Form: A Short History of the Music Video
When Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” flickered to life on the monitor of my family’s computer in 1995, a corner was being turned—from computers as professional tools to computers as cultural appendages. Pushing and receiving were giving way to searching and sharing, as demonstrated by the choice itself to use Weezer and Jonze, flagship names in the “alternative” brand omnipresent in the 1990s—a recognition that search was already afoot as a consumer practice. The release of Windows 95 and Internet Explorer was a seminal conflation of TV and the PC, a halfway moment between our own era, where user-selected online video viewing and timeshifted TV1 continue to make inroads against traditional TV programming, and the last launch of a watershed convergence of personal entertainment and personal technology: MTV.
As 2013 marks the thirty-second anniversary of the music video’s mainstream existence, statistics demonstrate that the music video remains one of our favorite things to watch, even as it has migrated from the TV to laptops, tablets, and phones. In June 2013, comScore, the leading digital ratings service, released numbers that showed Google Sites, “driven primarily by video viewing at YouTube.com,” holds the number one spot in the United States for unique visits to a video site, with 158 million unique viewers per month, 16 billion videos viewed, and 500 minutes (over eight hours) viewed per visitor per month.2 A large gap separates Google Sites from its closest competitors: Facebook.com has 62 million unique viewers (number two in this category), and AOL Inc. sees 775 million videos viewed. But Vevo, a music video network housed within YouTube, as well as at its own URL, holds close to the top of this pack—49 million unique visitors, 562 million videos viewed, and 39 minutes viewed per month—an average of about 16 videos sought out by each user, each month. Within YouTube partners, the numbers for music videos are more striking: Vevo and Vevo-holdout Warner Music come in at number one and number three, with 47 million and 28 million unique viewers respectively, representing almost 47 percent of YouTube’s total unique visitors each month.
Visual music’s path from the album cover to the television to the Internet traces not just how its platform has shifted but how the habits of its audience have, as well. In the 1980s, MTV made music into something teens watched, something to identify with and dress up along to with increasing intensity and proliferating subcultural choice. Concurrently, as video recording technology proliferated, music videos also became something teenagers mimicked in slumber party reenactments with their parents’ camcorders or made in semiprofessional re-creations at amusement park “video booths” stocked with karaoke-style pop playlists and banks of rudimentary editing effects.3 Above all else, the 1980s birthed an acute awareness among adolescents and young adults that there were more music choices and musical subcultures than could be bound within the Top 40.
In the 1990s, this trend continued and blossomed as preteens and young adults taught themselves to explore ever further from the mainstream of pop—a trend reflected in the adventurous auteurship of ’90s MTV’s most popular video directors. This tendency was further enabled and deepened with the release of Napster and other P2P softwares in 1999, one more tool in the search arsenal.
After the turn of the century, Total Request Live, or TRL, MTV’s live call-in countdown show that ran from 1998 to 2008, best exemplified how music in the form of videos became something adolescents and young adults voted on and devoted interactive partisan alliance to, normal pop cultural identification shot through with a dose of technological embodiment. At the same time, however, as I will shortly explore in detail, TRL’s viewership peaked in 1999 and declined steadily thereafter—an indication that search and the off-mainstream were no longer merely options for Gen Y and millennial audiences but were becoming the fundamental technique and hallmark of adolescent musical lives.
Top U.S. online video properties as of June 2013. Data from comScore Inc. Note that Google Sites, primarily driven by video viewing at YouTube, far outstrips its closest competitors; for discussion of video viewership habits in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, YouTube and Google drive the discourse as much as MTV did in the 1980s.
Within YouTube itself, music video viewership drives a large portion of traffic. Vevo ranks first within YouTube partners, with over 47 million unique viewers of Vevo at YouTube streaming just under 533 million music videos per month. Warner Music, the only major label without a partnership stake in Vevo, comes in at number four among YouTube partners, with over 28 million unique viewers streaming over 160 million videos per month. Note that Maker Studios and Machinima, which themselves create content partnerships with their users, both professional and “amateur,” have disproportionate numbers of videos streamed to total unique viewers. In fact, Maker and Machinima have the second- and third-most videos streamed behind Vevo, at just under 477 million and 389 million respectively. Machinima, which traffics heavily in video game walk-throughs, instructionals, and short films made from the manipulation of video games (the titular “machinima”), has the highest viewer engagement for all YouTube partners: approximately 76 minutes per viewer, exactly 200 percent of Vevo’s 38 minutes per viewer per month. This is significant and speaks to exactly what I reexplore in this report: digital audiences’ desire for networked learning, self-teaching, and community. (Data from comScore Inc.)
When YouTube became a household name in 2006, music videos became one more thing to be Googled rather than received at the whim of TV programmers, as well as one more thing creatable with the proverbial touch of a button on a growing diversity of devices—and not just creatable but sharable, e-mailable, uploadable, Tweetable, Tumblable, Xboxable, AdSensable, and even, on very special occasions, MTVable. This is the current state of music video—a form still appreciated in its professional variations but increasingly created (and inflected) by anyone with the willingness to navigate a camera and teach himself or herself to upload the results.
When Microsoft included “Buddy Holly” in Windows 95, it sought to underline the jump from push to search that its operating system was making possible. “Buddy Holly” itself, as a cultural text, represented a jump from simpler forms of cut-and-paste cultural pastiche toward full-scale transposition: through careful editing and shot matching, the band members of Weezer were recontextualized as part of the earnest Happy Days gang at Arnold’s, which in turn upcycled Happy Days into material worthy of consideration and reference by the teenagers and young adults of the mid-1990s. It took another fifteen years for a good analogue to come along for the digital native generation: “The Wilderness Downtown,” an interactive music video for the indie band Arcade Fire’s single “We Used to Wait,” meant to demonstrate to Google’s users the jump from search to cocreation that its browser enabled.
