Sing a Song of Seeing

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"I've written songs sometimes just thinking about a visual," says Billy Joel. Notes Ellen Foley: "Video is a luxury and a freedom. You're instantly the star of your own movie." David Byrne of Talking Heads, one of the relatively few musicians who also directs, is at work on an album-length video, but offers some words of general guidance and caution. "I tend to like to have relatively few visual links to the lyrics of the song. I feel that you pigeonhole the song that way, that you detract from the lyrics by interpreting them. Images in Burning Down the House have to do with the music, not the lyrics. The images of the fire and the house link to the words, but the house is never burning. That would be a cliché."

Getting serious also means getting down to business and avoiding the abundance of visual bromides that pelt down on most videos like a fine acid rain. There are honorable, even commanding exceptions (see box), but the majority of clips now in circulation are labored ephemera with heavily imitative associations, fully worthy of one executive's dismissive characterization as "this year's satin jackets." Observes Temple: "A lot of videos steal surreal images from places like Zoom magazine and the French Vogue."

It is the props that get to Gerald Casale, co-founder and video director of Devo, one of the first and funniest of new-wave video bands. "Directors take these songs by groups who have nothing to say, and try to contrive a handle by repeatedly using an object and implying it is some kind of totem. The number of girls on MTV picking up wine glasses and lockets and earrings and breaking them or stepping on them with high heels cannot be believed."

If the pervading silliness is worrisome, there are matters of even greater impact implicit in the vidblitz. Although Keith Richard readily admits, "You can always enjoy dressing up and leaping about for a few minutes," he wonders where struggling beginners will get the means to do it for the camera. "If new bands have to worry about the cost of making a record, and also about making a video, how is that going to weigh out? What about the few who get a lucky crash on a video and sell a record—how much does that have to do with the record itself?"

That will be a tough call, but the trend is already established. Says Greg Geller, vice president of RCA Records: "Personal appearance has always been a factor, but since the advent of videos it has become crucial." Says Dan Beck, merchandising director for CBS Associated labels: "One of the reasons Cyndi Lauper was signed was because she'll be a great film performer." An executive at CBS, which distributes Portrait, is even blunter. "Lauper had the vocals as well as the visuals, or she wouldn't have been signed."


The following objections to MTV are widely heard. It is arid. It is racist. It is all fattened up on white bread and too low on funk. The hosts are a carefully vetted collection of bubble brains.

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