Gwen Ifill considers the impact MTV has made on America after 20 years on the air. She is joined by New York Times music critic Ann Powers; Nelson George, author of Hip Hop America; and Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.
SPOKESPERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll! ( MTV theme song playing )
GWEN IFILL: Music television: A simple enough concept when it began 20 years ago, music videos programmed wall to wall, all day and all night. But MTV turned out to be more than just a concept. The cable channel -- begun as a $20 million joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express -- redefined pop culture. Worldwide, MTV beams 31 channels into more than 140 countries and 350 million homes, nearly 80 million of those in the United States. The network, headquartered in Times Square, is now a billion dollar revenue center for its parent company, media conglomerate Viacom.
SPOKESMAN: We'll be doing for TV what FM did for radio.
GWEN IFILL: Starting out in a small studio in fort lee, new jersey, MTV transformed the radio disc jockey, or DJ, into video jockeys, nicknamed VJ's, who combined the sound of popular music with the look.
SPOKESPERSON: I want my MTV.
GWEN IFILL: Careers exploded. Boy George, Duran Duran, and Madonna all used music videos to define themselves and to build a solid fan base. In the beginning, the videos were relatively low budget, most of them the work of white pop and rock artists. But in 1983, Michael Jackson's hit Billy Jean finally broke the video color barrier. By the summer of 1988, "'Yo, MTV Raps" became part of the MTV lineup. And by the mid-90s, high-priced, lavishly-produced music videos had evolved into an MTV staple, and a marketing tool, that no successful artist could do without. But MTV has expanded beyond videos, now also filling its days and nights with awards shows, soap operas, beach specials and news.
SPOKESPERSON: Hi -- with an MTV news brief.
GWEN IFILL: Politicians soon realized its value in reaching young voters, even though the effort to reach out sometimes backfired.
GIRL: Mr. President, the world is dying to know, is it boxers or briefs?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Usually briefs.
GWEN IFILL: MTV also popularized reality programming, the un-scripted dramas now embraced by major networks. Beginning in 1992 on the "Real World," cameras captured the everyday lives of young people sharing a house in different locations; "Road Rules" took that concept on the road.
SINGER: I think I did it again. I made you believe …
GWEN IFILL: Today's pop young princes and princesses don't remember a time without MTV. The channel's after-school daily show, "Total Request Live," where viewers determine the play list, is a popular promotional stop. But while targeting younger viewers, MTV has been criticized for creating some of television's most sophomoric, and sometimes violent, programs, including "Beavis and Butthead…"
CARTOON EXCERPT: We've wasted our lives.
GWEN IFILL: ...And "Jackass," where hosts engage in a variety of pranks and dangerous stunts. But the objections raised mostly by older - old-fashioned critics has apparently not hurt MTV. Ratings show it still dominates the pop world, and its target audience, aged 12 to 24.
GWEN IFILL: We'll go a little older to take a closer look at MTV and its impact. Joining us are Ann Powers, pop music critic for the "New York Times" and author of "Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America;" Nelson George, who writes about popular culture and is the author of the book "Hip Hop America;" and Robert Thompson, Professor of Media and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He's also the founding director of their Center for the Study of Popular Television. Ann Powers, the year is 1994. Michael Jackson and his then- bride Lisa Marie Presley walk out on the to the MTV awards stage. They said it would never last. Okay. The same question to you about MTV. 20 years later, did you think it would ever last?
ANN POWERS: Well, I had a better sense that it would last than I did about Michael and Lisa Marie. That's definitely true. I'm 37 years old. There is no one younger than me who is a music fan anywhere in the world in the western world at least, who understands music without video, without MTV. It is an essential part of musical language now. So I mean is it going to last? Is rock 'n' roll going to last? You know what I mean.
GWEN IFILL: Nelson George, exactly what's good about MTV? We know what's bad about it. I'm going to ask you that too. What's good and what's bad about it?