In late 2010, as Arcade Fire’s sophomore album debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard charts4 and went on to pick up the 2010 Grammy for Album of the Year,5 “The Wilderness Downtown” became a multi-industry interactive media hit. While the advertising, entertainment, and music video press and blogosphere lit up with praise for, as Time put it, “the first video that truly harnesses the digital age,”6 one major player remained relatively silent: MTV. The video was not nominated for a VMA, and it never aired on the channel, nor was it embedded at MTV.com. Like “Buddy Holly” before it, “The Wilderness Downtown” was released as part of a major promotional effort by a tech company—the Microsoft-style juggernaut of the Internet era, Google—and was (and still is) available only within the confines of Google’s freeware browser, Chrome. There was no way to translate the form of the video—an experience that required user input to be viewed—to the TV.
“Wilderness” is accessible to viewers only after they call up its unique URL and type in the address of their childhood home.7 Armed with the location of a house on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, my geo-personalized (!) version of the video took place in multiple browser windows that self-populated across the screen. Some windows displayed preproduced footage of a preteen in a shadowy hoodie dashing through suburban streets, while others used the address I’d provided to call up wide shots of my former neighborhood in Street View and Google Earth aerial vistas. A CGI version of the hooded protagonist came to rest at my address after a dash through the surrounding streets, spinning in place in what was once familiar terrain. Against the heartfelt insistence of Arcade Fire’s song and next to a window displaying the aerial view of a home I had not seen since 2004, a new window popped up and prompted me to “write a postcard of advice to the younger you that lived there then.” “It seems strange how we used to wait for letters to arrive,” Win Butler sang as I typed a message to my twelve-year-old self, her face illuminated by images of Rivers Cuomo transported into Happy Days, enrapt before a screen in a basement in northern California.
Screenshot from Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Downtown,” directed by Chris Milk. Upper left window contains the beginnings of a letter from the author to her former self, as prompted by the music video. Upper right window contains a Google Earth image of the author’s adolescent neighborhood. Other windows contain computer graphic or prefilmed images created by Milk and Google’s production teams.
The experience, pragmatically, was intended to show off Chrome’s capabilities with HTML5, the much-vaunted coding language meant to change, again for the first time, how we experience media on the Web. Like the pairing of Weezer and Microsoft in 1995, the Arcade Fire–Google project was meant as a familiar-yet-innovative demonstration of the converging horizons of music, technology, and digital culture. But Microsoft’s use of “Buddy Holly” centered on viewers experiencing a technocultural product created by experts and artisans—Spike Jonze’s wizardry to be delighted by, fully produced before being licensed and brought to me by a tech company that wanted to highlight its operating system’s powers for content delivery. A decade and a half later, “Wilderness” tapped into a zeitgeist shifting distinctly from viewers as audience to viewers as users and coauthors of digital experience, with astounding technologies, if not fully understood, wielded by users and woven into every inch of the tapestry of their experience. Google didn’t just license the video from its creators; the director, Chris Milk, conceived and created it with Google’s programmers. Analogously and quite literally, though the content of the video is largely predetermined, it simply will not work without being interacted with by its viewer. Google Street View was recontextualized as a virtual environment that could connect me to a place I cannot return to in linear time, and my memories and experiences were recontextualized as available material in a fundamentally editable culture.
“The Wilderness Downtown” foregrounds one of the key shifts intrinsic in watching music videos in the early twenty-first century: it now feels, as it has always felt for 2013’s fifteen-year-olds, like MTV and YouTube exist for different functions, and videos simply aren’t one of MTV’s. When Jake Coyle of the Associated Press characterized the music video as having been “left for dead by MTV” in 2010,8 Vevo was already racking up a vivacious 43 million unique viewers per month, just under one-third the number of YouTube’s total unique visitors in the same period.9 The point is not just that MTV stopped playing music videos or that the Internet makes it easier to home in on exactly what you want while cutting out the rest. The point is that the Internet is the home of search, which is the fundamental way we approach the world now—everything we can learn about or seek out is up for grabs to be sown into the patchwork project of ourselves. Tracking music video’s shift from MTV to Windows 95 to YouTube also allows us to track how search became an everyday practice, blossoming by the opening years of the twenty-first century into a full-blown literacy—so let us turn now to the history of the music video and its once iconic platform, MTV.
The 1980s: Codification and Personalization
Music video in the United States can be segmented into four distinct eras,10 most of which were synonymous, for all intents and purposes, with MTV. First, for our discussion, was the 1980s, which actually lasted into the early ’90s, the era when the form was imported from the United Kingdom, codified, and largely succeeded on the back of the popularity of pop artists, as a kind of visual radio.
In its infancy, MTV had more airtime to program than it had videos available; British artists and record labels, especially of the New Romantic and New Wave persuasion, had taken to making videos as an attempt to combat accusations of synthesizer-based inauthenticity,11 and so this available crop of content was duly broadcast.12 As cable TV was still gaining a foothold in the United States, MTV brought this content of convenience mostly to rural markets, which suddenly exploded with a thirst for Duran Duran, Billy Idol, and Culture Club.13 Once MTV’s power to tap active audiences was clear, music videos became a de rigueur part of the promotional campaigns of global pop stars and up-and-comers alike, true advertisements for fans still purchasing LPs, tapes, and CDs by the millions. “I Want My MTV” was as much a shrewd campaign, prompting cable subscribers to work on behalf of MTV to expand its reach, as it signified teens’ assertion of cultural choice as an ever-increasing force to be reckoned with.14 MTV both gave voice to that growing force, which demanded the cable channel’s services as a pop cultural clearinghouse, and validated teenagers’ growing practice of seeking out more diverse acts to be brought together under that expanding umbrella.
