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Sex, commercials, rock 'n' roll.

Since its inception in 1981, MTV has hardly received a kind or dispassionate word, at least from "respectable," "responsible" adults. The 'round-the-clock, all-music cable network, set up to capture the hard-to-get fourteen-to-thirty-four-year-old consumer market, seems to have offended and alarmed almost everyone in one way or another.

Commercial to its blatantly money-grubbing core, filled with images of sexy women and incipiently violent men, set in a mesmerizing time-space zone of its own into which no hint of social reality or cultural history dare intrude, it is, we are regularly reminded, the most menacing of cultural "beasts" yet to come slouching toward our battered Bethlehem.

In spite of all this disapprobation, the thing keeps growing. No one denies that, having already transformed (and rejuvenated) the music industry, it has even, of late, given a shot in the arm to electoral politics. No less a lofty threesome than President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings made a point of showing up first and being televised at the MTV inagural ball, the hottest ticket in town that week, to press the flesh of the young VJs (video jockeys) and fans who had been so instrumental in getting out the Democratic vote.

But wait a minute.

If MTV is so apolitical, why was it at the center of national politics?

If, for that matter, it's so hopelessly racist, sexist, and commercial, why has it been, more and more regularly, the platform for politically explosive rap and hip-hop anthems from such groups as Public Enemy and Arrested Development?

If it's so unambiguously sexist, why has it produced the texts around which the most heated and vexed discussions--academic and popular--of feminism and sexual representation have taken place recently? (Whatever one thinks of Madonna and her academic supporters, or the many new all-female rap and punk groups yelling about sex and sexism in graphic terms, there is no doubt that MTV has been the site of an intense struggle over feminism and representation in which most women are somehow invested.)

And finally, in the greedy 1980s, when insider trading was the national sport on prime time and Wall Street, why was it MTV that preserved what little there was of the culture of protest in the form of such benefit concerts as Farm-Aid, Live-Aid, and the Sun City anti-apartheid event, and raised millions of dollars and at least some consciousness about the plight of those outside the glittery world of the Rich and Famous? (When I ask students to name one thing they didn't know about before television brought it to their attention, the most common answer is "the plight of the farmers," which they learned about through Farm-Aid. No surprise, really, when you consider how rarely poor working people and their problems appear on TV news or drama.)

No, I'm not suggesting that MTV gets a wholly undeserved rap. MTV is most certainly commercial, often sexist, and a lot of other bad things. Its endless parade of half-clad women and fragmented female body parts; its scary glamorizing of macho males, black and white alike, bragging about planned or past sexual exploits; its driving need to valorize consumerism as the path to ecstasy--all these things are true and creepy.

But MTV, more than most forms, is also committed, for reasons beyond its owners' control, to promoting a lot of values and attitudes that are far from conservative, politically or culturally; that are in direct conflict with the things just described, the things that most adults quite inaccurately think of as the whole story. In fact--and this is why MTV is intriguing and important--it is the most contradictory of all successful commercial media today. MTV--rooted int eh culture of rebellion out of which rock 'n' roll was born, yet committed to packaging and selling consumerism and the status quo--does a fascinating, sometimes dangerous little dance along the fault lines of corporate capitalism. It reveals, in its often tacky way, just what we are up against when we talk about "cultural revolution" (if, indeed, any of us still do) in a postmodern, media-saturated world.

To get a handle on this kaleidoscope, we need to look at its history in the context of rock music as a whole. MTV is set up to deny the very concept of history; its famous man-on-the-moon logo boldly suggests that history begins as a media event and then goes off in a chronology-defying spiral of endless, disconnected images. But it has evolved and changed quite dramatically and progressively in its brief twelve years, largely for political reasons its critics do not acknowledge.

Most MTV critics, members of the baby-boom generation for whom rock means the innocent 1950s and the counter-cultural 1960s--and I'm not including here the many critics who simply dislike or fear rock music generally for its "decadence" or whatever--couch their arguments in terms of a compelling narrative of cultural and political purity followed by a fall from grace under the influence of the serpent of commerce.

The most articulate and moving version of this narrative comes, not surprisingly, from Bob Dylan, the man whose sense of what's happening culturally, and what it means, has so often been so profoundly on target.

