The Prosthetics of Rock
(Note: This article, which is much longer than typical Soundbitten fare, originally appeared, in a slightly shorter and less pretentious form, in the magazine Request.)
MTV turned fifteen last summer; amongst other things, this means that pretty much every teenager in America has grown up thinking music is something you watch as much as you listen to. And while some (usually older) rock fans may resist that notion, even the most diehard audiocentric has to acknowledge MTV's influence: from Madonna to Milli Vanilli to Marilyn Manson, its impact has been all too apparent. What's less visible, however, or at least less chronicled, is the effect it's had on that pretentious, necessary, and often overlooked adjunct of rock music - rock criticism.
In 1981, when MTV debuted, writing seriously about rock was still a relatively new pursuit. Crawdaddy! pioneered the genre in early 1966 with a term-paperish, ten-page mimeographed first issue that today's slick zine impresarios would scoff at; its focus was avowedly criticism. Instead of pin-up photos and news items, it aimed to deliver "intelligent writing about pop music." Early contributor Richard Meltzer, in a retrospective, mostly earnest assessment of the long-defunct magazine, said it "bore the earmarks of being an actual ongoing forum for the promulgation of a 'rock consciousness.'" A year and a half after Crawdaddy! made its debut, however, Rolling Stone hit the newstands. It took a different - and, ultimately, far more lucrative - tack than Crawdaddy!, paying more attention to the burgeoning rock scene than to the sound; indeed, its star-struck publisher, Jann Wenner, seemed less intent on developing "rock consciousness" than in altering his own with the likes of John Lennon and Mick Jagger. Criticism had its place in Rolling Stone, especially in its early years, but its role grew less significant as star profiles and backstage gossip turned out to be the most profitable use of editorial space. In time, such journalistic attention helped turn the progressive, anti-establishment subculture of rock into mass-market entertainment.
But Rolling Stone, with its limited circulation and dependence on text and photos, had only so much transformative power. It took MTV to truly turn rock musicians into full-blown celebrities. It put them on display 24 hours a day; instead of extrapolating personality from album covers or the albums themselves, or seeking out the latest article or interview, all you had to do was turn on the TV. Often, the performers featured in MTV's early days were little more than placeholders, second-rate stand-ins filling screen space until the real stars of the day recognized the promotional potential of this new medium - and yet, as the centers of attention in MTV's new seductive dreamscape, even such long-forgotten bands as the Buggles and Men Without Hats proved momentarily compelling. Like celebrities in the more mediated fields of movies and TV, musicians could now become famous simply for being famous.
Their constant exposure has led to a surfeit of rock journalism; fans want behind-the-scenes trivia to flesh out the context-free icons that MTV delivers. Often lost in the slough of endless tour hijinx anecdotes, fashion-catalog-style wardrobe descriptions, and rote recitals of epiphanic adolescent moments, however, is a critical perspective. Case in point: two recent cover stories about Marilyn Manson, one in Rolling Stone, the other in Alternative Press. After reading them, I now know that Manson's real name is Brian, that he's not planning on committing suicide anytime soon, and that, contrary to his parricidal reputation, he gets along pretty well with his groupie dad - but I still have relatively little idea of what his music sounds like, or if it even comes close to living up to his desire to jumpstart the apocalypse.
Music videos do serve as a kind of music criticism themselves - each one offers an "interpretation" of the song it supports, albeit a different kind of interpretation than the reactive one a critical essay generally provides. That is, there's no rule that says a video's images and narrative (if there is one) must correspond to a song's lyrics, or in any other way demonstrate or comment on a song's meaning. Instead, its "interpretation" is an emotional one, achieved by associating whatever imagery the videomaker and/or musician consider most appropriate. Cultivating that spooky rebel vibe? Then rip off some ten-year-old Joel-Peter Witkin imagery and throw in some bugs. Keeping it real? Make sure to use the hand-held. In a sense, making a music video is more of a creative act than an interpretive one; a histrionic cockroach, with the right direction, can become as much a part of a song's rebellious nature as its grating guitar chords - except that all songs exist apart from their videos. That music video-only releases are pretty much unheard of suggests that, for the time being, the song is still considered a fundamentally auditory entity; its video portion is a supplement, an interpretation.
