From MTV to YouTube — music videos then, now

March 18, 2007

Sunday, March 18, 2007

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A History of the Music Video From the Beatles to the White Stripes

By Saul Austerlitz

CONTINUUM; 250 PAGES; $24.95

I watched many music videos in the ’80s, starting with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the presciently titled Buggles one that launched MTV on Aug. 1, 1981. I stopped tuning into them in the mid-’90s, when family affairs shifted my interest from rock ‘n’ roll. Recently, however, that interest has revived, and I’m eager to take in fresh music videos, at least good ones like “Gone Daddy Gone,” from Gnarls Barkley. But the music videos I used to count on MTV for and, later, VH-1, are rarely found on those pioneering channels.Now, the outlet for them, as for everything else, is the Internet. That shift justifies Saul Austerlitz’s exhaustive, frequently entertaining but overly detailed “Money for Nothing.” Like rock itself, the music video is mature, though its history is relatively fresh. Praise is due Austerlitz for his diligence, open-mindedness and patience; watching as many videos as he has would have fried most others’ brains.

A New York critic who specializes in film and music, Austerlitz writes for publications mainstream, specialist and what started out alternative, like Spin. “Money for Nothing,” his first book, is a niche product. Its primary appeal will be to other critics; if it’s marketed effectively, it should also appeal to music, video and film fans, and those eager to break into those businesses. It’s a good book, though Austerlitz goes on too long; after a while, no matter how sharp and insightful his exegeses, one tires of them. Despite his regularly excellent interpretations and analyses, the mind freezes from reading one summary after another after another. The music video, after all, is a visual and aural experience, not a verbal one. And even watching them can become anesthetic.

Still, Austerlitz is a gifted critic; he’s particularly OK in my book because he, too, can’t stand Creed front man Scott Stapp or Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. Austerlitz likes the genre once known as alternative rock, shuns heavy metal and “nu metal,” disses many hip-hop videos (for reasons similar to his dislike of heavy metal videos), considers Eminem subversive and powerfully political, and proffers kind words not only about music video auteurs like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry (his faves) but also about various musical groups. When band and video come together well, his interpretation can be dense, warm and illuminating, spurring the reader to seek out the clip:

“Spanning a century of popular culture, Dayton and [wife/co-director Valerie] Faris went from [pioneering French film director Georges] Melies to the Beatles to ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ tapping into the dynamism of video games for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Californication’ (2000). Dayton and Faris ape both the content and the style of a video game from the ‘Now Loading …’ graphic which begins the video to the Player Select screens, in which each of the Chili Peppers is a potential character. Because this is a music video, though, and not a game, the grounding rules of gaming coherence are not fully respected, and ‘Californication’ melds together four different adventures, one for each member of the band, cutting regularly between them.”

Austerlitz suggests that the music video is at an impasse, calls it an unrecognized subgenre of filmmaking and nails its draw: “Music-video outlets had to keep viewers returning for another fix, or another chance to crack the code, and with the necessity of repeat viewing built into the business model of MTV and its companions, it was necessary that the videos they played be ever-so-slightly beyond reach of total, immediate comprehension,” he writes.

Perhaps that explains the magic of videos like “Hey Ya!,” the great 2003 clip from Outkast in which Andre 2000 multiplies himself to fill out a band and evoke nostalgia for an era in which music meant community, or of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” a 1981 video in which chief Head David Byrne morphed numerous roles while remaining in character both incantatory and nerdy. Also, one can’t downplay the impact of Michael Jackson’s videos, particularly those that gave his 1983 album, “Thriller,” worldwide legs. Madonna and Bjork — even Britney Spears, for the fabulous “Toxic” — get their deserved props, too.

Now that the music video is old enough for history, it’s time to archive the field, Austerlitz says. The voraciousness and ubiquity of the Net, which has taken over the genre from TV, has reanimated it. That gives Austerlitz hope and tells us there are many music videos to look forward to — and back on.

Carlo Wolff is a writer in Cleveland and author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories.”


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