Words, Words, Words

Curator's Note

Back on December 31, 1988, I taped the year-end MTV countdown of their top 100 videos. (You may have heard that people used to watch music videos on MTV.) A couple of years ago, I discovered the long-forgotten videotapes of that event in my garage, and have been systematically working my way through every video and every commercial break.

What I want to talk about today is the "Words" promo. On the New Year's Eve broadcast, it came between an ad for The January Man (a bad cop movie starring Kevin Kline) and a spot for the very first WWF Royal Rumble. Circa 1988, MTV promo spots fell into a few broad categories: (1) Ads for specific shows on the network, like the game show Remote Control (2) random animation sliced up to a hip-hop beat (at a time when the channel played very little rap otherwise) (3) comic vignettes touting how MTV plays "your favorite music" all day long (4) "Ten Second Films," quirky little art-film narratives (5) gorgeous animated vignettes (employing the likes of Henry Selick), usually ending with a comic reveal of the MTV logo (6) cool random animation from foreign lands that could be repurposed for the greater glory of MTV.

The "Words" promo doesn't fall into any of those categories, instead critiquing the medium of television with a series of white capital letters on a black background: "THESE WORDS DON’T REALLY SAY ANYTHING / THEY COULD BUT THEY’RE NOT / THEY WANT TO BUT THEY CAN’T / SO, THEY WILL HANG OUT FOR FIFTEEN SECONDS / UNTIL IT’S TIME / FOR / ANOTHER / COMMERCIAL / THESE ARE WORDS / THAT COULD BE SAYING SOMETHING / FUNNY OR COOL OR INTERESTING / BUT THEY’RE NOT / THEY’RE JUST SITTING THERE / LIKE YOU / mtv."

With its languid pace and ethereal backing music, the spot was unlike anything else on MTV, and so gained the viewer's unwavering attention. And when the final words "LIKE YOU" came up, it felt like a punch to the gut--that close attention became the very object of criticism. So it was easy to overlook all the ways in which the ad just wasn't true. For example: generally speaking, people who make TV commercials prefer to communicate through images rather than printed words. It wasn't even accurate about its own length, running for a full minute.

Perhaps the most slippery transition: clearly, these words are saying something funny and cool and interesting. This softens the mockery of the audience. In giving viewers a flimsy critique of the channel and its ads, "Words" preempted more substantial criticism. And by being stylish and attitudinal, it burnished MTV's reputation for random provocation.



MTV had a lot of cool, "quirky little art-film narratives" in those days; their need to full up airspace created a pocket for avant-garde and otherwise experimental aesthetics.  (Analogous to early-mid 20th-century cartoons, maybe.)  You'd go from a Van Halen video to very original and memorable little film fragments.

Of course, the music videos themselves could also offer a platform for some pretty original and strange film-making...

I've been pretty good at not watching commercials for a long time (I had a Western gunman's ability to mute, a skill later upgraded for TiVo-enabled fast-forward). MTV early on figured out a way to challenge me in that regard, to get me to blink. This "Words" is a great example of how it did this. Those little snippets were often the best things on the air.

I think they are what introduced me to the word "interstitial," and I always kind of mentally connected them with the compact little "Knee Play" compositions that David Byrne in the mid-1980s created to serve a somewhat similar mental (almost quasi-commercial) break amid Robert Wilson's "CIVIL warS." I enjoy Byrne's "Knee Plays" more than I do "CIVIL warS," precisely for their compactness, their precision -- and the same was pretty much the case on MTV. Like MTV's interstitials, Byrne's "Knee Plays" took these avant-garde techniques (music instead of visual) and made pop nuggets out of them. "Words" could have been a Barbara Kruger video-art installation with slightly different typography, or a very large Ed Ruscha painting, or a Guerrilla Girls poster prank.

My favorites of MTV's interstitials were generally the ones that seemed truest to the concept of a "music video," to a synaesthetic amalgam, to a "sound video," the ones that figured out how to be both abstract and catchy, words that are sometimes not considered compatible.

There's an alternate universe where MTV dropped the music videos, but instead of pumping up the reality TV, pumped up the avant-garde whimsy into 24 hours of true synaesthetic (and related video-art) eye/ear candy.

Maybe that's what Walternet and Faulivia watch between missions.

 If MTV was still this avant-garde, thought-provoking, and insightful, I'd probably watch it. Dare I say that no media outlet today would be so brave as to point blank chide their viewers (thought perhaps some should...). I think the closest thing we see on cable/satellite tv right now is E! Network's The Soup, which often pokes fun at shows on its own network. So, on one hand, Joel McHale and his team of writers are making fun of the fact that we can't get enough of the ridiculous television programming that plagues our airways, but on the other hand, The Soup serves as a promotional tool for those ridiculous shows. Interesting piece!

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