MTV: The Making of a Revolution, Tom McGrath

Running Press, 1996, 208 pages, C$22.95 hc, ISBN 1-56138-703-7

If ever some future historians decide to study my life in detail, they’ll probably abandon before my twenty-fifth birthday out of terminal boredom. They’ll quickly conclude that I missed out on sex, drugs and most of rock’n’roll. It speaks volume that I’ve never seen a straight ten minute of MTV, and that was an accident. For all their much-vaunted influence, MTV and its Canadian equivalents (MuchMusic and MusiquePlus) are remarkably easy to avoid if you don’t have cable.

And yet, even I can’t argue with the impact of MTV and video clips. From the business side of things, it has produced a discontinuity in the way popular music is marketed. There is very literally a pre-MTV and a post-MTV era as far as selling pop music is defined. Before, you produced some songs, played them on the radio and hoped for the best. Now, with the artist in everyone’s home through video clips, the image is an integral part of the process. Is it any wonder that pop-phenomenons like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys can succeed today on unimaginative musical content? (Indeed, looking at today’s female singers, one can wonder if musical success is somehow genetically linked with attractiveness.)

But the true measure of MTV’s success is that its influence has spread well beyond the confines of music: By linking image and song, it has also boldly redefined the audiovisual universe of popular culture. Squeezing a mini-story in four minutes require some compression, best achieved with quick cuts, fast-paced action beats and the avoidance of subtlety. Television quickly noticed that the same rules could also apply to longer lengths, as initially proven with “Miami Vice”. Cinema took longer to catch up, waiting for clip directors to helm full-length pictures, but when Hollywood noticed the phenomenon, it never looked back. Action films are now filmed like videoclips, their frenetic pacing appealing to jaded viewers. The biggest summer movie of 1998, -ARMAGEDDON, directed by former music-video director Michael Bay- was called “the first two-hours movie trailer” by top film critic Roger Ebert.

MTV did this. MTV took popular culture by storm and single-handedly changed it beyond former recognition. That’s what Tom McGrath tells us in MTV: The Making of a Revolution. He goes beyond just a straight corporate history of the TV network and places it in context by linking it to other changes in the 1982-1993 timeframe. That’ how we end up not only with a book that decently traces MTV’s ascendancy, but also the associated fields of cable television (actually invented in the 1950s) and video clips.

As could be expected, MTV lovingly covers the pre-history of the network and its first few moments. (The first video played by MTV was, fittingly enough, The Buggle’s “Video Killed the Radio Star”. MTV Europe began with an even more appropriate clip, Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing”) Then it’s America’s infatuation with Michael Jackson, Madonna, video clips, and MTV… But the book covers roughly fifteen years, and that’s just enough time for more than a success story. MTV briefly faltered in the late-eighties, as it realized that it could be only “FM radio with pictures”, but had to re-invent itself as a true channel with more to offer.

This is not a press-release book, nor is it a superficial look at a pop phenomenon. The writing is informative, witty and occasionally very funny. But McGrath has done his research, and the end result is truly a good look at MTV. Even the carefully-wild graphic layout respects the content and tries to spice up the rest. It’s a shame, for such a visual subject, that there couldn’t be more photos, and that the ones that are printed are limited to a bichrome palette.

In a nutshell, MTV simply accomplishes what it set out to do: Give a good and thorough history of MTV as well as make it clear that the impact of the television channel was significant on more than simply popular music. I was convinced, and that’s all I need to say.

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