Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Plus �a change

I've been looking at 1982 issues of Rolling Stone on microfilm lately, to what precise end I'm not certain. I guess nostalgia is its own end, but this is nostalgia for something I didn't experience directly: that is to say, I didn't read Rolling Stone in 1982, when I was 11, nor did I partake extensively of rock 'n' roll (and at that age, I partook not at all of the concomitant sex and drugs).

But by then I had certainly begun building a library of rock records, Queen and AC/DC and whatnot. In my music collection these LPs still sat next to releases with titles like 20 All-Time Great Children's Hits!; such a strange age. And I had begun to consume more and more pop culture, particularly through the conduit of cable television, from which I learned about whole new worlds of film, music and the arts. I watched cable endlessly then. (I recently subscribed to cable for only the second time in my adult life, and it's breathtaking to me how much it has changed in a generation, not for the better.)

And I especially loved MTV, which taught me about music different not only from 20 All-Time Great Children's Hits! but also from what I mostly heard on the radio in those days: the channel played lots of British New Wave (Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three), and punk and punk-inflected music (the Clash, Devo). I realize in retrospect that this programming was not necessarily visionary, that MTV was starving for content and would play virtually any song that had a video clip. But I for one was delighted, at that young age, to learn that not all rock music sounded like Styx. (I recall deeming Styx' videos rather feeble.)

So it's safe to say that my understanding of pop music circa 1982 was largely, almost wholly, informed by MTV. That's why I've been surprised, in reading issues of Rolling Stone from that year, to find virtually no mention of the network that would soon transform the culture. The most substantive reference I've found is a letter written in response to an article about MTV in the December 10, 1981 issue. I looked up the article, which was deeply skeptical of the then-new channel (MTV began cablecasting in August 1981). The main thrust of the article's critique was that the network's economic model could never endure, because MTV relied on record labels (still in a post-disco sales slump) to submit clips, at no cost. Fair enough, and it's telling that MTV today has all but abandoned clips in favor of original programming. But I imagine Rolling Stone was not alone among music-industry players in assuming that the traditional outlets--records, radio, concerts--would continue to thrive and dominate.

This is fascinating, since we all know what happened to the music industry in the wake of MTV. But the article also is instructive on a broader point: powerful people seldom understand new technology. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was 36 in 1982, and he apparently was prepared to dismiss outright that newfangled MTV thing; meanwhile, kids like me were eating it up. I can't help but be reminded of recent technological trends in pop culture, like file trading. As with MTV, industry people all but ignored file trading--until, that is, it transformed the industry. Now you can download 88-cent songs from Wal-Mart.

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