Where the seventies had seen fierce battles waged between rock, generically dominant, and disco, derisively regarded as lesser, and each of them precious alternatives to mainstream, mom-and-dad-oriented fare, the MTV ’80s birthed genre-curated programs like 120 Minutes, YO! MTV Raps, Headbangers Ball, and Club MTV. Genre programming on MTV and the burgeoning college rock and underground hip-hop movements all provided a countercultural warm-up to the full-on alternative movements of the 1990s, creating the sense of a groundswell of musical and subcultural discovery. Videos were instructionals as much as they were ads; many genres of music were being represented visually to large audiences for the first time, and music videos were a primary site for encoding how a subculture wanted to walk, talk, look, and speak. Young people watching MTV while hanging out with their friends used these routinized representations as inspiration and material in the “messing around” work of self-identification.15
Logos for MTV’s most prominent genre-curated programs circa 1988, displaying the distinct and routinized subcultural identities available to MTV’s viewers, all under one roof. (Club MTV logo, “Club MTV Erasure Performs Chains of Love 1988,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIDWHMS9iGU; Headbangers Ball logo, “Anthrax 1988 Headbangers Ball,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uORVPC8-Srs; Yo! MTV Raps logo, “yo mtv raps dope jam tour 1988 edit1.mp4,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ATuR9tt5Bno; 120 Minutes logo, “sinead o’connor on 120 minutes with kevin seal 1988,"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fVhqvVjUCo.)
As set out by Horst and her coauthors in the DML-landmark Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, “messing around” is the second part of a rubric of interest-based new media literacy (referred to on the whole as HOMAGO) and is defined as “a genre of participation [that] represents the beginning of a more intense engagement with new media.”16 As this report attempts to conflate the notion and practices of new media literacy and specialized literacies in the digital era, the HOMAGO rubric is one of the more useful overarching concepts I have used to break down my own thought. And “messing around”—“the beginning of a more intense engagement”17—is the launching pad for most of the modes of exploration and self-teaching that I discuss.
As further defined by Horst and her coauthors, “messing around” itself comprises three levels of activity: “looking around,” “experimentation and play,” and “finding the time, finding the place.”18 MTV in the 1980s provided a whole new looking glass for this process of exploration, emulation, and performance of the self and provided a locus and launching pad for an increasing array of self-expressive modes.
The practice of actively searching out subculture, of messing around with new modes of the self, was and is inherently peer influenced. More teens than ever in the 1980s learned to do this with and because of peers—older siblings, friends, school acquaintances, and other friend-driven networks. At the same time, MTV, by being a personal, domestic, and almost tactile domain, helped expand the notion of a peer outward or upward. As music culture became increasingly personalized, pop icons weren’t just admirable but became explicitly imitatable, locatable (if distant) options for modeling oneself after. As MTV’s audiences learned to search out music more actively, they were also learning to more actively seek out themselves and self-teach how they wanted to present themselves to the world.
The 1990s: Auteurship and Alternativism
The 1990s, which actually lasted into the early 2000s, saw a turn from music videos as subcultural signifiers to videos as specific, individual artistic statements. This was the era of the music video auteur, when a slew of young directors—Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, David Fincher, Mike Mills, Hype Williams, Anton Corbijn, Mark Romanek, and Jonathan Glazer, among others—brought filmmaking to a place of at least equal footing with music as the potential draw to music videos. The most influential videos from this era struck a three-note chord of technical innovation, resonance between visual thematics and musical artist personality, and a distinct style brought to the production, from conception to execution, by the director. As adolescents increasingly sought out new genres of music, and the Billboard charts swung between the pop effusions of Britney Spears types and incursions of grunge, indie, punk, gangster rap, electronica, and dance music, so these auteurs and their videos rotated between two poles. Computer graphics and a steady stream of new film technologies allowed for increasingly ambitious and polished special effects, while a strong vein of visual amateurism and DIY aesthetics reflected an earnestness that purported to eschew the pop cycles of the mainstream recording industry.
Two of “Buddy Holly” director Spike Jonze’s videos for the same artist display this duality: the video for Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” released in 1999, and the video for “Weapon of Choice,” released one year later. For “Praise You,” Jonze posed as the leader of a community dance group and led dancers in a faux-amateur routine in the middle of a crowd lined up outside a movie theater. The video was edited with pre-roll to look like a clip from a community access program and was presented in this form on MTV without explanation. The video for “Weapon of Choice,” on the other hand, featured the cult actor Christopher Walken dancing a surprisingly fleet-footed tap routine through an empty hotel lobby before jumping off a balcony to take special-effects-aided flight.
Director Spike Jonze (center) leads a group of amateurish dancers in a choreographed routine in front of a captive audience of moviegoers, filing into a main street theater. Somewhere between a prank and a “happening,” the routine and video tread a very 1990s line between irony and sincerity, neither attempting to truly affect the passersby nor approaching the desire to affect them, and yet claiming a certain authenticity in their recognition of naive stylization (reference the fake public-access-style title card, rendered in a standard “fancy” word processor font) and serendipitous suburban theatricality. Jonze would continue to mine this vein of insider–outsider stunt with the Jackass franchise of MTV shows and movies, which he created in collaboration with his colleagues from the world of skateboarding, itself a suburban outsider activity fluent in stunts and pranks.
