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It’s the End of MTV as We Know It, and I Feel Fine

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In 1981, MTV was the first to land on the Moon.

The 24th MTV Video Music Awards, held on September 9, 2007, represented some kind of low-water mark in the channel’s history. This edition of the VMAs halved the number of awards, renamed the surviving ones to joky titles like “Most Earthshattering Collaboration” and “Monster Single of the Year” and solidified MTV’s party-all-the-time image by eschewing classier venues like Radio City for the Palms in Las Vegas.

With so many negative MTV elements coming to a head, it may have seemed appropriate when Justin Timberlake, accepting the award for Best Male Artist, expressed what many think is the reason for MTV’s ills. “Play more damn videos!” he said. “We don’t want to see the Simpsons [these ones] on reality television. Play more videos!”

Today, that metaphorical Moon (of places you can watch music videos) looks like this.

I’ve talked to many people my age who feel similarly. I can see why they do, at least at first blush; I’m as nostalgic about MTV as the next Echo Boomer. But I think when it comes down to it, in today’s world, it’s clear that both we and MTV are better off if they don’t bother too much with videos.

Before MTV launched in 1981, music videos had already been receiving considerable attention in the U.K. on “Top of the Pops” and elsewhere. But in the U.S. the format was mostly unknown, consigned to occasional appearances on variety shows, as between-movie filler on HBO and a pioneering program on the USA Network.

Of course MTV changed that, and the music video would go on to alter the direction of film editing and change fans’ sensory understanding of popular music forever. When it began MTV was basically the only place to see videos and therefore one of the best places around to learn about new music. After copycat shows on broadcast networks fizzled, it remained that way for a long while.

But you don’t need me to tell you that that isn’t the world we live in anymore. The Internet in general, and YouTube in particular, has put you, at this very instant, a few keystrokes away from virtually every music video ever produced.

So to sum up: Then, we had a single video at any given time doled to us by a massive media conglomerate whose primary objective was to garner ratings and get us to buy stuff; today, we have instant access to a Memory Alpha-like historical archive of the artform at any time or location we choose. I don’t yearn for the way of the past when it comes to this, and I don’t know why anyone would.

The movement of music away from the television and onto the Internet has been, in my view, an enormously positive development. When it was the dominant source of music videos, MTV was inert, a cultural master you could either choose to submit to or not. YouTube, music blogs, and the rest of the musical Internet is nothing like that. It doesn’t tell you what culture to consume and offer no alternative; it challenges you to seek out the culture that you, individually, will like the best. And if you accept the challenge (and to be sure, it is far more challenging than watching MTV), I think the results tend to be more rewarding.

Again, I’m sensitive to the feelings of those persons who fondly remember the days of “Celebrity Deathmatch,” “Say What? Karaoke” and videos being labeled “Buzzworthy” or “Spankin’ New,” because I am one. But, in this and many things, we shouldn’t confuse nostalgia with the way things should be now.

Nor should it be confused with a prudent business plan for MTV, not that MTV itself needs that advice. I can see a new Lady Gaga video on probably millions of different websites, but the only place I’m going to watch a new episode of “Teen Mom” (well, legally, anyway) is on MTV or MTV’s website. It’s clear that MTV foresaw this long ago, and if it hadn’t rededicated itself to original programming, there is no way it would be in existence today.

I don’t want to imply that I love what MTV is today, though. “Jersey Shore” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how its reality programming has devolved into being about partying and little else, and the slow descent of “The Real World” to this territory is especially saddening. Even when MTV tries to consciously go against that impulse, the results sometimes to lead to some of the worst scripted programming I’ve ever seen.

That being said, there are positive things to be said about MTV, and I think what it has become—essentially, a channel catering to teenagers and young adults—is a great thing in theory at least. If “The Real World” no longer has many meaningful things to say about a generation, the prolific “True Life” definitely still does, and this year MTV also received the first “Excellent” rating in the history of GLAAD’s Network Responsibility Index which measures channels’ presentation of LGBT characters and issues.

One more point I’d like to address is the contention that a channel shouldn’t be acronymically calling itself “Music Television” if it isn’t about music. To that I say, you should only believe that if you believe AMC shouldn’t show “Mad Men” because it isn’t an “American Movie Classic” or that CBS shouldn’t show anything unrelated to Columbia Records music, since that was the origin of the name “Columbia Broadcasting System.”

Both of those channels, like MTV, realized they weren’t serving unique enough niches anymore, so they evolved. Just as, over the years, music consumers have evolved to embrace new technologies. Sometimes its messy, but I generally think that, in the end, evolution ends up benefiting everyone. I think even Justin Timberlake would agree with that.

Written by Dan Wohl

12.27.10 at 2:48 am

Defending the E-Book Reader

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A similar controversy plays out in days of old.

