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Introduction: From MTV to OMG!—Music Video as Form, Practice, and Literacy

I remember exactly the first time I saw a music video on a computer. It was 1995, and the video was Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” directed by Spike Jonze, and it was shown to me by my dad, who called my brother and me to the huge monitor of our family computer, excited just for the sake of being excited about a high-quality sound and image emanating from our machine.1 In the video, Weezer, a four-piece indie rock band from California, plays onstage at Arnold’s, the diner from the 1970s sitcom Happy Days, transposed into the sitcom environs through careful editing and green screen effects. The band members, in blue pullover cardigans and neatly combed hair, look both perfectly in line with this cheerful, healthy world and a little outside it—their occasional arch glances underscoring the novelty of the cinematic magic at work, a feat of special effects that announced, throughout the video, that it was a product of new technologies, just as was our ability to summon it up ourselves, on the computer.

Figure I.1

Screenshot from Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” directed by Spike Jonze. The band performs on a set constructed to match the original Arnold’s Drive-In from Happy Days, and footage has been processed to match 1970s film stock.

When I called my dad recently to track how this chunk of media had made its way into the basement of our home, the conversation was a confused untangling of how we could have seen the video without three of today’s basic techniques of consumption: search, YouTube, and downloading. The actual answer to how we had this miracle screening: it was included on every installation disk of Windows 95, part of a massive transmedia rollout that a few months later would come to include Internet Explorer.2 Microsoft had broken off a little “Buddy Holly”–shaped piece of MTV and handed it to us, to seek out and watch when we wanted. This memory has floated back up to the top of my consciousness in 2013 because it has become quaint. If I’m curious about a video or band or film technique, I don’t need an intermediate technological or media company to help me watch it. I only need to indulge my curiosity, to type into a search field, and to sift through the results I find.

Much like MTV’s relationship with music video audiences before the Windows 95 watershed, modern standardized education has been a process of imparting and receiving. Specialized instructors give specialized knowledge to students, and those instructors provide the main feedback and assessment on students’ learning outcomes. The technological moment of 2013 has blurred that process significantly, and tracing how the music video has shifted—from something to be received on MTV to something to be searched out by individuals and, now, to something easily made with the touch of a digital button—helps clarify some of what is being blurred.

This report examines music video as a form, originally the province of professionals creating a product to be consumed and appreciated by nonprofessionals; as a practice increasingly taken up by amateurs (in this case, a Gen Y video director who was able to transition cleanly from dedicated amateurism in his adolescence in the 1990s and early 2000s to a paid career in music video in the mid-2000s); and finally as a literacy being approached and experimented with by a confluence of Gen Y professionals and younger “digital native” millennials at a summer camp called OMG! Cameras Everywhere, in the summer of 2011. The report attempts to demonstrate the evolution from external art form to internalized communicative tool that music video has undertaken over the last three decades as digital softwares and hardwares have allowed individuals to reapproach their relationship to learning and creating.

The form of music video as a contemporary art and the practice of young professional music video creators embody two fields that digital life is impacting heavily: the expressive arts and creative technology. Both fields have been regarded, especially over the last hundred years, as the domain of specialists, increasingly bleached from the lives of responsible, sensible, ordinary adults—as well as late adolescents nearing adulthood.

The outcome of this specialization has been to introduce a sense of trepidation, anxiety, irrelevance, or unachievable talent to these activities for most laypeople. As formal education leads us to slowly specialize our skills, those “superfluous” skills that we were once introduced to but don’t maintain become sloughed off as somehow beyond our talents or our ability to recover proficiency in—not just drawing, music, or dance but often also math, science, or physical education. As noted at the close of the twentieth century by Lucy Green, a professor of music education studying how popular musicians come by their craft (largely, she states, via informal processes and communities), “Whilst formal music education has become increasingly available and diverse in content, it [has not abated] the ebbing tide of involvement in music-making, particularly in the lives of adults after they have left formal education. Indeed, those societies and communities with the most highly developed formal music education systems often appear to contain the least active music-making populations.”3

Unlike the expressive arts, however, whose practice remains dormant in or irrelevant to the vast majority of the American adult population, creative technology in 2013 has become so eminently simple and helpful, so productive beyond our own shortcomings, that we overlook our own awkwardness, weaving digital technology throughout our daily routines with imperceptible but growing fluency. The arts, being less inherently “useful” or “user-friendly” in our conception of them, haven’t in and of themselves overcome the “nonartistic” population’s trepidation to embrace them, though more and more of us are increasingly unafraid to try.

Green contrasts the contemporary state of the arts, where her native Britain in 1997 had “only around 1 per cent of the adult population … reckoned to be an active amateur musician, and even fewer to be a professional musician,”4 with Britain at the close of the nineteenth century, awash in the mingling strains emanating from rural churches, amateur orchestras, farm songs, music hall trifles, professional symphonies, and middle- and upper-class home pianos. The crucial difference lies in what technologies and practices we use daily (for instance, recorded music as opposed to a piano)5 and what fluencies we therefore assume to be natural, or at least common.