As engrossing as these interpretations can be, they rarely provide the sort of analysis that leads to a deeper understanding of an artist's intentions or merits. That's because they lack the abstraction of true criticism, the necessary detachment. "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," goes the wounded pop star's lament, but the irony of that failed putdown is its articulation of criticism's chief virtue: it isn't what it sets out to examine. The distance between it and its subject is the key to any analytic power it might possess, because that distance provides perspective. Consider this sentence from Greil Marcus: "Billy Zoom doesn't so much play his guitar solos as get them over with." Marcus speaks in a different language than Zoom; he doesn't try to recreate Zoom's solos, because he knows he can't. Instead, uses the techniques of criticism - contextualization, assertion, intellectualization - and in a single sentence, he manages to suggest a whole new aesthetic, to define what makes Zoom's band, X, important. Could music video have accomplished the same thing? It's possible, but never with such economy and explicitness; the medium lacks the necessary level of abstraction.
Music videos don't eliminate music criticism, of course, but they do reduce the most common kind: that which goes on inside your own head, as you listen to a song. If all you're doing is listening, it's fairly easy to think critically about what you're hearing. But if you also happening to be watching a song, that kind of thought becomes much more difficult - your brain is too busy processing the stream of images the video presents. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons no real discipline of music video criticism has yet to arise. Look in any of the major rock magazines; not one includes a music video review section. In fact, the only critics who seem to review music videos on an ongoing basis are Beavis and Butthead - and pretty much all they manage to say about them is that they suck. Such brevity's characterized as a sign of the duo's stupidity, but really, it's hard to imagine anyone saying more than that.
Why? Because except for the most superficial kind of value-attachment, videos are essentially designed to resist meaning. Their primary quality, as Douglas Rushkoff suggests in his book Media Virus!, is the discontinuity they achieve through their grand mal editing style. The average shot in a video lasts for about two seconds now; shorter edits are quite common too, and usually you can watch several hours of MTV without seeing a shot that lasts longer than five seconds. This is true regardless of music genre. An En Vogue song gets the same edit treatment as something from The Offspring, which is why MTV can mix music styles in a way that no radio station would try to attempt: even if songs don't sound the same, or even look the same, in respect to particular imagery or color palettes, they have the same visual impact. In maintaining their monotonously frenetic style, videos sacrifice all the dramatic possibilities of pace that might help make them unique. And since the shots are all so short, action invariably reduces to posture - the singer pouting, the singer frowning, the singer pouting again. It's tough to be both boring and overwrought, but an overwhelming number of music videos manage to pull this off.
Even so, Rushkoff applauds the medium's discontinuity; in his opinion, it engages viewers, forcing them to make their own connections between quick successions of images. As he describes it, this process is a fairly arbitrary one - it "can be done differently with each viewing." If this is true, if a music video's meaning is dependent only on a particular viewer's state of mind at a given viewing, then what, as a critic, can you really say about it? Suddenly, Beavis and Butthead begin to look a little smarter; their emotional, highly subjective, somewhat infantile responses - "it sucks" or "it doesn't suck" - are all the medium permits.
That doesn't make MTV bad, of course. Everyone craves deliverance from thought; MTV is one of cheapest, most convenient ways to achieve that. And for that matter, so is a lot of rock music, without any help from MTV at all. But rock's original promise, as Meltzer's remark regarding the possibility of a "rock consciousness" suggests, was greater than that. In delivering its inarticulate, overamplified fuck-you to convention, it promised a different way of looking at the world, a fresh start, new rules. With its smoke-and-mirrors iconography, MTV tends to obscure this fact - it makes you forget that rock, in addition to being something you listen to or watch, is also something you think about.
That MTV has this effect, however, is in the end a kind of ironic consolation - because when rock becomes so incidental, little more than the screensaver that appears between ads for Sprite and Nintendo, music criticism, in its articulation of rock's purpose and determination of its value, becomes more necessary than ever.
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