LOOK QUICK, IT'S MUSIC VIDEO
The images flash past, fast as an express train. Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney chant ''Say Say Say.'' There are glimpses of snake-oil pitchmen, a canoe, an orphanage, blond Linda McCartney strumming a guitar, Paul shaving. It ends in a whoosh as they all pile into a blue pickup truck. If you blink, you've missed half the story.Skip to next paragraph
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It looks a bit like ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Meet Alice in Wonderland'' - a larky, pell-mell, sun-dappled pseudo-western. In fact, it's a music video for ''Say Say Say,'' the hit song by Thriller Michael Jackson and Beatle Paul McCartney. As brief as a movie trailer, it cost $325,000 to make and includes 125 quick cuts.
Music videos - of which this is one of the most polished and ambitious - are micro-movies in which quick montages visualize a popular song while the lyrics act as dialogue. Begun by the record companies in the late 1970s as promotional devices for plugging new songs, they rapidly took on a life, creativity, and popularity of their own. Today an entire cable channel, MTV (whose initials stand for ''music television''), devotes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to music videos. It's the fastest-growing channel in the cable industry.
And that's just the beginning. Already there are signs that videos may alter or even transform cable television, broadcast TV, motion pictures, and the record industry - as well as the worlds of composing, performing, and advertising - in much the same way that ''talkies'' rocked the silent-movie industry.
Music is increasingly written with visuals in mind, and performers are chosen for visual potential: Now that a once-obscure English group, Duran Duran, has proved it can rise to the top of the charts through heavy play on MTV, the entertainment industry is sizzling with possibilities. Nearly 200 TV stations across the country broadcast music-video programs.
Already Hollywood moguls have begun releasing music-video feature films. Network TV barons are discussing fall TV pilots ''enhanced'' by music videos. Radio stations and record companies are thriving on the increase in sales generated by music video. Even TV commercials are under the influence: It is difficult to tell a ''Candies'' shoe commercial from one of the less ambitious music videos.
What is it about music videos that sparks both viewers and the entertainment industry? The best of music videos are like popcorn: You can't watch just one without wanting to try another. Given the visual and musical fascination of videos, it's possible to drop a couple of hours in front of the tube without realizing it - hooked by the beat of the music, the vivid and quickly shifting images, the unexpected new sight and sound just beyond the next video bend. The most stunning of the videos bring you back again and again to watch: David Bowie's romantic ''China Girl'' and ''Let's Dance''; the dance among massed candelabra in ''Wrapped Around Your Finger,'' by The Police; Eurythmics' surrealistic ''Sweet Dreams'' and ''Here Comes the Rain Again''; the prancing glamour of Lionel Ritchie's ''Running With the Night''; the pulsing Americana of John Cougar Mellencamp's ''Pink Houses''; the revved-up satire of Thomas Dolby's ''Hyperactive''; and the zany bounce of Cyndi Lauper's ''Girls Just Want to Have Fun.'' Unpredictable, lively, innovative, they are further from conventional TV and closer to the dreams on which Ingmar Bergman once said movies are based.