"The corporate world," he said a few years ago, "when they figured out what [rock] was and how to use it, they snuffed the breath out of it and killed it. Used to be, they were afraid, you know, like 'hide your daughters,'... Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, they struck fear in the heart. Now they got a purpose, to sell soap, blue jeans, Kentucky Fried Chicken, whatever ... it's all been neutralized, nothing threatening, nothing magical, nothing challenging.... I hate to see it, because you know it set me free, set the whole world on fire.... There's a lot of us who still remember."

Anyone who came of age politically during the heady days of Woodstock, Vietnam, SDS, civil rights, and women's liberation knows what Dylan is talking about and probably shares his nostalgia. But this romanticized version of rock history is flawed. It ignores the importance of the social and political context in which rock, as oppositional culture, thrived, and the importance of mass, organized activism as a force which the corporate media had to respond to. Or, to put it another way, it idealizes the "purity" of the early days as though the industry and its values were not already central forces in the development of rock, without which there would have been no "rock culture."

Rock was never all that pure and virtuous. Nor is it now a hopelessly crass batch of devil's candy. Now, as in the early days, it is a mixed cultural and political bag. The current rise to mass popularity of the alternative music movement called "grunge" is a perfect example of how the contradictions have always worked, from Elvis's and Dylan's times to ours. The kids who had been listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in garages and dinky clubs for years are now outraged that "their" music has been co-opted and commercialized by MTV and Rolling Stone--as outraged as Dylan is over his generation's earlier co-optation by Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But co-optation is a misleading term. If one wants to be seen and heard in American culture in a way that puts one on the map, one must deal with agents, promoters, sponsors, and record and television companies. This has always been true of rock music, the bastard child of an illicit union between "people's music" of various kinds and corporate capitalism.

Looked at from this perspective, MTV takes on a different tinge. In fact, it is hard to sustain the argument that MTV "caused" the decline of rock as oppositional culture, or that it "caused" the total commercialization and degradation of that form. It's not as though, in 1981, the rest of the media were doing much better where commercialization, sexism, and violence were concerned. These were, after all, the days of Dallas, Dynasty, women-in-danger slasher films, and the rise of block-buster movies about superheros and special effects. What alternative music there was, was almost invisible to anyone over twenty and outside Manhattan.

It's no surprise that MTV, born in these cynical days, reflected the most apolitical, commercial forces in the culture. Its founder, Robert Pittman, arrogantly and openly bragged of targeting a young white male suburban audience and refused to air many videos by women or minority artists for commercial reasons. He hired VJs who were not allowed to say anything about anything, even the video clips they announced--which at that time were the only content aside from ads. The format of heavy rotation for very briefly popular songs fit the needs of the industry, which gave the network clips for nothing. It was, as critics quickly noticed, an embarrassment to anyone who took rock seriously.

But--and I remember feeling this almost immediately when I saw it--MTV was also fascinating and exciting to watch, filled with bits of imaginative and creative visuals, both in the clips and in the irreverent, high-spirited graphics that changed as rapidly as the music. I couldn't take my eyes off of it for a long time and there were some videos from those first years which seemed to me amazing for what they managed to portray and say about race, class, and gender, against the grain of the built-in structural forces meant to make each of these themes nonexistent.

As the years have gone by, much has happened to change MTV for the better. As Lisa Lewis argues in her book Gender Politics and MTV, women (like me) were watching, even if they weren't invited, and they began demanding more videos by and about them. Since their money was as good at the malls as their boyfriends', the network had to respond.

Lewis charts the careers of Tina Turner, Cindy Lauper, Madonna, and Pat Benatar, and shows how each of these women was able to insert woman-identified, even feminist, messages into a context of extreme sexism and conservatism because of the contradictions built into the structure of mass media: Audiences matter and, in spite of much opinion to the contrary, they do not sit still for any old thing. Moreover, just as radical youth politics made it possible for such groups as Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Country Joe and the Fish, to sing about protest and revolution on major labels in the 1960s, feminism--a force in the consciousness of almost every young girl today--made it possible for tough-talking, independent women to get on screen and rise to the top of the charts.

That there are even as many politically conscious women on MTV as there are today is amazing, given the built-in sexism of rock culture. What is more understandable, however, is the transformation of MTV where race is concerned. Almost blatantly racist at the start, MTV today devotes whole programs to rap music and runs videos by black groups, including a growing number of such feminist groups as Salt n' Pepa, constantly.