After moving from Brooklyn Heights to Forest Hills—a move that was, glamorously enough, reported on in the New York Times—I found myself facing longer subway rides to Manhattan and Brooklyn. What better way to help pass this extra time, I thought, than to get an e-book reader? A fun new gadget would persuade me to read more, I reasoned, and make it more convenient to read during any subway situation, whether it be sitting, standing, or packed into a rush hour cattle car pressed against a steel-jawed hedge fund manager on one side and a Hare Krishna missionary on the other. You gotta love New York.

An e-book reader would also make buying books cheaper, cut down on the mass of my physical belongings (I have enough heavy books already) and allow me to read knowing no trees were killed because of me. What was not to like?

For me, nothing. I have been pleased in every way with my Barnes & Noble Nook (I chose it over the Kindle because I found it more attractive and I figured I might as well support a former employer). But not everyone is so enamored.

Nick Bilton, writing for the Times’ Bits blog, reported that some coffee shops and other eating or drinking establishments around the city have begun instituting no-computer policies which extend to any device that has a screen and requires electricity, including e-book readers. Bilton expressed frustration that he was immediately asked to put his Kindle away when he planned to read while having his drink.

He challenged the shop’s employee to explain what the difference to the shop was between him reading a Kindle or a physical book, and of course got no answer. As a new e-book reader owner myself, I empathized, but many of the blog’s commenters such as someone called JJJ, did not:

“I mean what kind of insecure loser gets bent out of shape because a business won’t let him play with his kindle or gameboy for five minutes? And despite being denied one more opportunity to show-off your latest gadget, was it really necessary to make an honest employee feel small for trying to enforce store policy?”

Bilton’s post was later mentioned on the Times’ City Room blog, and there, some comments, like that of a commenter named George, got downright vicious:

“And, no, a Kindle or iPad etc. is not, a never will be a real book.

A book has substance. A book has a beginning, a middle and an end. A book has context — it is it’s own reference. A reader can flip real pages back and forth, dog-ear them if he likes etc. And there’s yet to be a printed book that cannot be read because its battery just died.

I don’t care if you can carry a “library” of a thousand e-books on your Kindle — chances are you haven’t really read them — you’re just enamored with the gadget.

And that’s the biggest problem. You digi-freaks are enamored with the gadget — not with the content.”

Although I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple developers are readying a dog-earing app for iBooks as we speak, I doubt that would quell George’s concerns. And while most are probably not as virulent about it as George, I have heard similar anti-e-book opinions from friends, including highly literary-minded ones like Les Chappell.

I have a fundamental issue with opinions like George’s though. To say that an e-book “will never be” a real book implies that e-books have to go through a sort of trial before we know whether they will be accepted as real books. The coffeeshops in Bilton’s piece certainly seem to support that. But to me, it’s clear that a book is a book, whether it’s printed on wood pulp, read by a voice actor on a CD, or typed entirely on a Japanese cellphone. The content is what makes a book. You can’t judge whether something’s a book by its format.

If someone’s personal preference is for traditional books because they value their weight or smell or whatnot, of course that’s their right. And I understand why the e-book might be a bit more jarring to tradtionalists than the mp3 or the blu-ray, because music and movies have always required some form of machinery to experience, while books have not.

But despite that fact, I think that literature is the art form that is in fact the least likely to be substantively changed by its more high-tech form. It’s clear that mp3 downloading has deemphasized complete albums in favor of individual songs. And one could argue that the spate of deleted scenes, alternate endings and who-knows-what-else that is found on DVDs or blu-rays has changed how we experience movies.

And while I’d be reluctant to argue that any of theses changes to music or film are seriously negative, it’s hard for me to see what, if any, similar changes befall a book when it’s formatted as an e-book.

I hardly think book lovers would choose, if given the option, to download just their favorite chapters and read them over and over. And George’s suggestion that the owners of e-book readers download books just to amass the most impressive digital collection is, to me, the most ridiculous claim of all. I believe it is in fact far, far more likely that one would purchase traditional books for this purpose. Stocking a bookcase with impressive-looking, never-opened covers is a believable act of ostentation; downloading digital files onto your e-book reader where they remain essentially invisible until called up is not.

I’ve also heard it said that e-books threaten the publishing industry as a whole, and I have two thoughts on that. First, I generally believe that the public should never be forced or even urged to use older technology for the sake of preserving the economic status quo. And second, I get the feeling that, much like the battle over mp3 file sharing, the people who will really get hurt by a large scale shift to e-books are publishing corporations who fail to adapt rather than authors. The potential the e-book holds for self-publishing seems to me even greater than that of the mp3 for the musician, since literature is less dependent on marketing and whatever else publishing companies do than the music industry is.

When it comes down to it, I don’t think there is anything different going on here than when Johannes Gutenberg first put movable metal letters down on paper in 1439. As the printing press spread and books became common, governments feared they would contain revolutionary ideas and churches feared they would distort the Bible.

The issues today may be different, but the ethic, in my mind, should stay the same: Written information, in any and all of its forms, should be tolerated, uncensored, and free to be read in coffee shops. That’s my position. Others can continue the debate. But in the meantime, I’ll be over here, happily reading an e-book.                  

Written by Dan Wohl

09.09.10 at 2:13 pm