“Praise You” was not just notoriously cheap but actually visually challenging, scruffy and unpolished at a time when music video budgets reliably hit the high hundreds of thousands; “Weapon of Choice” was relatively restrained but still absolutely slick, experimental but still assured of its place in a production and distribution infrastructure that would honor its vision. Yet coursing through both videos is something transgressive, a spark of flipping off the system they were absolutely part of, a reward for wandering from the expected. This same sense of ambivalence toward authority marked another of 1999’s most significant cultural milestones: the release of Napster, the first widely used peer-to-peer file-sharing network, which both abetted fans’ existing alternative acquisition practices (mail order, cassette tape sharing networks, record swaps, dubbing from radio, etc.) and incubated a sense of full-fledged dissent from mainstream media.
File sharing not only enabled an uptick in widening consumption but swelled the ranks of independent musicians who were able to get their products to eager audiences. Just as more musicians than ever were able to share a widening spotlight, so the auteurs of the 1990s asserted that their individual voices were worthy of recognition, and their videos were creative works of worth beyond their ability to move people to buy records. Cunningham, Gondry, and Jonze specifically highlighted and promoted the directorial contribution to the form when they released the Directors Label DVD series in 2003,19 manufacturing recognition of the music video director as someone to be noticed by the general population, more than just a line of text in the left-aligned credits that showed up at the beginning and end of a video. When these directors made the firm statement that someone was behind the creation of these videos, they ever so slightly teased apart the seam of distant Hollywood production magic.
Christopher Walken tap-dances on a table and effortlessly glides along the balcony wall of the empty lobby of a swanky hotel. Jonze’s video was a revelation for Gen X audiences, who primarily knew Walken from a slew of sociopathic or sadistic film roles in the 1990s—his hidden, fleet-footed talents a subversion of the very films the video’s audience loved.
At the same time, technology was lowering the premium on professional media. Cameras and editing software were becoming orders of magnitude cheaper and more widely available, and the veneer of expensive CDs and DVDs was wearing thin in the face of booming P2P use. Just as more garage rockers and electronic music producers took to their 808s and sequencers when they saw artists who looked like themselves funneling into the spotlight, putative music video directors, messing around with their families’ shoulder-mounted camcorders, watched Jonze and his peers beginning in the late ’90s and recognized examples of what they themselves could immediately emulate and someday, prospectively, become. In the 1980s, MTV’s audiences had become increasingly active self-teachers and seekers, in a messing around of the consumptively expressive self. The example of the ’90s auteurs and the proliferation of peer-sharing and prosumer technologies helped a growing number of teens progress from the messing around of the consumptive self to a messing around of the creative self.
The 2000s: Stagnation and Dissent
In the first half-decade of the 2000s, videos seemed to stagnate. While MTV was, for all intents and purposes, the sole venue for music video development, and while the record and music video production industry was still intent on spending in the high hundred thousands to low millions for videos, relatively little new infusion of talent or imagination broke through. And while videos, which had previously seen major formal overhauls every few years, trundled along in relative stasis, MTV expanded its slate of longer-format programs, especially a robust offering of reality fare, from Real World to Road Rules to Jackass to My Super Sweet 16 to Punk’d. As I shortly explore, music video programming blocks continued to command a steady trickle of viewers, whereas reality programming was able to draw double or even quadruple ratings. Between the viewership losses as other programming squeezed out video blocks, and former viewers who had switched off MTV altogether in favor of deeper forays into more underground music, MTV, once synonymous with music video, increasingly became synonymous with a lack of music video.
MTV’s most visible video vehicle in this period was the daily countdown show Total Request Live—eventually shortened to TRL—which, in contrast to genre-curated programs such as 120 Minutes and Yo! MTV Raps, relied on raw viewer popularity for its playlist, in the form of votes via telephone. TRL aired from 1998 to 2008, a watershed period in the transition from traditional “push” media to digital interactivity, the show’s life span entirely transcribed by this change. For this reason, I pause now for a careful look at what TRL’s shifting audience and the form of the show itself can tell us about this space in time.
TRL debuted on September 14, 1998, the product of combining two existing MTV shows—MTV Live, which hosted celebrity interviews and performances from MTV’s studio overlooking Times Square, and Total Request, itself an evolution of a previous viewer request dial-in program, Dial MTV. Genial post-frat type Carson Daly hosted the show, softballing questions and vaguely chaperoning the frenzied in-studio audience. The program quickly grew from a relatively demure video debut vehicle in a sparsely populated studio to a pop cultural touchstone—part king-making juggernaut, part barometer of shifting industry currents—whose audiences overflowed its studio bleachers, filling the Broadway sidewalks and even shutting down Times Square on a handful of particularly heated teen culture moments.