Here is where the contradictory nature of the network is perhaps most obvious. Pittman, culturally illiterate yuppie that he was, overlooked the fact that American popular music would not exist as we know it without the influence of black culture. To be a "rock" network and ignore black music would be suicidal. And so the network built to sell jeans and acne cream has been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of "Yo, MTV Raps!" with its vulgar, often sexually offensive, and scary tirades about life in the ghetto, complete with street scenes and graffiti which even Dylan would have to admit do a good job of "striking fear in the heart" of the white suburbanities Pittman originally courted.

For all the pressure to keep politics out, the fact remains that rock 'n' roll, as Dylan rightly notes, was born of rebellion and a utopian desire for freedom, and for the fulfillment of desires which this society represses. Ultimately, MTV could do nothing to hide that fact, nothing that wouldn't also destroy its own cash cow.

Indeed, it is the logic of cable--from which MTV springs--to offer specialty programming for segments of the population not fully represented by network hegemonic images and ideas. That's why we have the Christian Broadcasting Network and that's why we have MTV.

MTV got boring after a while. The endless stream of mindless, unanalyzed videos could only sustain attention for a certain amount of time. This contradicts, to some extent, the "mind-numbing," "addictive" theories about television that insist that viewers get hooked on the sameness of the format and can't break away. Today, on the contrary, MTV offers news, documentaries on issues such as race and homosexuality, a variety of thirty-minute programs, among the most interesting of which is Liquid TV, airing some of the most creative animated features around, and special features, such as the charity/protest concerts and last year's visits from candidates Clinton and Gore during which they were questioned by college students.

Seen in this way, the model that presents rock as first "pure" and then "co-opted" is obviously simplistic. Rather, MTV, like all pop culture, is contradictory and shifty, pushed and pulled by the forces of reaction and progress. While bad guys have most of the chips and veto power, they cannot totally ignore the demands of social movements and audiences.

If this seems like a crazy thing to say, I challenge you to watch the network--for a good long stretch of time--and note the presence of many things seen nowhere else on TV. Working-class and minority faces, voices, and scenes appear on MTV in ways that are positive and often rebellious.

The news--about prejudice and censorship especially--is read with a positive sneer of derision by Kurt Loder on MTV, while the likes of Dan Rather and Peter Jennings are telling the same sad stories with an authority-boosting tone of acceptance and inevitability.

And the top bands--Arrested Development, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name a few worth listening to and thinking about--are as angry, as talented, and as culturally oppositional as the best new rock has always been.

Or, if you can't bring yourself to actually watch MTV, stop in at the library and check out the May issue of Washington Monthly, which has done it for you. In a lengthy, well-documented story on MTV's "hot new political coverage," writer Christopher Georges describes in detail (and in language fraught with hysteria) several examples of MTV's clearly progressive, anti-Republican coverage of last summer's conventions. Rapper M.C. Lyte, one of the correspondents quoted for example, is heard to exclaim excitedly that the Democrats had passed a pro-choice platform: "All right! We're starting somewhere! We're getting somewhere!"

Georges is right about the increasingly liberal slant of the rock network and about its increasing transformation into an information and opinion source for young people disaffected from traditional news media. He is wrong, though, about its broad political implications. Tabitha Soren and her colleagues are not, as he asserts, "the Tom Haydens and Abbie Hoffmans of the 1990s"--we should be so lucky--and Gil Scott-Heron's words still hold sway: "The revolution will not be televised." In fact, MTV has already reformulated the phrase and made it into a key motto. In now goes: "The music revolution will be televised." And that, of course, is hyperbole.

Nonetheless, there is a definite progressive drift on MTV which is related to the very real tendency of young people, historically, to be more progressive, especially around social issues, than their elders. This may have seemed questionable in the 1980s, but--and MTV is as good a marker of this as any--it appears, increasingly, to be true again.

But I am less interested in defending MTV than in reading a more serious message into its dubious strengths and obvious weaknesses. Rock 'n' roll, or any other cultural form, is only as radical or oppositional as the social context in which it thrives. The corporate media hate opposition and suffer it only when forced to. It takes activism and empowerment to force the media to the Left, and it always has. Kids today are yelling, "I want my MTV!" as the producers hoped they would. But they are also yelling a bit more than expected about what kind of MTV they want. And a lot of what they are demanding is less bleak than what we old New Lefties are consuming on VH-1 and PBS with their sad-sack country-and-Western revivals and tributes to Lawrence Welk.
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Title Annotation:role of MTV
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Nuclear whistleblower.
Next Article:Culture and imperialism.

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