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Case study: mtv as postmodern television

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Case study: MTV as postmodern television
MTV seems to be a perfect example of postmodernism: the material it broadcasts appears to be shallow, based around commodity images with no ‘message’ except the injunction to buy; it broadcasts a flow of short videos producing an endless present or perpetual flow in which the division between daytime and prime time and the fixed points of conventional terrestrial television schedules are largely absent. It was these characteristics that encouraged the American theorist E. Ann Kaplan to analyse MTV as a postmodern form in one of the first substantial studies of MTV in the 1980s. Kaplan (1987: 41) compared MTV to cinema: ‘The main differences between MTV and the classical Hollywood film arise from the structuring of the station as a 24-hour continuous flow with its three- to four-minute texts . . ., and from the song-image format.’ One definition of postmodernism is that it describes a society in which images have precedence over reality: where the mediated experiences presented by television and other media are more constitutive of our everyday experience and have a greater role in shaping our assumptions and conceptions of our reality than those experiences that we actually undergo ourselves. MTV provides a twenty-four-hour soundtrack to the lives of its viewers, in which the repeated infusion of music works in combination with a restricted repertoire of imagery presenting celebrities. The Spice Girls, for example, were represented through the adjectives that supposedly described the personalities of each member of the group: Posh, Scary, Ginger, Sporty and Baby. Such imagery can be easily manipulated, however, showing that the celebrity pop performer on television is a cluster of signs which can mutate, rather than the representation of a real personality that precedes the images seen on MTV. Kaplan (1987: 44) argued that this is a development that matches postmodern versions of identity:

Perhaps most relevant to our discussion of the postmodernist devices in MTV videos generally is the blurring of distinctions between a ‘subject’ and an ‘image’. What seems to be happening in the play with the image of the various kinds discussed is the reduction of the ‘self’ to an ‘image’ merely. Television in this way seems to be at the end of a whole series of changes begun at the turn of the century with the development of modern forms of advertising and the department store window.

Madonna’s manipulation of her persona is the most famous example of this, and more recently performers such as Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears have transformed their images from girlish innocence to more sexual personas. MTV is a key part of a much wider culture of celebrity that involves the music industry, the internet, newspapers, magazines and radio.

Celebrity is the commodification of personality, and not only does MTV further this process but it also advertises itself as a commodity that can be purchased along with the other channels received by multi-channel audiences. In order to achieve this, MTV needs to present its own personality attractively so that it can be bought by its viewers. This is achieved by simultaneously marketing MTV’s global engagement with the global music and entertainment industry, and it is also achieved by addressing local and regional audiences in discourses and languages familiar to them. MTV is a global brand, and therefore exemplifies the global capitalism characteristic of postmodernism, yet it has a local dimension. MTV is programmed differently in each territory to which it is broadcast, though the formats remain largely the same and many of the products advertised on MTV are also global brands appearing in different languages and different territories.

The academic writing on MTV rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and MTV has changed considerably since then. Rather than one channel, MTV is a whole portfolio of channels, and in Britain there are several widely accessible music channels that compete with it. MTV originated in the United States, and is owned by an American media corporation. It can be argued that MTV is a vehicle for the global spread of American capitalist values, expressed through the international pop music market, which sells products with no intrinsic value that remain fashionable for a very short time and are part of a wider attempt to extract money from the youth market by selling representations of celebrity identities. In its early years MTV advertising seemed to proclaim this in the slogan ‘One world, one image, one channel: MTV’, which celebrated the erosion of local differences and diversity by the global spread of the channel. Connections between the MTV channel and wider global consumer culture could be seen in the deals made between pop stars and the soft drinks industry, such as the association of Madonna and Michael Jackson with Pepsi Cola. Commercials featuring the performers and the soft drinks appeared on MTV, making a vicious circle of advertising that encompassed American performers, American television, American soft drinks and American record companies.

More recently, MTV has diversified into making programmes as well as screening music videos. Its reality TV series The Osbournes was a great commercial success, gaining 8 million viewers in the USA and 500,000 in the UK, for example (Bignell 2005: 34–5). The programme’s producer, Greg Johnson, initially intended to shoot the episodes on location at the Osbourne family’s Beverley Hills home for three weeks, but the appeal of the programme led to over three years of production. Despite the fact that The Osbournes is produced and structured as a factual series adopting the conventions of many other docusoaps, it retains both historical and textual connections with the international pop music culture that MTV promotes. Ozzy Osbourne had been the subject of MTV’s house tour series Cribs, in which cameras are shown around the usually luxurious homes of pop stars, and this led to the commissioning of The Osbournes by MTV’s US controllers. As the singer and frontman of the heavy rock band Black Sabbath, Ozzy had an established reputation in the UK, US and elsewhere as a pop music performer, though the high-point of his career had occurred in the mid 1970s and he could be presented in the series as to some extent an ordinary person rather than a star. Ozzy, who is originally British and from Birmingham, had first appeared on factual television in a British programme, as the subject of a Channel Five documentary Ozzy Osbourne Uncut, in 1998. The Osbournes gained MTV greater press coverage, public profile and large audiences when shown originally on MTV in the USA, demonstrating that docusoap had a continuing potential to draw the predominantly young audiences that MTV already targeted with its music video programming. But The Osbournes also became an internationally traded programme, already established on MTV and saleable to Channel 4 in Britain as a relatively predictable hit which would attract young viewers to the channel.

But, on the other hand, it is wrong to assume that this field of interconnected media imagery is indifferent to disruption. The arguments about MTV in postmodern theory in the 1980s were also carried through in relation to the performances, especially MTV music video performances, of Madonna. Madonna can also be regarded as a performer who offers radical challenges to conventional norms. She has challenged the representation of femininity by the repeated changes to her celebrity persona, suggesting a freedom of self-expression and pleasure for women. She has been critical of the Catholic Church, especially in its condemnation of sexual pleasure and homosexuality. She has confronted the limits of mass media representation, especially of sexuality, by producing pop videos and other commodities that have generated controversy and occasionally censorship because of their explicit sexual imagery and promotion of sexual pleasure for its own sake. From this point of view, Madonna’s economic success as a pop performer frequently appearing on MTV, and the financial assistance for her career provided by her associations with major corporations such as Pepsi Cola, can be seen as ways of using the capitalist media system against itself. For Kaplan (1987: 47) MTV videos had the positive effect of blurring the boundaries between art and commerce, between critique of culture and complicity with consumerism: ‘In the case of MTV, video artists are often playing with standard high art and popular culture images in a self-conscious manner, creating a liberating sense by the very defiance of traditional boundaries’. Perhaps by drawing on the global media presence of MTV to get her messages across, and by drawing on connections with other globally recognised brands that keep her own celebrity image to the forefront, Madonna is able to disturb the very structures and ideologies which underlie contemporary television. The most interesting characteristic of postmodern theory, and of postmodern media culture, is the way in which contrasting ideas can be shown to be two sides of the same coin. The complexity and confusion that this produces in theories of television mirror the complexity and confusion that postmodern theorists see around them in television itself.

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