For Americans who happened to be tween to college age between 1998 and 2008, TRL was inescapable. It aired from 3 to 6 p.m., those crucial after-school hours when the extracurricular energies of middle schoolers and high school students were most likely to be both unsupervised and unstructured. The program’s hallmark, voting by phone, was an element of everyday interactivity that dovetailed neatly with the other predominant teen communications tools of the time: pagers and their attendant “pager codes,” which made phone keypads into runic pathways to hangouts, flirtations, and first loves; instant messaging (IM) and Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which were many teens’ first experience with being online for extended periods of time, “hanging out” with local friends or new, distant, interest-based online acquaintances; and the family landline, which was still a social territory to be staked out, a shared device that promised connections outward, beyond the given culture of the family and toward a chosen culture of friends, activities, and interests.20
For its first eight years, TRL chugged along without much change; TRL is unanimously reported as having peaked in 1999 (the era of not only feuding boy bands but feuding boy band fans) with an average daily viewership of between 700,00021 and 800,000,22 around half of those in the twelve- to seventeen-year-old primary target demographic. But, as noted previously, the same year also gave birth to Napster, with other P2P programs soon to follow. Even as the pop confections of *NSYNC and Christina Aguilera continued to dominate TRL’s charts, the program’s relevance began to slip among teens and young adults who were taking it upon themselves to decide what was popular to them, and knew exactly how to get that music into their hands and onto their hard drives. Ratings dropped from 1999 onward, though MTV did not appear to signal any sense of danger until 2006, when phone-only voting was discontinued and replaced by online-only voting, an apparent attempt to combat falling ratings by following the migration of millennial audiences online for music and music news.
Yet this shift missed an important understanding of where TRL’s audiences were going, and why. The evaporation of its audience in the face of the user-determined ’net speaks not only to the breaking down of television audiences for music videos and the creation of Internet audiences for music videos but also to the breaking down of the traditional Top 40–based, top-down music industry promotional practices and the expansion of peer-to-peer, artist-to-audience, networked promotional and fandom capacities afforded by the Web. In fact, by 2006 TRL was barely playing music videos, often substituting short clips of the videos that had charted, and YouTube and other streaming technologies hadn’t yet truly ascended. Music video audiences abandoned MTV not because MTV abandoned the music video but because MTV abandoned its most successful iteration. It stopped providing a truly valuable service, curation, an acknowledgment of sensibility and choice, in favor of attempting to ford the tide of raw data, a service that the wide-open Internet provides infinitely better than inherently focused, committal television programming.
The last two years of TRL’s history were a precipitous grasping at straws: daily taping was rolled back to a few episodes a week in June 2006,23 and in October 2007 online voting statistics were combined with MP3 and ringtone sales, the Billboard Hot 100 chart, online streaming, and radio plays to create an index for chart placement.24 That year also saw the abortive rebranding of the show as YouRL.25 By the time journalists were charting the last days of the program, Nielsen was reporting an average of 322,000 viewers a day, with only a quarter of those (79,000) in the desired twelve- to seventeen-year-old category.26 By contrast, Ben Sisario of the New York Times reported that The Hills, MTV’s flagship new-reality program, controversial for the possibility that it was scripted and popular despite only a tenuous philosophical connection to music and music culture, was routinely drawing up to four million viewers.
The irrelevance of the music video as television content was underlined in 2008, when TRL, at the time the network’s last remaining outlet for videos, shuttered its Times Square windows, and the once iconic form all but dried up from basic cable (long live BET and CMT).27 Sisario’s article quoted the rapper 50 Cent, speaking during the festivities of “Total Finale Live,” TRL’s three-hour sign-off-cum-house-party broadcast: “It’s a big loss to all of us not to have this platform to promote ourselves. But we’ll have to figure out a new way to do it.” His clear-eyed assessment of TRL’s passing had nothing to do with audiences’ interest in music videos, the form’s viability as raw content, or even MTV’s commitment to playing them. It had everything to do with understanding the challenge posed by what had changed in consumer practice—that there had been a drift toward a decentralized music culture, less responsive to top-down cultural determinism, aware of the superfluity of access to a wide array of artists that the net affords, and endowed with the capability to ford that tide.
The 2010s: Instability and Motivated Curiosity
And then there is now, which began sometime around 2007, when the Internet conspired, as in so many other media industries, to explode things through the roof at the same time it imploded them from the inside. Because music video’s U.S. distribution network had almost entirely been restricted to one channel, the form experienced a more pronounced version of what all other ad-revenue-based and entertainment media businesses experienced. Within the life span of someone in their thirties at the beginning of the twenty-first century, music video had evolved from a mainstream birth distinctly tethered to an iconic platform, gone through a period of great auteurship supported by a steadfast venue, and arrived in a present unmoored to any dock in particular, but with the production and distribution capabilities for such uncertainty to mean freedom and choice.
The coincidence of the rise of the Internet and the rise of prosumer digital production technologies, which is both not a coincidence at all and deep, cosmic good fortune, meant that at almost the exact moment that million-dollar videos became untenable—because they no longer had an outlet and because the Internet had destroyed record sales—a new underground of filmmakers was already working. Budgets fell to the level that twenty-something directors could afford to take on, YouTube sprang into existence to display their wares, and filmmakers armed with little more than prosumer video cameras and off-the-shelf editing software were able to do more than toe the creative line, but push it forward. Just as important, audiences for these videos were as curious about new and different media and facile at searching for them as their producer counterparts were at teaching themselves to create and share them.
Both creators and viewers, by the time of YouTube’s launch in 2005, had mastered the participation processes of HOMAGO. “Hanging out” provided the time and social space for teens and young adults to seek out cultural products or creative processes they were curious about. Twenty-first-century teens and millennials, inheritors of the subcultural swell of the 1980s and alternative movements of the 1990s, had had search ingrained as a primary practice and fandom process for their whole lives. From that base, they moved on to “messing around,” searching not just to search but to learn, actively accreting new interests into their lives and onto their selves as producers and consumers, in a self- and peer-driven process. Finally, although not all Gen Y and Gen I consumers became cultural producers, “geeking out” was common across interest-based activities. Fluent searchers for what they want to learn, young people at the turn of the century increasingly feel free to travel deep into their personal interests, whether as an active creator or active appreciator—or both or either from time to time, depending on the individual and the interest.