NELSON GEORGE: It's a billboard. It's a place where people get a chance to see themselves reflected. What so many music videos do is project a fantasy life and also a kind of aspirational life of the viewer. Big cars, cute girls, cute guys. Big surroundings. Beaches. Larger than life sci-for instance -- it's a place where the imagination of young people is reflected. Ultimately the videos are... Even though the directors may be older and sometimes not, in fact, the artists are all very young mostly. They tend to want to reflect... I mean they all want to wear the new thing. And the new thing that they wear that they've seen cool kids wear ends up being worn by other kids. It's a cycle of transference that happens with MTV.
GWEN IFILL: Robert Thompson, let me ask you about this, because it's not my fantasy like Mariah Carey that we just saw on that tape to be on a little jet ski going down along the beach. But maybe it's somebody's fantasy. Is reality an issue at all here?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, not really. I mean, there's a lot of things going on in MTV. Part of it is that it isn't our fantasy. If people like you and I were getting into this channel it would be failing miserably at what it set out to do. You know, I knew that the rules of engagement in culture would be changed when I first saw MTV. I had just started teaching. And I was noticing all these students would talk about how they were beginning to date people according to whether or not they got MTV in their cable package at home, this idea that you don't like me for my brain, you don't even like me for my body, you like me for my coaxial cable connection. And there really was a sense, I think, back in '81 that this was the first thing on cable that you absolutely had to have. Up until now a lot of people were just electing not to get hooked up to cable. They didn't need to pay for something they got already for free. MTV I think lights the fuse of the cable explosion in a way that it seldom gets credit for. And then of course all the major changes that cable wrought in an American culture where there's now not singular popular culture but many popular cultures with an "s"
GWEN IFILL: Go ahead, Ann Power.
ANN POWER: I just wanted to say that I have to disagree that people over the age of, say, 19, have no interest in MTV. Otherwise MTV wouldn't be able to be doing the nostalgia act they're doing now. They need to reach an audience that's nostalgic for what was going on 20 years ago. Frankly, I think that a lot of viewers might age are going back to MTV and interested in the new channel they have M-2 because they are used to videos and they want to see them.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this, Ann Powers, which is, is MTV - assuming it has this great influence we're crediting with, is it responsible? Is it responsible when we see... I was watching a lot of MTV today in preparation for this segment. Total Request Live, 90 minutes of kids screaming -- followed by an hour of kids on the beach in bikinis. Is this responsible in the view they're sending of women, for instance?
ANN POWERS: Well, I admit sometimes I tune into TRL and I'm a little shocked at the way that Carson Daily, the host, is leading on these very young girls to act quite sexual. But, you know, culture in general is... It's not moral at its core. It's transparent, translucent at its core. It reflects and emanates the morality of the society around it. I don't think it's really MTV's responsibility to be responsible in certain ways. At the same time, do they go for the easy sex, the easy laugh, the easy slapstick? Yes, they do. They go for what teenagers like. Teenagers like rebellion. They like the dare.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Nelson George -
NELSON GEORGE: A lot of what MTV does is take things... MTV's top 40 radio meets Annette Funicello beach party movies, --
ANN POWERS: Exactly.
NELSON GEORGE: -- meets Marlin Brando and the Wild One. It's all these things that have always been in American youth culture, the things we've always liked which is fast cars, tight bikinis, six packs on guys, extravagant lifestyles. It puts it into a package that we see over and over again. It's really a combination of a lot of different strains of American youth culture.
GWEN IFILL: Is it responsible, Nelson George, you've written about hip hop, is it responsible on the subject of race?
NELSON GEORGE: You have to rephrase that question.
GWEN IFILL: I'll be happy to phrase that question. When I watch MTV, I don't see anybody who looks like me particularly. The people I do see who look like me aren't wearing a lot of clothes and they're doing a lot of things which aren't necessarily things I want my kids to be emulating.
NELSON GEORGE: If you're talking about a hip hop video, then basically hip hop is consumed by young males who fantasize of having girls in tight bikinis and having big cars. The videos you see reflect the audience that buys the music. Now, I mean, as an example one of the most prominent VJ's is a girl named Vinonda, very smart young lady. She's getting her own syndicated talk show I think this fall. She also wore very tight things and very leopardy sneaky things. And ultimately a lot of what youth culture is about is burgeoning sexuality. In that respect MTV does show that. MTV doesn't show videos of guys shooting gun.
