MTV may be best known these days for its soapy reality shows featuring teenage moms and drunken partygoers at the “Jersey Shore.” But long before the world had even heard of a pint-size princess named Snooki, the cable channel was wholly devoted to music videos—airing them nearly 24 hours a day when MTV first launched in 1981.
Back then, music videos were often dismissed by critics as nothing more than ads or, more simply, radio playing on television. But decades later—years after MTV dropped most of its video programming—the music video has slowly been embraced as art, important and influential enough to merit a major exhibition launching this week in New York.
On Wednesday, the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, will open “Spectacle: The Music Video,” a massive exhibition that features more than 300 videos, artifacts and interactive installations chronicling the development and influence of the music video as an art form.
While the show acknowledges MTV’s influence in bringing music videos to the masses, “Spectacle” also aims to dispute the idea that videos died when they stopped being a staple of cable TV.
Curators Jonathan Wells and Meg Grey Wells, a Los Angeles-based husband and wife team who run a popular video collective named Flux, explore the long history of short musical films, tracing them back to the 1920s. And they argue that music videos have become more accessible and prolific in the age of YouTube.
“The music video did not begin or end with MTV,” Jonathan Wells said in an interview with Yahoo News. “It’s a genre that has an amazing rich history, and it continues to live and thrive today.”
In fact, many of MTV’s early artists, like David Bowie and the art band Devo, were already making music videos well before the channel came calling.
Jerry Casale, a bassist for Devo who directed all of the band’s videos, remembers begging the band’s record label in the 1970s for cash to fund a series of short musical films the band hoped to package as a Laserdisc movie to sell to their fans.
“They thought we were absolutely crazy for asking them to take the money they wanted to use to buy in-store displays to make videos,” Casale told Yahoo News.
But then MTV came calling, desperate for any musical content it could find, and “suddenly, we were geniuses,” Casale said.
One of the videos the band gave to MTV was for the single “Whip It,” which featured footage of lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh using a whip to remove a woman’s clothing. According to Casale, label executives were mystified by band’s eccentric videos—with one official going so far as warn the band its career would be over if the spots were to see airplay.
But “Whip It”—which is featured in “Spectacle” along with several other Devo clips as pivotal in the early days as music video—soon became a staple of MTV and made the band famous.
“Spectacle,” which first launched at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center last year, aims to prove that music-video making is on par with filmmaking—not least because many well-known film directors, including Spike Jonze, David Fincher and Mark Romanek, got their start in the industry by making music videos. But, as the curators point out, Jonze, Fincher and Romanek are still making music videos today in addition to feature films—in part because it’s a genre where people can still afford to try out new methods and be creative.
“There’s this perception that you use music videos as a way to get into directing commercials or directing feature films,” Meg Grey Wells said. “But what we are trying to do is highlight how music video was a place where directors were able to experiment and develop techniques and processes that later showed up in films and have been highly copied by others. … Music video has been the source of new ideas.”
Rather than tracking the history of music videos chronologically, the curators have organized the videos by genre. That includes a section on arty videos like New Order’s “Blue Monday,” which was directed by photographer William Wegman, and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” There are also groundbreaking videos from artists including Radiohead, whose 2008 video for “House of Cards” was made entirely with lasers. The rap trio Beastie Boys' video for “Sabotage,” which was directed by Jonze, is already a part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
There’s a section on videos that were once perceived as too provocative for MTV, including Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which allows visitors to view the clips through peep holes modeled after a red light district. Another section examines videos that were inspired by classic photography and film, like “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails—a 1994 video directed by Romanek that was heavily censored by MTV but decades later is considered one of the best videos ever made. The curators also include an exhibit on “epic” videos, which includes Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—one of the first clips that prompted critics to consider music videos on the level of feature films.
The exhibition also features several notable pieces of memorabilia, including the original animation drawings for a-ha’s “Take on Me” and the Legos director Michel Gondry used in the making of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” video.
Another section focuses on how YouTube has helped the music video live on past MTV with by focusing on a crowd-sourced Johnny Cash video tribute project and clips of YouTube users re-enacting videos like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)."
“Music video is still an integral part of the music experience,” Carl Goodman, executive director of MOMI, said in an interview. “It’s a proving ground and playground for the most creative and influential moving image artists. (But) it also has become a mechanism for how people see and listen and consume music.”
“Spectacle” is something of a labor of love for Jonathan Wells, who first fell in love with music videos when watching MTV as a teenager. At 16, he had his own public access cable TV show in Mountain View, Calif., where he played music videos and interviewed the artists behind them. Moving to Southern California, Wells continued his obsession, founding a traveling film series that honored creativity in music video and reminded audiences of the artistic value of those musical films.
“Spectacle is a celebration of the music video truly as an art form. And that’s the message we want to convey,” Meg Grey Wells said. “It’s an art form that is not second to feature films or commercials. It’s an art form in and of itself that is deserving of its moment but has never really had it. I think now is a good time to have a big party and celebrate it.”