The Circle of Life as evidenced by music videos

Whatever happened to the days of sitting around and watching metal bands headbang?

Becky Lang

.

View a PDF version of this story.

CURRENT LION IN THE JUNGLE: YouTube
POSSIBLE VICTOR: Copyright law

Whether anyone still cares about music videos is uncertain. Sure you can jump on YouTube and see paper dolls walk around to an Of Montreal song, or watch monsters come out of oil wells to Grizzly Bear’s “The Knife,” but when it’s not on the TV while you’re eating your after-school ice cream sundae, the experience is seldom worth revisiting.

Nevertheless, almost any band, no matter how small their budget, can get their video seen, and it continues to piss off people who used to make money from copyright-protected royalties.

Will the gavel of the RIAA take away even this avenue for the everyday Tay Zonday to spread his message about “Chocolate Rain?” Better question: Is anything mightier than the geeks behind the Internet? Hopefully no, or the music video might disappear into the backwoods of VH1 Soul.

VICTIM FOUR: The Music Industry
VICTOR: The Internet

Sure, shiny videos full of “American Idol” grads walking on fake red carpets are still getting pumped out, but no one cares. Hip-hoppers are still illustrating their songs with car chases and testosterone-voiced “alt rock” bands are groaning into lenses, but the audience is limited to really bored 13-year-olds.

The major labels have accepted that they have to share consumers’ attention with bands who haven’t signed away their lives and can find just as much promotion on Pitchfork as Carrie Underwood may get by being played in the shadowy dressing rooms of Hollister.

Digital technology allowed for any band of French Canadians to pick up a camera, fiddle around on iMovie, make some intriguing video, and get people to watch it on YouTube. The cultural tyranny of biannually reproducible 16-year-olds still exists, but the guys in suits have a few less catamarans because of it.

VICTIM THREE: MTV
VICTOR: Its own skankiness

MTV had created an industry catering to the demographic of barely-legals who wanted to be oiled up and stuck in a bikini and knee-high boots, booty-shakin’ atop cars. (See “Country Grammar” by Nelly.) By Y2K, Michael Jackson had long cycled through and Madonna was done with cone bras and more into light leaks. Music and general skankiness had more than met; they were like Martha Stewart and cake, like Martha and stock fraud, like fraud and cake with no Martha needed.

“The Real World” snuck in, eventually replacing the love of bubblegum pop with a cheap and addictive voyeurism that would somehow allow “The Hills” to happen. Anyone who still cared about music videos could watch MTV2. Tila Tequila’s band of shot glass-waving adorers is now a constant reminder of how little anyone actually wants music television.

VICTIM ONE: The Radio Star
VICTOR: MTV

When MTV premiered, it decided to be a bit tongue-in- cheek by starting things off with “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Featuring aliens, landmine-size piles of TVs and deft editing, it just might have made a few weak-jawed musicians of yore tremble in their graves.

MTV was the perfect accessory for teenagers in the ’80s, who practically needed to watch the mullet-sporting guys from Tears for Fears screaming off a stormy mountain to come off their bingefests of “Bolivian marching powder.”

Not that MTV marked the incarnation of music videos. The French had been making music videos since the ’60s, the Beatles were crafting full-length adventure stories to accompany their albums and Bob Dylan had recorded himself holding note cards of the lyrics for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” while generally looking like a mixture of a cowboy and a child with social anxiety disorder. (Basically, like a rock star.)

Who would have thought that the network with inspired show titles like “Yo! MTV Raps” could turn music videos into such a cherry bomb of marketability?

VICTIM TWO: Britney Spears
VICTOR: Some as-yet-unnamed disease spawning from massive fame

MTV can be blamed for the explosion of bubblegum pop, which both created and destroyed Britney Spears. Facing a new audience too young to remember the death of Kurt Cobain, the network unloaded reels of back-country Lolita girls and not quite “Backstreet” boys of questionable sexual orientation. Turns out watching airbrushed teenagers sing out fake dramas is way more fun than watching rock stars smash guitars.

Enter Britney, Catholic schoolgirl outfit and all, who graduated to wearing a snake, wearing tights laced with diamonds, and finally, to being naked in general, slitting her wrists in a bathtub.

Her “Lucky” video hinted at such a future with complex lines like “she cry cry cries in her lonely heart,” but honestly, who could have known just how candid her “Everytime” video would become in the light of the bald, possibly bipolar Britney of the new millennium?

We can only pray for Miley Cyrus.