ANN POWERS: No curse words.
NELSON GEORGE: No cursing on MTV. Almost every video you see has been vetted.
ANN POWERS: Right.
NELSON GEORGE: There's a regular video. And there's an MTV video.
GWEN IFILL: Let me bring Robert Thompson back in. Is this about marketing music or just old-fashioned marketing driven by advertisers?
ROBERT THOMPSON: It's about marketing an entire lifestyle. And MTV long since ceased to be just about music. It is about a lifestyle. Let's face it. MTV starts as a 24-hour infomercial service; essentially videos were infomercials for the acts and the recordings of these particular bands. The genius of MTV has been its ability to take what is supposedly subversive youth culture and to totally commodify it and package it in a way but without destroying it, without people saying, oh, this has been completely subsumed by the commercial establishment and we're not going to consume it. What MTV has managed to do is seamlessly present the entertainment industrial complex for consumption by people who think they're being -- consuming subversive kinds of stuff like spring break coverage and to do it effortlessly under the umbrella of a huge corporation.
GWEN IFILL: Ann Powers, is it possible anymore if you are a musician who is trying to break into the business make it big, make your impact, is it possible to succeed if you don't have a flashy, expensive video that airs on MTV?
ANN POWERS: Probably not with the teen audience that is the focus of MTV. It's very difficult, although in the past year or so we've seen very interesting developments quickly quashed by the multinational corporations of the music industry to get music out by other means such as the Internet, Napster, all of those tools. But the video is very important because kids use MTV like we and our parents used the radio. They have it on when they come home from school, the minute they come home and it's on all day and all night. Sometimes they sleep with it on. It is top 40. And to me the most irresponsible thing about MTV is actually what it does to the music industry itself, which is it hugely aids the consolidation of the industry and narrows our choices more and more. So Total Request Live gives an illusion of choice by having viewers vote for their favorite video but there's only about maybe 10 artists that they can choose from. It's much harder to break through in this kind of environment.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Let's pick up on that, Nelson George, the notion of this narrow casting. When we were growing up and I was wearing my leopardy, you know, things, we used to actually have a choice of a lot of different radio stations and a lot of different kinds of music. If all the kids are watching are MTV, they're getting very narrow Britney Spears/Jennifer Lopez kind of experience.
NELSON GEORGE: MTV has basically become your top 40 station in your market. I mean, the thing is we don't want to leave out the fact that people still listen to the radio. In almost every major city there's a plethora of radio stations to listen to. There's also a lot of little - there's VET…
ANN POWERS: There's VH-1.
NELSON GEORGE: There's VH-1 and there's also tons of these underground kind of video shows all over cable where people get to see all alternative bands and different kinds. In Brooklyn you can get all the Jamaican Reggae you want.
GWEN IFILL: Yeah. But if you're a band trying to make a national imprint, it has got to be MTV, right?
NELSON GEORGE: If you're trying to get 15- 16-year-olds, yes, if you're trying to hit 30-year-old it's a different game.
ANN POWERS: Yes. The most important effect MTV adds in some ways is on the industry. It changes the way that the labels treat their artists. In other words, the labels invest almost all their money in only a few artists and a huge amount of that budget goes to videos and video promotion. So that changes the attitude of the record label not necessarily of the public.
GWEN IFILL: Robert Thompson, is MTV driving audiences, or are audiences driving MTV and driving the whole music industry at this point?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, it's always hard to separate those in that they're so together in the way that they go together. I think clearly with youth culture, youth are diversified, they're doing all kinds of other things. MTV simply becomes the place where all of youth at one point or another meet. It's the one marketplace where people who are consuming all kinds of other things tend to generally meet. It's very difficult to find a 14-year-old and you ask them if they ever watch TV would say what's MTV? What are you talking about? It's not so much they're watching this and only this but they are at some point consuming this and it becomes the one kind of meeting place. Whether it will continue to be that in its next 20 years to an emerging group of adolescents who associate MTV as that goofy channel mom and dad watched is another question.
GWEN IFILL: I'm going to have to end it there. You can dial in your requests for whatever music you want to hear on the NewsHour and we'll be happy to take your call. Thanks for joining us.