A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an interview with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and something she said struck me. Speaking about the current state of rock n’ roll with Classic Rock, she suggested that the rise of MTV changed the game and shifted the focus away from guitar-based music.
You can check out an excerpt below:
“What do you think about music now?” I don’t mean just in an interview situation, but just the subject. I grew up in the late sixties… You know, AM radio then went into FM radio. AM radio was coast to coast and it was very regional. Every city had its own radio station and its own playlist! When MTV came along it all got filtered into one thing. It had to go first through a video – often a soft-porn video, because some of the artists knew that sold – and that became sorta dance music, I guess.
It wasn’t rock n’ roll any more. If you look at videos that were made back then, they look silly now. The pomposity of it. You can smell the money that went into it.”
Hynde’s comments are nothing new. I’ve heard them echoed by many a musician of a certain generation over the years. Heck, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” essentially said the same thing way back in 1979, its end-of-an-era message made all the more symbolic when the song’s video was the first clip played on MTV in 1981.
To hear the backlash against MTV in full force, you’ve only got the listen to the Dead Kennedys’ 1985 track “MTV – Get off the Air”, in which frontman Jello Biafra rails against the channel’s homogenization of guitar-based music with characteristic intensity:
“How far will you go, how low will you stoop
To tranquilize our minds with your sugar-coated swill
You've turned rock and roll rebellion into Pat Boone sedation
Making sure nothing's left to the imagination”
MTV was definitely a paradigm shift. It changed the way music was consumed, and the things that people valued. Aesthetics were suddenly much more important. It would be naïve to say that a band’s image didn’t matter before MTV – the Beatles didn’t sport those mop tops and matching Pierre Cardin suits for nothing – but music videos put a group’s appearance under the microscope like never before. In some cases, the music alone was no longer enough. While it used to be that you needed the hooks to back up the looks, in the MTV era it was often the other way around. Or, as the aforementioned Mr Biafra put it:
"The way they were laying it down then was, 'This is the way music is going to go. From now on, there is no point in even writing a song unless you know what it's going to look like on TV.’”
Yes, things changed. But did those changes really kill rock ‘n’ roll? After all, some of our enduring rock icons had their greatest successes during the MTV period. Acts like Prince, Nirvana, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses and U2 didn’t just survive, but thrived through music television. And, while you could definitely “smell the money” in some of those early music videos, the medium became an art form of its own as the ‘80s turned to the ‘90s. The result was a number of iconic videos that supported, rather than stifled the creative message of the artist.
Ultimately, while many have claimed that MTV was the death knell for rock n’ roll over the years, I’m not convinced. But, I want to know what you think. Do you agree with Chrissie Hynde? Do you remember watching MTV when it first aired? And would you rather see a return to the days when AM and FM radio dominated? Share your stories in the comments.