Watch any tweenager, teenager or young adult watching TV today and he/she will sooner or later turn to MTV or some similar station. MTV has succeeded in catering to the whims of new generations of youths in the 25 years since it launched, and it is continuing to grow. MTV Networks has kicked off 20 new channels in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa this year, alone, pushing its global tally to 112. In addition, with its new parent, MTV Networks is readying for a more visible role with plans to leverage its influential brands in new ways. The cable side, most of which comprises MTV Networks, accounted for about $5.6 billion, or about 70%, of what will become the new Viacom's $8.1 billion of revenue last year.
Not everyone, however, is enthusiastic about the impact of MTV on today's culture. E.Ann Kaplan included. In 1987, she said MTV is a postmodernist phenomenon that is here to stay, and was not happy about it. Director of the Humanities Institute of Stonybrook Institute, Kaplan has mounted a negative campaign against the music clips, which produce a result drastically different from prior organizations of rock. MTV is a commercial, popular institution, and a specifically televisual apparatus (1).
By "televisual apparatus" Kaplan means "the technological features of the machine itself (the way it produces and presents images); the various "texts," including ads, commentaries and displays; the central relationship of programming to the sponsors, whose own texts -- the ads -- are arguably the 'real' texts; and, finally, the reception sites -- which may be anywhere from the living room to the bathroom" (3).
The French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard has had a major influence on Kaplan's work. She cites his model of the "hot" and "cold" universe as an example of how television has altered communication and the ways of translating images. It also acts as a distinction between the era of classic Hollywood film and that of MTV. In the "hot" universe, Freudian, or oedipal, narratives are useful in analyzing cinema, but in MTV's "cold" universe, a different analysis is required as the distinction between private and public space/time disappears. Such removal of borders produces schizophrenic tendencies in subjects who can no longer find a psychological shelter within objects. With new technology, a new relationship between subjects and objects emerge where humans, as subjects, are in "the position of mastery and control, and can play with various possibilities," as with televisions and computers (133).
Kaplan is not alone in her belief. Many scholars argue that it can be dangerous for individuals going through the process of entering an MTV-manner of existence. It suggests an unquenchable desire of plenitude that is encouraged with MTV's coming-up-next mechanism. A 24-hour, 7-day stream of short segments keeps everyone in an aroused state of expectation, promising that the next segment will fulfill personal desires. This unending flow is only segmented by various other types of advertisements and images. The question is what type of social and psychological effects these images have on a consumer/spectator enveloped in a fairytale "MTV way of life," as Van Dorston calls it.
In "Postmodernist Music: The Culture of 'Cool' Vs. Commodity," Van Dorston called this "MTV way of life" a hopeless condition of spiraling into what Fredric Jameson calls the "schizophrenic state." Viewers will alter the way they think and speak in a way similar to the words and images in texts like MTV "such that the reader/spectator cannot associate any meaning or recognize boundaries and differences, past and present." The schizophrenic state is to be fixated on a detached signifier like MTV, isolated in a present form from which there is no escape. "Videos on MTV create a grab-bag out of western cultural history to dip into at will, obliterating historical specificity. Kids will grow up with the 'televisual apparatus' with a consciousness that no longer thinks in terms of a historical frame" (4).
Likewise, Wollen interprets techno-musicianship as a postmodern practice that carries out what Walter Benjamin terms the breakdown of the aura, the technological deconstruction of authenticity (169).
According to Kaplan, MTV continues to be a major player in the total commodification of youth culture. It symbolizes what it means to be a young person in today's world, presenting itself as the chief of the youth culture tribe, providing answers to problems that somehow all seem to define an individual's identity. The message is by using this product or wearing these clothes, etc., you will transform into a new, hip person who is important with peers.
For example, The New World Teen Study found that "despite differing cultures, middle-class youth all over the world seem to live their lives as if in a parallel universe. They get up in the morning, put on their Levi's and Nikes, grab their caps, backpacks, and Sony personal CD players, and head for school" (Walker 47). To be a part of youth culture, to fit in with one's friends, is to stand out in a manner that makes one blend in. By making the right purchases, one will fit in by conforming to what makes him/her seem an authentic individual, but actually makes him/her identical to all consumers of identical products.
Overall, Kaplan is concerned with postmodernism and MTV on three different levels: 1) MTV carrying the televisual apparatus to its extreme; 2) the more strictly aesthetic level where the MTV videos are seen to embody postmodernism; and 3) the postmodernist "ideology" or "world view" s it emerges from an in-depth analysis of specific videos (7).
Feminism is an issue of concern noted by Kaplan as well. She examines how the televisual apparatus positions women by coming up with a confusing myriad of messages. The texts in MTV vary widely, and are confusing to know exactly what they mean, "because its signifiers are not linked along a coherent, logical chain that produces an unambiguous message" (137). Kaplan refers to Fredric Jameson's contrast between pastiche and parody. While the former takes a critical yet humorous position, the latter is a method that lacks any clear positioning with regard to what it shows or toward earlier texts that are used. MTV often randomly samples previous texts in an uncritical manner.
In Rocking Around the Clock, Kaplan uses Madonna as an example of the typical female singer on MTV and who "perhaps more than any other embodies the new postmodern feminist heroine in her odd combination of seductiveness and a gutsy sort of independence" (117) "Material Girl," exemplifies a common rock video phenomenon, states Kaplan, that of establishing a unique kind of intertextual relationship with a specific Hollywood movie. This clip takes off from the famous Marilyn Monroe dance/song sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, or "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." In this part of the movie, there is the typical male gaze, or she is the object of desire for both the male spectator in the movie's audience and for the spectator in the theatre watching the film.
In the film, Esmond gazes at Marilyn, Lorelei, and she directs her gaze to the camera where Esmond sits. Thus, the space relationship is simple -- the stage and theater audience. Monroe are setting up the action, but that, despite this, the patriarchal world in which they move constrains them and makes only certain opportunities possible. In the video, however, the situation is much more complicated. It is unclear who is speaking, since credits are never given. Is it Madonna as historical star subject? Is it another Madonna, the movie-star protagonist within the "framing' of the film, or diegesis? Is it another Madonna, the person within the musical dance diegesis? Is it the director who has fallen in love with her image and wants to possess her? By focusing on different elements of the video, the answers come back differently.
The situation is even more problematic in this video because of the way Madonna, as historical star subject, breaks through her narrative positions through her strong personality, as she searches for the camera's gaze and for the TV spectator's gaze that follows it since she desires being desired (126). It is this desire to be desired that attracts the hordes of 12-year-old fans who idolize her. She represents the postmodern feminist heroine who is neither particularly male or female, just out for herself.
In an article about Madonna, she concludes (51):
And one might well examine just why the "real" Madonna fascinates. Why do fans and audiences want to know her? Why, even, does the public that resents and scorns Madonna want to know about her?...Why do groupies need to relate to stars through imagining their offstage lives? What can we learn about Western culture's investment in the construct of the "individual" and of a split between inner and outer selves (the real Madonna is inner, the one she shows merely a mask or outer) through fans' needs.
In her book Rocking Around the Clock, Kaplan also cites the video with ambiguous pastiche mode called "Don't Come Around…