Life & Liberty: I Have Seen MTV, and It Is Literate


I swung through a student union at a large university a few months back and I heard Van Halen doing "Jump." I looked around for the radio or the stereo (silly me) and found that "Jump" was on the TV. It seemed to be a concert. There was Van Halen, on a stage, instruments and microphones in hand, with their lead singer mugging for the camera and doing a leaping high kick—first in slow motion, then at regular speed, over and over. But when this group finished "Jump," a different artist came on. Was it more than one group in concert? Then I saw the little title in the corner, and before long the disc jockey—or video jockey, they must be called—identified the videos we would be seeing and hearing in the next half-hour and identified the station as well. So this was MTV—Music Television.

As I grabbed a seat, I noticed that the folks watching the TV were mostly short—10 or 12 years old, playing hooky from their summer camp activities. Along a nearby wall, out of eyeshot, were the adults—all reading newspapers. An occasional person of the undergraduate persuasion would park for a few songs, but the steady watchers were the kids and me.

"Probably the only thing better than pop music," I thought, "is pop music with pictures." I wondered what they, the kids, thought. They weren't saying much, mostly watching.

Now, I have put in some years reading John Donne and other stuff that is supposed to make me—make me what? Educated? Some would say it's supposed to save me from the horrible effects of TV—which I have happily watched for more years than I've read Donne. But these short people all around me had not gotten their cultural vaccinations. "What," I thought, "would MTV do to them?"

I don't have an absolute answer, but I do know that if I had a kid, I'd want him to watch MTV. It is literate. "Literacy," one Robert Pattison explains, "denotes consciousness of the questions posed by language coupled with mastery of those skills by which a culture at any given moment in its history manifests this consciousness." He is careful not to equate literacy with print or even with writing. For him literacy is an awareness of certain questions that language poses, a sophistication about what language is and does that transcends pen and book. Thus people who cannot read or write can be literate. A medium that involves neither reading nor writing can be too. And MTV is. Let me illustrate.

In one video we first see the group who recorded the song singing it on a stage. The camera pans around, shooting these musicians from below, making them appear larger than life. So far we have the familiar image—familiar, I suspect, ever since Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show-stage, performer, television image of the performer.

But then the image shifts. Suddenly there are costumed actors and the intimations of pursuit: an elegantly dressed man is ominously followed by thugs. We know thev're thugs because they have a thug-like physiognomy immortalized on Rockford (TV thugs are a type)—and because their makeup echoes that of cadavers in horror films: a hint of red around the eyes, a chalky pallor to their faces.

With these characters, an astonishing thing happens. They mouth the words of the song still being sung by the now-unseen rock group. They speak to each other in the words of the song.

I submit that nothing less than an awareness of persona is being urged on the viewer here. The viewer associates the song with the group. Indeed, the first shot serves as a frame and cements this association: we see the group singing the song. Then the video overturns this—forces the viewer to see the words in a new perspective—coming out of the mouth of one of the characters in the subsequent vignette. That's the "who is saying this?" question that great literature makes us ask. I'll show you a parallel.

When I teach Donne's love poems, I point out to students that it is not so much Donne who is speaking each poem as a persona that Donne invents who is doing the talking. This MTV video does the same thing. It leads viewers to divorce the singer from the song, to associate with the words of a song a fictional construct. To reach awareness of the persona in Donne, or awareness of the alternate speaker in the video, requires the same leap in thought, the same mental move in both reader and viewer. In both cases, this is a very literate move. And this fictionalization of the song is commonplace in these videos; thus, so is the demand placed on the viewer.

There are other demands, as well. Richard Thompson made a video of his song "Wrong Heartbeat," in which we see Thompson arriving at Los Angeles airport, where he is taken in tow by a huge, ominous chauffeur-cum-enforcer who deposits him at a video production company in Hollywood. (We know it's Hollywood because we see the hillside sign.) Thompson sits at a table facing three very different people—a kissy-kissy agent type, a rather prim-looking woman who is dressed for success, and a new-wave type, wearing dark glasses, sporting impossibly blond, spiky hair. Each of these types shows Thompson an idea for a video—and as each begins to explain the idea, the viewer sees the video each type is pitching at Thompson. Each type closes his or her spiel with an easily decipherable miming of the phrase, "This is you, now."

