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Miscellaneous - The Death of the Music Video

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 13 / 2 / 2010

Miscellaneous - The Death of the Music Video


After spending his adolescence watching Much Music, Canada's version of MTV, Jeff Thiessen reflects upon the death of the music video

I was flipping through some late night TV the other day, and I caught something I hadn’t seen in years. An actual music video. Remember those things? Today they’re regarded as a rather embarrassing blip on the industry’s radar, a movement that had its day, and one that for most, always instilled hope of a better tomorrow. Growing up, I not only watched a shit-ton of them for entertainment value, but I fundamentally depended on them as well. Now they’re a bad joke, a street scene that still has some befuddled onlookers gazing on in disbelief at their marginal, but sustained existence. The Death of the Music Video was generally applauded by all those who hold music dear to their hearts, and I admit, initially I was one of those jaded folks waving this flag, but since their slow-burn demise, we’ve had time to evaluate what their absence truly means to our perception of contemporary music, and I gotta say, I don’t miss em, but the youth of today probably doesn’t know what they’re missing, and that’s some much needed impartiality via a pretty tacky visual medium. The simple question I’m posing to you today is this: The music video is a shred away from being completely dead and bloated, but what does that leave us with, and is this new path an optimistic one? It’s a completely valid question, and a potentially alarming cultural shift. I have been in this industry for several years now, and I grew up in the peak of the music video’s power, so I am in a fairly unique position that allows me insights many might not have access to. As mischievous kids, Much Music (Canada’s MTV) was our bible, our go-to channel at pretty much all hours of any given day. To be clear, approximately 93% of the music featured on Much was total trash, an,d believe me, I still accurately recall those terrible days of wading through video after video involving shirtless nimrods singing in the rain just to maybe hear one new video that will entice me to run out and buy that group’s album. That soul-crushing tedium is not lost on me by any means. It’s this memory that also allows people to seamlessly scoff at their existence and subsequent success. There’s a bigger picture here though. Obviously the vast majority of Much’s programming (and MTV’s by extension) was brutal, but many were prone to figuring this out rather swiftly. So sure, we had to put up with a lot of garbage to get to hear something that will make us crank the volume, but what’s wrong with that? The more I think about it, the more I think that patience we all developed in the early to mid nineties not only gave us a zero-tolerance iron will, but it’s a kind of romantic concept too. When that new Nine Inch Nails video finally arrived after days, weeks of wading through Ace of Base and Cardigans singles, it was all worth it, just for that five minute duration. Having said that, while the process I described can be a noble pursuit, that really isn’t the focal loss we suffered when videos went the way of the dodo bird. It’s the analytical skills we gained. So what really happened after their demise? Well, it was right about that time when basically every single North American household began to acquire internet access, so from there it was a short leap to what I and many of my colleagues call, “The Pitchfork Era”, which is basically a shorthand term for describing the power Pitchforkmedia, as well as any other widely read music publication, now yields over the public at large. I keep hearing over and over, “Print media is dead man”, and perhaps that is the case in its more traditional forms, like newspapers or magazine stands, but in its more progressive forms it’s almost exactly the opposite. I never truly realized this, until fairly recently, when my friend Jordan proudly informed me he had downloaded Pitchfork’s entire “Best 100 songs of 2009” onto his ipod. This sort of thing is concerning to me, but what’s more scary, is I’m pretty sure this concern is not a very widespread one. Much Music and MTV were a severely flawed medium. They both had their agendas to push, quotas to meet, and without a doubt, bottom-line mentalities up the fucking wazoo. It’s fair to cry foul when considering the fact that the visual imagery in these videos often proved to be a primo factor when processing the song as an input. Still though, the music was there, and in the overwhelming majority, prevalent (there were exceptions of course, like ‘November Rain’ and Eminem’s ‘Stan’, to name a couple). So most of the time there were some very tangible criteria present for us to take in on as a personal/diagnostic level as we wanted. If the youth of today are getting their new favourite music from hip print media, the problem therein lies in the fact they’re hearing an opinion foremost, and then listening to the music with enthusiasm based solely on this subjective opinion. The obvious concern here is that dissent has proven to not be the rule or even a frequent standard. It’s the exception. This isn’t some form of cognitive dissonance, or a crisis of identity, but common sense tells us people want to put trust in reliable sources, and if that trust is shattered on a consistent level, then that person is left wandering in perpetual limbo with no real form of leadership that allows us to conveniently latch onto what those leaders have decided is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, or in the case of the topic at hand, ‘good music’ and ‘bad music’. I don’t want that kind of power, and it certainly explains the messiah complex so many writers at Pitchfork have fallen under, but I’m a fan first and foremost, writer second. I have opinions I want all of you to absorb, and ideally, make you look at some things from a different angle that you might not have seen before. Far be it for me to push my likes and dislikes into your life. When did this industry become is hovering amoeba just waiting to dive into the first throat of innocent indifference? Mass assimilation is not this ‘higher learning’ of the finer points of current music, or any shit like that. Instead it’s widespread self-calamity filtered through the guise of quality control. If that’s not a gross concept to you, I’m sure you’d make a fine soldier in the Third Reich. As a writer, I want you to listen to me, but I don’t want you to obey me, to rely on me as a convenient attaché case to help you seamlessly glide into the post-modern world that separates you from all those other disinfected folks who stumble about through life trying to figure things out on their own (God forbid, eh!). Us rock journalists just have a pen, and a voice, like all of you. There is no secret-handshake society that allows us to be privy to a nether realm of enlightened musical philosophy that we can only share with you in short bursts, or we’ll be excommunicated from the sect. I may know more about music than most of you, but I don’t know more about music than most of you. Most of us, (including those ‘prodigies’ over at Pitchfork who live in their grandma’s basement), just love music, and it’s a constant struggle to try and figure out the best way for us to explain that to our readers. We’re not teachers, we’re constantly learning, just like all of you out there. We all have stupid albums kicking around (me personally, I have Chicago’s ‘Live at Carnegie Hall Vol IV’ kicking around somewhere, to name one of many terrible purchases I have), and most of us don’t sit around in high end pubs discussing the finer points of Eugene Chadbourne’s discography while getting elegantly wasted. We drink in shitholes just like all of you reading this, all the while probably singing along to stuff like the Cult’s ‘Firewoman’, until its last call, at which point we fight the urge to puke in the parking lot, and order one more nightcap instead (and then end up puking in the parking lot afterwards, of course). My point is this: consult, but don’t kowtow. Many of the best marriages in this world come from diametrical opposites, hybrids of freak outs and serenity, ambition and ennui, a nervous twitch and calming moments of clarity. If all your passions in life arrive easily and without struggle, than chances are, they’re somebody else’s passions that you have managed to cram and contort into the framework of how you see yourself, which essentially means that while you do exist, it’s a ghost of someone else. Plus I’m sure Pitchfork never had anything as cool on their site as Nine Inch Nails' ‘Perfect Drug’ video.

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