This is what is significant about the shifts in the production and consumer practices of millennials: these processes have come to resemble each other. They are interest-driven, peer-based activities, whether with colocated or networked peers, which young people take upon themselves to search out, learn about, and, increasingly, learn to become fluent in. The difference between the steps taken in serious pursuit of digital filmmaking, music fandom, political activism, or foodieism in 2012 are marginal; all use a process that I characterize as learning to search, searching to learn, and learning to learn, which has its foundational spark in what I term motivated curiosity. It should be noted that this process is not restricted to Web-based or digital activity but is absolutely shaped by the networked connotations of living in the digital era.
Learning to Search
The early history of the music video, from an audience standpoint, was the ramping up of the first step in this process, learning to search. Essentially analogous to the activities undertaken during “hanging out,” learning to search begins with the fundamental awareness that there is something that can be sought out. The repeated, refinable skill of learning to search has blossomed in the mechanical and digital ages as substrains of knowledge have proliferated in everyday as much as specialized cultures. Where active musical choice was an option for teenagers in the 1980s that music videos and other push media abetted, for teenagers in the early years of the twenty-first century, most musical experiences start with the intermediate frame of the search field, a box and beckoning cursor nestled within Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Vevo, Vimeo, MTV.com, Spotify, Pandora, Pirate Bay, uTorrent, or iTunes.
To understand more specifically how this acquisition shift has affected the form of the music video, in the spring of 2011 I spoke with Bryan Younce, the vice president of video and content production for Columbia Records, one of the twenty labels held under the Sony umbrella.
Younce echoed the notion that the shift in platform had caused the most recent shift in essence of the music video. “If you looked at music videos in 1988 on MTV, versus the early to mid-1990s, when all these auteurs were making videos, the medium changed a lot, and it is changing again. This time it’s because the outlet has completely shifted.” Younce’s job consists of matching a Columbia artist and track to a director and concept, plumbing all elements for their philosophical and aesthetic affinities. He had officially been in the music video business since 2007 but drew daily on his lifelong Gen X engagement as a self-described music video “super fan” whose encyclopedic knowledge of music videos across all eras developed during his teenage years in the pre-TRL prime of 120 Minutes.
“Certainly at its most basic [the music video is] a promotional tool, another avenue to get people’s attention,” Younce said. “At the same time, it’s also creating an identity for the band. Even if the band’s not in it, it helps further establish their persona in some way. Those are the more boring ends of it, but in its most essential purpose, it’s still what they’re doing, which is what they’ve always done—it’s just harder to get that attention now.”
“As far as the videos are concerned, I often tell the newer bands the only risk you can take is not taking a risk,” Younce said. “It will just disappear, people just won’t care. Even if someone watches something and likes it or kind of likes it, they’re not going to tell someone else to watch it, which is what everyone’s looking for. We want to make something that people are gonna say, ‘Oh my god, you have to check this out.” Getting attention was now a distributed activity that depended at every level of promotion—from professional advertising and editorialism through personal recommendation—on motivating the curiosity of whoever might potentially be searching. This shift from push to pull, from presenting to finding, from receiving to searching, had, especially in the first half decade of YouTube, from 2006 to 2011, put a premium on undermining the expected.
“I feel like it’s this amazing creative frontier,” Younce said of the digital possibilities that shift his horizon daily. “We don’t just make music videos, and that’s one thing that’s exciting about the way the landscape has changed. It used to be that for MTV you had a very specific thing you had to do, at least as far as running time was concerned. It couldn’t be a fifteen-minute epic or seven-part series; it had to run the duration of the single. And now all bets are off. The song could dip in and out, the song could be a punctuation to a short film, the paradigm has changed so much. It’s like it’s trying to find itself again.” And as much as the music video form is revisiting its contours and boundaries, this renaissance is possible only because of the proclivities and allowances of millennial music video’s adventure-seeking audiences.
Younce’s characterization of the open-ended possibilities of music video in the digital era calls to mind the sociologist Howard Becker’s explanation of how creative innovations force structural changes in art worlds, as well as how the conventional structures of art platforms and audience expectations influence the products on display. Just as “The Wilderness Downtown” could not be faithfully represented on television, Becker notes of art worlds: “When artists make what existing institutions cannot assimilate, whether the limits be physical or conventional (the weight of the sculpture versus the length of the plays), their works are not exhibited or performed. … There often exist subsidiary, nonstandard distribution channels and adventurous entrepreneurs and audiences.”28 At the moment, the nonstandard adventure is the only game in town for music video, though this will certainly shift again as expectations and distribution technologies normalize—and more crucially, as and to what degree search practices are constrained.
As Younce noted of Vevo’s stabilizing viewership, “It’s becoming its own MTV, in a way. This is a destination to watch music videos, but at the same time, you have the remote control to watch whatever you want, as far as music videos are concerned; it’s not like you’re sitting through an hour block of programming.”
We have gone through the same process as a culture that individual young people experience in their own lives. We have permanently realized there is more to be found than we have previously been presented with, and more to find than can pragmatically be presented to any one person by any one collection of formal systems, and that the technologies that have afforded us this realization also afford us the possibility to search for ourselves. It is this current wiliness of information that has made innate searchers of millennials: because search has become a fundamental competency (recall my dad’s inability to understand how we watched a music video on a computer without searching the Web), the desire to search—to find knowledge that we can accrete into the cultural authorship of ourselves—has become our fundamental motivation. We search to learn.