Larry Gross, a Guggenheim fellow and USC professor of communications, uses linguistics to illuminate the same society-wide shifts in musical fluency: “Although everyone will not be equally skillful or creative in his or her native tongue, by early childhood we have all acquired substantial competence in a highly complex symbol system. … There is a common pattern in the way children encounter music, say, in those societies [like pre-twentieth-century Britain, where musical practice was more a commonplace activity than a rarefied skill] and the way children encounter language in all societies. In both cases they are born into contexts where it is assumed that everyone will acquire music/speech, and they are surrounded by competent adult performers who treat their early performative efforts as potentially meaningful and respond to them as such.”6 This is exactly the interventionary goal of OMG! Cameras Everywhere, designed by Gen Y counselors to share their craft as a potential competency, rather than as a technical vocation, with a group of cinematic novices. As I explore in chapter 3, OMG!’s endgame was not to make any of their millennial campers particularly good at filmmaking but just to let the preteens take filmmaking for a spin among their filmmaker counselors-cum-collaborators and have those efforts—regardless of their outcomes—responded to by fluent “filmspeakers” as worthy.

The short life span of the music video provides an important perspective on the impact of changes in platform and production technology on a communicative cultural form. The first chapter provides a short history of the music video, and of MTV, to focus on the degree to which the music video and its iconic platform were assumed to be of a piece. The rise and fall of Total Request Live (TRL) illuminates how the program progressed from a harbinger of interactivity in everyday media to a cautionary example of schedule-anchored programming in the fleet era of search and its driving force, choice. The chapter concludes by discussing how music videos, which had been disappearing from MTV for years before TRL’s cancellation in 2008, resurged on YouTube in the first decade of the twenty-first century, buoyed by fans, on the one hand, and on the other by a young video producer culture that deploys digital production technologies and networked distribution with equal facility.

While music video’s brief biography allows focus on music video as an evolving, shifting form, the music video’s close symbiosis with adolescent and young adult culture provides a look at the shifts in viewing and production practice across a community of generations. Chapter 2 focuses on one music video director, Hiro Murai, who was born in the early 1980s, gained more than average fluency in video production as a teenager in the 1990s, and formalized his role as a music video professional in the 2000s, in a fluid move from dedicated amateurism as a film student to paid artist upon graduation. Murai and his experiences straddle the grouping of generations—Gen X (“the MTV Generation”), Gen Y (“millennials”), and Gen I (“digital natives”)—that commingle around and across the various borders that strive to define digital citizenship. I mean to position his experiences and fluencies as exemplary of millennial practitioners who instinctually collaborate, network, and leverage knowledge communities, as well as sensing themselves as part of a cultural past and future that they have responsibility for caretaking and shaping, rather than as simply the topmost layer in the accretion of generations.

Chapters 1 and 2 identify form and practice as the key components distinguishing how the migration from TV to digital media has impacted the music video. Chapter 3 focuses on music video as a literacy, specifically by focusing on OMG! Cameras Everywhere, a nonprofit filmmaking summer camp run on a shoestring budget by a group of music video directors, most younger than thirty, beginning in the summer of 2011. OMG!’s campers and counselors provide an intense digital case study in how cultural producers across several generations have blurred the line between professional and amateur, their everyday practices changing and expanding the notion of literacy—not just by instinctual and often informal interventions of collaborative and peer-based activities in achieving and imparting literacy, but also by expanding the definition of what is considered a valuable activity, worthy of dedicated, pleasurable pursuit.

The ease with which OMG!’s campers approached digital cameras, as well as the idea of telling visual stories with popular music, demonstrates an additional reason that music video specifically provides a good model for talking about digital learning and literacy. As has been discussed elsewhere7 and will be discussed in chapter 2, cultural capital plays an enormous role in building strong self-learners; but we must also discuss the role of a lack of cultural capital—those childhoods and adolescences that lack parents within creative professions or support of creative pursuits or the resources to provide time, space, and access to creative tools and technologies. We worry, as we should, about a growing digital equity gap.8

It is my hope that this report can contribute to addressing that gap by recognizing that almost all users of digital technologies, from ringtones to advanced editing software, have undertaken at least the first stages of a self-teaching process I’ve termed learning to search / searching to learn / learning to learn. I’d like to ever so slightly normalize the excitement of the Digital Media and Learning (DML) community over niche activities such as fansubbing and machinima (and, yes, music video making) in favor of discussing how more commonplace engagements with media (such as music fandom or learning a new smartphone interface) can be leveraged to demonstrate everyday engagement with the process of learning to search, searching to learn, and learning to learn. A crucial intervention that digital educators can make is to guide young people in exactly how to leverage the skills they already have to different ends.

Finally, a blanket caveat underlies this report. Commentators have spilled much ink about the democratizing forces of digital media and the Internet. Throughout this report, I stress that it is not merely by picking up a camera or uploading a video to YouTube that widespread media fluency arises. Digital media literatures often resound with bells tolling for a new era of citizen journalists, astute amateur filmmakers, and viral whiz kids cropping up in every other backyard. The vast majority of media users will likely remain in the same category as the vast majority of readers of literature, poetry, plays, blogs, and newspapers—users who do not necessarily identify themselves as capable of reproducing anything approaching the quality of what they consume. Some digital scholars are so enraptured by the new technology’s affordances for media creation that they can gloss over the struggles that literacy has always presented—time and support to practice, to be exposed, to wander, and finally to aspire to create. Digital technologies can support those endeavors but cannot transport their users past the struggle, trial, and error that are the fundamentals of true learning and fluency.

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