella section of the song. Godley and Creme’s celebrated “Rockit” clip, made for Herbie Hancock, is a classic illustration: as a stuttering effect (“scratching”) is heard on the record, the visuals are made to hesitate, to shift back and forth.

So the first law of MTV analysis should be to listen. The supposedly moronic MTV audience is doing this, and as a result may perceive more order and less chaos than the professor or pundit who’s just passing through. This is partly because the sometimes frantic pace of video clips is a device created in part to withstand repeated viewings. In MTV, as in pop, the form works through repetition. Watch it enough times, and even something as speedy and apparently random as Stephen Johnson’s “Sledgehammer” clip for Peter Gabriel begins to make perfect sense. (Like the lyrics, it’s a series of metaphors about reproduction.) Sit and watch it once, “read” it like a novel or a movie, and of course it seems to make no sense at all.

This has implications that go beyond this rather banal point. One of the achievements of MTV and music videos has been to force television to dance to a new beat. Camera movement and editing no longer follow the conventions of light entertainment, the television play, or Hollywood cinema. Rather than complain that rock and roll has been taken over by television, one might suppose that music has invaded television. Whatever the effects of this might be, they surely do not imply that MTV is nonsense, or that its audience is helpless and apathetic.

For the tired professors of pop culture, and for the hacks who are always eager to find an easy target, MTV’s insistence on the visual (remember, these people are deaf, not def) is evidence enough that it cannot address the world rationally. And yet for a station that is supposedly aimed at a disengaged, airhead, is-there-life-beyond-make-up? audience, MTV seems strangely committed to a social agenda that is not only responsible but also liberal and occasionally left of center. The political critique of MTV has generally been limited to an assault on its sexism and on the racism of its earlier programming policies. Both arguments remain cogent, but MTV’s development into a pop-culture-plus-news environment has opened up other spaces.

MTV watchers should have noticed this in the fall of 1989, when MTV screened a two-hour documentary titled Decade, which won considerable critical acclaim and which firmly announced the arrival of an anti-Reaganite cell inside MTV. Mixing interviews, news segments, songs, and video clips, Decade mounted a savage liberal critique of the 1980s that was a good deal more biting than anything attempted by the softies at the networks.

This strand of socially responsible MTV continues today, despite all the critical rhetoric about “empty-vee.” During the gulf war it broke with the flag-waving consensus displayed at CNN and the networks, and became one of the few places on television where alternative views were aired. That was not entirely unprecedented. MTV News had done the same thing in its coverage of abortion rights, arts censorship, flag burning, and the Oliver North trial. It had heavily promoted voter-registration drives and had run strongly anticorporate environmental pieces. It now runs a station-ID segment that culminates in the legend “End racism.”

None of this is to suggest that this is not a cynical effort to glean some much needed countercultural kudos, that the station is not saturated with consumerism, or that MTV is not politically compromised. Earlier this year Sut Jhally, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, made a nonprofit educational videotape titled Dreamworlds critiquing MTV’s sexist portrayal of women. He was threatened with a lawsuit for copyright infringements, which instructively demarked the limits of MTV’s perpetual oh-so-clever autocritique.

However, the liberal and socially responsible strand of MTV is important–partly because it’s an area that has expanded over the years, and partly because MTV’s motives for incorporating liberal politics are irrelevant as long as the audience takes its message seriously. Yet remarkably this issue remains entirely neglected by MTV analysts who worry that the kids are losing their minds to a channel that’s devoted to making Less Than Zero real.

Yet contrary to its own propaganda, MTV is far more conventional than one might expect from all the ink spilled about its radical departures from existing television aesthetics. It is, after all, a cable-television service, not an epistemology. But like rock and rap, MTV must appear to keep changing. In 1986 Robert Pittman, MTV’s chief executive, summed up the problem for Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times: “One of the interesting things is that for all the ‘issues’ that have been raised about MTV, no one has ever touched on the real issue, which is: How do you keep creativity going? How do you convince the creative people to give up a great idea and move on to a new idea? If there is one thing we worry about day after day, it is that issue.”

The modernist concept of “creativity” at work here is instructive, since it precisely reflects dominant ideas about what constitutes “art” in rock, pop, and rap music. For just as its clips visualize a sound track, and just as the repetitive structure of the schedule mirrors how we listen to pop, MTV’s operating philosophy must be synchronized with pop culture. Which is why on-screen VJ presenters are encouraged to go for spontaneity and self-consciousness rather than “professionalism.” And why the VJs draw on rock-and-roll, rather than televisual, conventions in which “feel” is more important than accuracy.

This imperative to reflect rock culture, to seem distinct from “conventional” television, drives MTV’s relentless irony, its nothing-matters-and-what-if-it-does attitude. But despite its tragic display of terminal hipness, MTV is actually rather sensible. The “MTV generation” (12- to 34-year-olds) continues to watch video clips and television programs whose codes and conventions are extremely familiar. It listens to music from a playlist that is considerably more adventurous than most American radio stations. It is prodded into taking a sensible attitude about drugs, alcohol, and the environment. Every now and then Kurt Loder and MTV News pop up to give political and social issues of the day a liberal gloss, while the clips themselves occasionally tackle questions of sexism, inequality, homelessness, and so on. Yes, this audience also watches a lot of clips of heavy-metal bands performing in mind-numbingly banal and often sexist scenarios that suggest some video directors need metaphor therapy. But when MTV claims in one of its slogans that “We’re making it up as we go along,” the boast is empty hype. As a description of some of the efforts to analyze MTV, however, that phrase could get a lot of mileage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.