Searching to Learn
On a Friday afternoon in February 2011, across the continent from Sony Music, the sidewalks of Times Square surged lightly with the end of the lunch crowd and throngs of tourists, free from any schedule in particular. It was easy to forget that a decade ago, this space at this time might have been impassable, filled with mobs of *NSYNC partisans, Destiny’s Child adherents, or Eminem aficionados. The floor-to-ceiling glass studio walls that were once the windows into MTV’s soul now bore floor-to-ceiling ads for The Lion King, the Disney musical that arrived in Times Square a year before TRL and outlasted the TV program by another six. Twenty-five stories above, Frank Ho, of MTV’s music, talent, and programming strategy department, sat down to explain just what relationship the network, lacking music videos, still had to music and its audiences.
“We work with all the different publicists and managers and labels to kind of bring in the new music and new projects, and then we disseminate it within the department,” Ho said. “We also book onto all the different platforms,” which in the United States include MTV2, MTVU, MTV Hits, MTV Jams, and MTV.com. “Anytime you see a musician or artist on the channel in any way, it came from one of the four of us in the department.”
Himself a Gen Xer, Ho was raised on the same programming as industry colleagues like Bryan Younce. “When I was younger and MTV first started and it was completely video based, that’s because that was how people found music. There wasn’t Internet; you either had TV—and MTV really was the only music-based thing in the mid-1980s—or you had radio, and that was it.” (For the record, Younce’s more alternative but still MTV-centric version of this statement was “I remember growing up and being a teenager and feeling too cool for MTV and hating on it but still watching it all day long and taping 120 Minutes every day. There were a few voices there that really profoundly impacted a generation in a way that they started listening to music”—that is, in the way that they taught their viewers to search.)
Because Ho and his MTV generation colleagues were as tied as anyone to the belief that videos should be the channel’s stock-in-trade, the long, gradual decline in the format’s ratings was more than a slight concern for the channel. Ho’s simple, blunt answer for why MTV doesn’t play videos anymore? “If we put music video blocks on our main channel, the ratings drop to nothing.” His reason echoed all that I have been discussing here: “People don’t need it, that’s not how people consume music,” Ho said. “It actually took a long time for everyone here to realize that. It’s not that people care less about x, y, and z artist; they’re just not getting it in the way that we thought they were getting it.”
“People are really expanding their music tastes, I think because this new generation growing up in the digital age is being taught, ‘You can go find music yourself, nobody has to tell you what to listen to,’” Ho said. In other words, teenagers have learned to search, and MTV is now in the position of trying to figure out how to leverage its brand against the speed of teens’ motivated curiosities. Ho swiveled his monitor to show me the MTV Music Meter,29 an analytic tool similar to Billboard’s Social 50, a weekly rankings chart launched in 2010, derived from mentions, friends, followers, song embeds, and site views on leading social networking sites.30 “We have a much more symbiotic relationship with our audience. So you get everything from, you know, we’re putting stuff out, but we’re putting it out as feelers—are people biting? We’re looking at traffic online; are people really coming to look at these artists on our site?”
What these Web-based rubrics have tracked, for the most part, is the increasing mainstreaming of the off-mainstream. “They compile all the data from our own online traffic. It shows the top ten artists that people are looking for within all our digital properties. And you think, ‘Who goes to MTV.com?’ The stereotype is that all they care about are the Britney Spearses of the world, but if you look at this—and this changes by the minute—it’s much more indie than people really suspect.” Ho’s screen displayed James Blake, Kurt Vile, and Wye Oak all within the top ten, artists who were also prominently featured in the indie-stalwart Pitchfork.com’s Most Read reviews list when I cross-checked later that week.31 Although MTV dropped the words “Music Television” from its name in 2010,32 it has retained, Kleenex-like, a synonymy with teen culture; significantly and almost poignantly, MTV’s brand has retained sufficient luster to still act as a first point of departure for many young people setting out to discover music.
That teens still resort to MTV to start their searching is also significant in that it points to a desire for searching to be specific, to render information that has been vetted in some way; looking for a musical artist on MTV.com carries a different weight than appealing to Google. Whatever my own misgivings about the depth of knowledge offered by MTV.com, young people looking to MTV for guidance in discovering more about an artist are doing more than searching—they are choosing a specific search tool to deepen their knowledge in a holistic context, one that will presumably separate out much digital chaff, as well. Similar needs have driven the rise in algorithm-based recommendation engines like Pandora, Last.fm, and Grooveshark and social-based aggregators and libraries like the Hype Machine and Spotify, all of which commingle math-based serendipity with occasional robotic inaccuracy or rely on social data to redouble rather than disrupt our current listening habits. Our glee at being able to leverage technology to consume more has outpaced technology’s ability to understand what we want to consume, and we’ve cobbled together a working approximation somewhere in the middle.
It would be difficult to characterize, without a specific example, whether a given MTV.com search is closer to “hanging out” or “messing around,” though I contend that music fandom in the twenty-first century now entails a lifelong messing around. Being a music lover in the digital era is a protracted deepening that makes incredibly complex use of a variety of acquisition patterns, from colocated peer knowledge to interest-based curated content, and especially takes advantage of learning-to-search and searching-to-learn habits formed in adolescence through young adulthood in a renewing cycle. More importantly, this model of music fandom, widely accessible as it is, absolutely reflects other contemporary consumption and production practices. This, for me, is a more useful definition of convergence—not the notion that every viewer or listener of digital content will transition into a producer, any more than every reader in the seven hundred years since Gutenberg became a writer, but that as millennials and Generation I have learned to search, then searched to learn, they have also necessarily provided themselves a more crucial skill: learning to learn.
