Music Television Turns 10
IT'S commercials 24 hours a day. Beautiful people rocking around the clock, bopping without dropping. Women in big hair and big lips. Men in mean attitudes and pulsating hips. Sell. Sell. Sell.MTV has got the world by the eyeballs and the recording industry by the purse strings. This month, it turns 10. In August 1981, young Americans sat captivated as the world's first 24-hour rock-and-roll music video network hit cable TV. Prophetically, the first video shown carried the refrain "Video Killed the Radio Star." Today 56.6 million American households - and 40 countries around the world - are transfixed by MTV's fusion of sound and image. According to MTV, most viewers are 18 to 24 years old, and the channel is watched equally by men and women. So successful is the formula that MTV's parent, Viacom International Inc., (which also owns VH-1 and Nickelodeon cable channels), plans to launch two more 24-hour music cable shows in 1993. In the beginning, when 29-year-old Bob Pittman came up with the idea of uniting his generation's two greatest influences - television and rock-and-roll - many said it wouldn't work. Who would watch music commercials for 24 hours? How would the record companies who paid to make the videos in return for free airplay on MTV make back their investment? Two record companies initially refused to sign on. But Mr. Pittman's plan proved the skeptics wrong. (He has since left to work with Time Warner Inc.) Today, musicians and record companies can't afford not to make videos; nobody says no to MTV. "They've exposed artists and revolutionized the business," says Stan Goman, senior vice-president of Tower Records and Video based in San Francisco. "It made a lot of acts, like Madonna, acts that are more visual than they are audio." But MTV sells more than records: It sells fashion. Call it cultural colonialism: MTV has helped homogenize popular culture around the world. Teens around the world - Missouri, Mexico, Malaysia - see what's hot and what's not. Fans show up at concerts dressed like the performers - draped in Madonna's crucifixes, gloves, and lace; covered in Axl Rose's long hair, bandana, and tatoos. But if the recording industry and the spandex-pants makers are pleased with MTV's consumer-oriented message, many critics are not. "They're not just selling the record. They're selling a life style," says Pat Aufderheide, professor of Communications at American University. "MTV has transformed commercials into programs, and well expressed the fact that popular cultures's defining feature is commercial. "What bothers me about MTV is it represents consumption as identity," she continues. "The way that you define yourself is as a consumer. The way that you become real to yourself is by purchasing the right song, assuming the right attitude." For Sut Jhally, professor of communications at University of Massachusetts, the M in MTV means misogynist - woman hating. According to Mr. Jhally, 60 percent of the videos played by MTV portray the "dreamworld of the adolescent male," where women are passive objects or aggressive temptresses with one thing on their minds: sex. "The predominant image in videos is of a woman whose primary interest is in sex, and most of whose activities revolve around men. The focus is on women's bodies; the camera lingers on parts of the body." He has collected clips from several videos - by performers such as Rod Stewart, the Beach Boys, David Lee Roth, Sam Kenison, and Paula Abdul - and assembled them into a video collage called "Dreamworlds: Desire/Sex/Power in Rock Video." In these videos sex sells, says Jhally. So what's the harm? Jhally suggests that these images promote attitudes that can lead to rape.
Joseph Weinberg, a rape prevention counselor based in Madison, Wisc., agrees. But he adds that many of these videos also show negative stereotypes of men as aggressive rather than caring, loving people. "We don't see nurturing, we don't see play. I see no negotiating, no real happiness.... I always refer to it as EMPTY-V," says Mr. Weinberg. Psychologist and Harvard lecturer Lynn Layton of Brookline, Mass., agrees. "These videos are teaching boys how to look at women.... They collaborate with sexism in the broader culture." Still, many of these same critics acknowledge the good news about MTV: It has given women musicians access to the male-dominated world of rock-and-roll. And lately, with special segments like "Yo! MTV Raps," more black acts are getting played. Film producer and author Lisa Lewis studied four female musicians - Pat Benatar, Tina Turner, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna - for her recent book "Gender, Politics, and MTV." Dr. Lewis concludes that these women - all of whom have gotten extensive airplay on MTV - celebrate women's culture and give female fans something to identify with that's missing in male videos. Her conclusion: Women are more involved in rock music since the advent of MTV. Lewis cites Pat Benatar's experience as a performer: Before MTV, Benatar said only 20 percent of her concert audience was female; after much MTV airplay, Benatar's audience grew to more than half women. "MTV provided an arena for female musicians to present themselves, become popular, promote and represent themselves," says Lewis. If people object to sexist images in videos, says Lewis, at least it's getting us talking. "MTV is a new battleground for discussion over gender experience, over social conflicts. Now the issue is race - black and white relations - coming on the heels of male and female relations.... The channel has enabled all these discussions to take place." Before MTV blows out its 10 candles this month, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) has a wish: that MTV offer specific viewing times that are safe for children - and for conscientious adults. "Our biggest beef with MTV is not that it's more violent or sexually degrading than other channels, but that it's all mixed together so a viewer can't pick out a particular time period that you know there's going to be no sexually degrading material," says Thomas Radecki, chairman of the Champaign, Ill.-based NCTV. This month, NCTV is halfway through a study measuring the levels of violence and sex on MTV. So far, they say, so good: MTV contains less violence and sexually degrading material in 1991 than it did in the 1980s. The bad news, they say, is that rap music contains the most degrading images of women, followed by hard rock/light metal.