I cried four times while walking around “Spectacle,” the Museum of the Moving Image’s imported-from-Ohio salute to the art of the music video. Maybe five. The first time was definitely in the strangest place: The exhibit has one room that’s set up to mimic a peep show, with holes in the walls allowing glimpses at those videos that, over the years, have stoked controversy for whatever reason. Aphex Twin’s harrowing “Come To Daddy” is in there; so are Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”
But the video that made me choke back tears—quite unexpectedly, the shock only adding to the swirl of overwhelming emotion—was Madonna’s “Like A Prayer,” a blend of racial politics and Catholic imagery that in 1989 caused Vatican outrage and the cancellation of a really big sponsorship deal—even though it seems chaste now, especially with the way it tries to play a “get out of too-deep analysis free” card by incorporating a curtain call at the end. The song “Like A Prayer” has been assimilated into the culture enough that its call-and-response joy overshadows the fact that it’s probably a big oral sex metaphor; the video, not so much. My visceral response in that darkened room was provoked by a combination of hearing the song in the context where I first did, feeling like the racial tensions exhibited by the video haven’t really gone away, and realizing that I always wanted my hair to look like Madonna’s did then—big brown curls, framing her face perfectly.
“Spectacle,” which is at the Astoria tv-and-film museum through June 16, might trigger a lot of those types of memories for members of my cohort, particularly if they—like me—filled up a lot of blank VHS tapes with those blocks of MTV that aired while they were at school or camp. It showcases about 20 hours’ worth of music videos, including a good amount from the pre-MTV era—Scopitones, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” old Bowie clips. I only spent two hours walking around the exhibit and definitely plan on going back, particularly since I spent a good 25 minutes soaking in the delirious spectacle of the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be,” which has an accompanying kaleidoscope-dream clip; its homage is a simple trompe l’oeil setup that involves some mirrors and strategically placed window frames.
“Let Forever Be” was directed by Michel Gondry, one of the music-video auteurs whose work is well-represented at the exhibit; his Lego-delirium clip for the White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With A Girl” is on display (flanked by one of the figures it captures), as are his all-yarn clip for Steriogram’s “Walkie Talkie Man,” his video for the Stripes’ “The Hardest Button To Button” and that clip’s Simpsons tribute—the true mark of American success. Gondry is only one of the featured directors whose paths have led to Hollywood; David Fincher and Spike Jonze are also well-represented.
The exhibit overall skews toward videos from the Jonze/Gondry auteur era and the years that followed, and certain absences in the program underscore the fact that MTV has been around for 30-plus years now. (Insert your own snipe about signs of its early-onset midlife crisis here.) Sure, a life-size replica of the animated leading man from a-ha’s comic-book fantasy “Take On Me” stands in the gallery, and first-generation-of-MTV standouts like the Replacements’ one-shot “Bastards Of Young,” Talking Heads’ “And She Was,” and the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” are scattered throughout the exhibit as well. But so many of the trends that MTV helped shepherd to a national audience—pyro-and-lipstick hard rock, post-Mickey Mouse Club teenpop—are relegated to the “find your favorite video and watch it” section, even though images like Britney Spears’s school-hallway phalanx in the “…Baby One More Time” video are seared into the culture. (That clip was directed by Nigel Dick, who also helmed the earliest, and equally huge, videos by Guns N’ Roses.)
Still, though, walking around the exhibit was exhilarating; thinking of the artistic breadth that was beamed into cable boxes as a matter of course is exciting, if bittersweet in light of MTV and VH1’s current slate of drunks-and-fights reality programming. R.E.M.’s videos for “Drive” and “Losing My Religion” are diametric opposites—one looks unflinchingly at a pulsing crowd, while the other is an art-film fantasia—but both were given ample airtime thanks to the band’s alt-superstar status 20 years ago; Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” blew my eight-year-old mind with its robotic manifestation of what synths and scratches could do. And so on. I can’t wait to go back, stand in front of one of the screens, and just soak in the loops of videos beamed into it.
Just staring at a screen and taking in music videos was a ritual for me, and for quite a few other cable-having kids as well. The fear was that we would be blindly drinking in all the images presented to us, including and especially those glorifying hedonism and consumerism; in the late ’80s, as a sort of response to this, issued this unspoken clarion call to get off the couch and do… something (thanks to Gavin Edwards for the transcription and explanation of the ungibberishing):
“WORDS / THESE ARE WORDS / BLIND PEOPLE CAN’T SEE THEM / DEAF PEOPLE CAN’T HEAR THEM / FOREIGNERS DON’T NTEURSDNAD THEM.” (The nonsense word then rearranges itself into UNDERSTAND. There are various other clever tweaks of the basic white-on-black text in this sequence—the word SEE has a delayed entry in the BLIND PEOPLE line, for example–but detailing them all would get tedious.) “BUT YOU CAN / NOWADAYS, PEOPLE WHO MAKE TV / COMMERCIALS / USE WORDS JUST LIKE THESE / TO COMMUNICATE / A / MESSAGE / SO THAT THOSE PEOPLE WHO DO NOT / LISTEN / UNDERSTAND / THIS PRACTICE IS SUPPOSED TO BE / SIMPLE / AND / EFFECTIVE / 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.”
A chunk of “Spectacle” is given over to the second-biggest change in the music-video industry—the user-generated video, in which consumers don’t just sit there, they make parodies or homages or, in one case, versions of videos where only the ambient sounds are audible. But I would say that “Spectacle” and the way it allows its visitors to consume a slew of artistically ambitious videos in the old-fashioned way—not through a series of YouTube searches, but on a continuous stream, with the viewer unsure of what’s coming next, and even sitting through things they might not be crazy about—is what makes it so great. While this consumption consists of “just sitting (or, really, standing) there,” it also allows for the unexpected to hit—something that the choose-your-own-adventure culture of the 2010s doesn’t value nearly enough—and, quite possibly, move you to tears.