Thompson regards their claim as an accusation, refuses to recognize himself in any of the three ideas, retreats to the pink car that brought him, rushes to the airport, and runs for his plane. He sees the "chauffeur" again and quakes with fear, but the huge man has followed him only to give him his forgotten guitar case.

Thompson's arrival and departure frame the three videos-within-a-video. In the space of five minutes the viewer shifts from the video that shows Thompson delivered to the video production company, to first one, then two, then three of the other possible videos, then back to the original, framing video for Thompson's escape. Frames, of course, are old devices—the first chapter of Tom Jones comes immediately to mind, but there are many older examples. They force an awareness of narrator on the reader, or, in the case of the video, force an awareness of alternatives on the viewer. Part of being aware of the questions that language poses is an awareness of alternatives. Well, there are at least four alternatives here, five if you count the "message" of the video—that Thompson didn't want to make any video.

I offer up a last example. A song popular a while back, Steve Perry's "Sherrie," contains very standard stuff about love enduring despite tribulations and problems. The video for this song opens with the chords of the intro—electronic keyboard music—and with Steve dressed as a medieval prince—or dressed as Hollywood's version of a medieval prince. There are retainers around. He's obviously holding court. Then a lady—probably a Lady—comes up a set of stairs and kneels at the singer/Prince's feet. We know the song well enough to know that the singer should belt out the first line, "You shoulda been gone.…" But he doesn't. Instead he casts a furtive glance at the camera dollying in on him, scowls, and says, out of character, "I can't do this."

The director says, "Cut," and suddenly we're watching another video about making a video. We see the slate with the black-and-white-striped board on it, and we see take two. Again Perry gets to the same point where he should deliver the first line. Again he doesn't.

Instead, he takes off his crown, steps out of the prince-robe he's wearing (he has his modern street clothes on underneath) and leaves the set of the medieval video (medieval video?). Another framing device.

He walks down the stairs, sits at the bottom of them, and, all alone, belts out that inevitable first line. Then Sherrie shows up, also in modern dress, and Steve sings the rest of the song to her. The cast of the medieval video, still dressed in their costumes, ends up watching Steve sing his heart out to old Sherrie (who we hope does not take Steve's last name if they should marry).

In addition to the frame, requiring one mental jump, viewers are confronted with the idea that it is appropriate to say certain words—sing certain songs—at some times, but not at others. The song is most un-medieval in its attitudes toward romantic love. But the awareness of how you use this language—that is, Steve's reluctance to do the medieval video—makes the viewer face the question of appropriateness, makes the viewer conscious of the language.

I would argue that this consciousness of language—of persona, of alternatives and frames, of appropriateness—would not happen if viewers were merely listeners—that is, if they merely heard the songs on the radio. And keep in mind that these shifts are happening in the space of from three to five minutes—about the time it takes to read a lyric poem. My comparison to Donne was not an accident. I think that music videos are the lyric poems of television—brief, complex, highly demanding of their "readers," and often about love.

The demands these videos place on their viewers can teach those kids who were watching. But only if the kids make the mental moves that the pieces demand. Just as I would not expect kids to read Donne unaided, at least for the first few poems, I would not expect them to respond to these videos as I have done. But the usual fear that I hear expressed—that these videos will turn kids' minds to sawdust—seems unjustified to me. Instead, I would worry about their going over the kids' heads, but I'd be glad if my kids watched.

Kids have reserves of sophistication about these things that we never tap. MTV is asking them to develop that sophistication. TV developing sophistication? You bet. MTV is literate and I'd want my kids to watch.

Pamela Regis teaches English at Western Maryland College.