Last week, MTV celebrated its 25th anniversary, marking a quarter of a century after having conceived of the first actually new thing in popular television entertainment since "American Bandstand" and "Soul Train."
The music video became a big deal through MTV and not only updated the old "soundies" once shown in movie theaters to feature singers and instrumentalists. It also revolutionized the making of films by acclimating its audience to the extremely fast crosscutting that had been pioneered in television commercials, where the faster the message arrived, the better. In the process, the MTV audience learned to see much more quickly and recognize what sometimes quite surreal montages were saying or what they were alluding to - no small accomplishment.
Of course, that is not the whole story of MTV, which also came to project the most dehumanizing images of black people since the dawn of minstrelsy in the 19th century. Pimps, whores, potheads, dope dealers, gangbangers, the crudest materialism and anarchic gang violence were broadcast around the world as "real" black culture.
At first, far too many black people were taken in by the cult of celebrity and the wealth that came to these gold- toothed knuckleheads and mindless hussies to realize what was happening. The lowest possible common denominator was seen as the norm. The illiteracy and rule-of-thumb stupidity was interpreted as a "cultural" rejection of white middle-class norms.
It was as if these dregs had the same heroic position in our time as the largely uneducated Southern black poor of the civil rights movement. Those Southern black people, like the marvelous Fannie Lou Hamer, proved to this nation and to the world that they not only deserved their constitutional rights, but had something both noble and soulful to add to our American understanding of the richness of the human spirit. We are a much greater nation because of the success of the civil rights movement. As they emerged from beneath the bloody rock of segregation, those Southern black people brought to our national identity a compassion and a bravery of immeasurable value.
Unfortunately, the crabbed thug culture that was popularized through MTV brought nothing big with it other than some paychecks.