Like a lot of people who were children in the early 90s, the prime MTV years, I (still) miss regularly seeing music videos on TV. I’m not sure why I was allowed to watch MTV when I was seven years old–it seems uncharacteristically negligent of my parents to have just plopped me in front of The Grind and Aeon Flux. But I have such clear memories of watching and very dimly comprehending the strangeness of MTV’s content that it just must not have been on their radar. I’ve heard that when you have children you simply drop out of the pop culture stream; I don’t know that my parents could tell you much about the movies, hit songs, theatre or literature that were released from about 1983 to 1995, when my brother and I were both young.
Music videos were unique in that they were consumed in mainstream venues but could nevertheless get away with being fairly avant-garde. The briefness of the format, supported by music that was already safely popular, seemed to allow for visual experimentation. They were like those short films that no one ever sees except in clips at the Oscars, brief flashes of oddity, except they aired on cable in the middle of the day.
Occasionally, they were even appointment television: I remember being allowed to stay up to watch the debut of the video for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”; it was an event I experienced with my parents, and I still remember the impact that the effect of the rapidly shifting faces had on me. I didn’t grasp the political message of that, and certainly not the more radical overtones that came in a segment at the music-less conclusion, when Jackson screams, smashes a car, and transforms into a black panther. But I did intuit that there WAS a significance, something presumably belonging to the realm of adults, and that was satisfying in its way: it was a question I was moving toward unraveling.
The first time I saw Bjork’s video for “Human Behavior” was also the first time I felt something I’ll call sublime bafflement; a reaction of, “This exists?!?” It’s also what I felt when I heard Radiohead’s “OK Computer” for the first time, as a thirteen-year-old previewing the album at one of the listening stations in The Wall, my local CD store. (Which has, of course, gone the way of all flesh.) I had no vocabulary to dissect what I saw, no way of interpreting the grotesque moth, the creepy bear costume, the hyperrealism of the forest in the video–but it was kind of better that way. The mysteriousness penetrated and was swallowed up inside me and I accepted it as a part of life, that there were symbols and messages you could understand and not understand at once. I think Jung would have had fun with “Human Behavior.”
It could be that music videos helped prime me for trying to become an artist. I think they made me a more receptive consumer of art–I don’t feel inclined to demand cogent explanations of, say, a David Lynch movie or a Haruki Murakami novel. The process of art-making is imbued with mysticism, so it makes sense that the output, too, may register with the reader or viewer or listener as somehow true without, at the same time, making total sense.
When I was seven, my childhood best friend’s father died after a long illness. That night, when his mother asked him what he wanted to do–an act that I see now as suggesting impressive trust in a child to have an instinctive knowledge of his own needs in an incomprehensible situation–he said that he wanted to come to my house. It was the night of the MTV Video Music Awards. We sat in silence in my den, watching. I remember Pearl Jam getting the best video of the year award for “Jeremy,” and Eddie Vedder said in his acceptance speech that if it weren’t for music, he, too, might have shot himself in front of a classroom. I hadn’t realized that was what was happening; children can be very literal, and I thought that the lyrics “King Jeremy the wicked / ruled his world” meant that the song was about a boy presiding over a fantasy kingdom. I wanted, and couldn’t, say anything to my friend about his father, and probably he felt the same way. It was a night that I understood that terrible things happen.