Learning to Learn
There’s a social tic that has become widespread in first decades of the twenty-first century. Normally well-behaved, polite people, while at dinner, in a meeting, or otherwise occupied by giving their attention to friends, family, or coworkers, have a question come up that no one is quite sure of the answer to. It may or may not be crucial to settle the answer just then, but increasingly we take out our smartphones and get a Googled answer to our motivated curiosity. The ability to know is at our fingertips, and we can’t resist finding it out. If we set propriety and cranky nostalgia aside, this everyday interaction should be the spark we attempt to capture and bottle at the center of learning in the digital age. What could be more exciting, in terms of education, than people who want to know so badly that they throw everything else aside until they have the answer or the competency?
Pedestrian as this example may be, it is exactly what lies at the heart of “geeking out,” which I analogize as learning to learn. It comprises not just the innate rewards of motivated curiosity but an unencumbered resort to appropriate tools and an appendage-like dexterity that uses technology toward consumptive or productive ends. Equally important, this moment of curiosity may have been part of HOMAGO activities already under way or may have constituted a deepening engagement with an unfurling interest. Where learning to search connotes an awareness and searching to learn indicates a deepening, learning to learn describes a fluency—the ability not just to have knowledge but to turn that knowledge back toward regeneration of both content and the learn–search–learn cycle itself. Fluency naturally seeks to deepen itself by searching out new pathways and more mature seams of knowledge.
Learning to learn brings us to music video creators like Hiro Murai, whom we will meet in chapter 2, who were preadolescent in the auteur-driven 1990s and spent their high school and college years in the hurtling instability and open-endedness of the early 2000s. These creators’ professional lives exist on a continuum with their early interests and hobbies and exemplify repeated cycles of learning to search, searching to learn, and learning to learn, sometimes influenced by experiences within traditional school settings, but often with the most formative experiences occurring outside school.33 These cycles have largely been undertaken with age peers and knowledge peers, with the chief contribution of the scholastic environment often having been to have gathered like-minded peers in one place. Crucially and almost uniformly, these continuums start with an above-average concentration of cultural capital in the home34: either parents with backgrounds in or affinities for creative activity (regardless of whether the parents’ creative activity matches that of their child), parents supportive of the young creators’ long-term engagement with creative pursuit, or environments where young people have easy and open access to creative tools and technologies—and often all three. These creators have benefited from an enriched version of learning to learn undertaken by most millennial hobbyists, tinkerers, bloggers, and conventioneers; they have taught themselves how to teach themselves and had the benefit of growing up in environments that recognized that process in and of itself as valuable.
A final element is crucial to the process of learning to search, searching to learn, and learning to learn: flexibility. This particular response in millennials and digital natives is one part contemporary and of its moment, and another part holistic to the learning-to-learn process in any era. Gen Y has come of age in an era of exponentially improving technologies, as well as one of schismatic flux—open source and proprietary philosophies battle amid flourishing backgrounds of P2P use, piracy, the Creative Commons and copyright enforcement—in the face of which flexibility is as much adaptive as it is ideologically self-advantageous.
But flexibility is also born of the process of learning to learn itself, of being motivated by true and fundamental curiosity that can soak up outdated knowledge, misdirection, and even failure as part of a larger holistic process.35 As Holly Willis has noted of leading millennials in college symposia using Seesmic, a microblogging site that no longer exists, she does not consider Seesmic’s death since her original 2009 assignment to have muted her lesson plan’s future relevance or her own development as an instructor. In fact, Seesmic’s obsolescence may be its most useful impact for her: “Fundamental to teaching with tools that rapidly come and go is the need to teach flux and instability as constituent components of digital authoring. Students need to learn how to teach themselves about new software applications and to discern a software’s intended use as well as the way in which it might be misused. Here, flexibility, resilience, and an ability to move from platform to platform will serve students well.”36 Platform flux has become a common enough aspect of even amateur digital lives—few cell phone users have not upgraded at least once; it is rare to run into a Discman, and rarer still a Walkman—that the value of teaching the understanding and manipulation of interfaces rather than specific iterations of technology should be apparent.
So far we have explored how the history of the music video can also be traced as a history of Gen X’s and Gen Y’s assumption of the process of learning to search, searching to learn, and learning to learn. As we segue into a close-up examination of one music video director’s journey from amateur to professional in a lifelong engagement with creative media, I stress that the learn–search–learn process illuminated by this case study absolutely applies beyond the boundaries of music video, film, media creation, and even digital technologies. Music video, as a form that unites popular music, visual communication, and changing sociocultural aesthetics, touches the everyday practices and interests of almost anyone engaged with contemporary culture. I have chosen to discuss this process in light of music video because of this normalizing effect and hope that the process is clearly applicable to those without the time, space, and access to advanced creative technologies.
Additionally, speaking in terms of music video and music fandom—the former a fairly rarefied practice, the latter a completely prosaic one—emphasizes that speaking to parents and educators in terms of the inherent value in the process of learning to learn, rather than in terms of digital fluencies, may be more productive and have fewer barriers to break through in these audiences’ own discomfort with technology. I also contend that digital instruction and learning have a great deal to contribute to and learn from nondigital activities, which benefit every bit as much as digital pursuits from motivated curiosity and dedicated self-teaching. Few parents or schools dissuade children from playing sports, formally or informally, because we all have bodies, and we understand that physical activity in and of itself provides its own reward and provides improvement and growth through sheer pursuit. To demonstrate the vast capabilities of digital technology to provide lifelong templates for learning, we should be finding more universal, tangible, everyday examples that prove that we all already understand and engage in this process, whether we realize it or not.