Elton John pays tribute to Marilyn Monroe. Music video: advent of an art form
tHE product was new. But when Music TeleVision (MTV) began broadcasting on Aug. 1, 1981, the idea of fusing the sounds of popular music with moving images of its musicians was already about 75 years old. In fact, almost as long as there has been film, there have been precursors to music video. Ed Sullivan knew the value of putting the '50s' and '60s' hottest rock stars on television. He first introduced the Beatles to American audiences. By the time they became an international phenomenon, they were using film - ``A Hard Day's Night,'' for example - to accompany newly released albums.
NBC took a step toward recognizing rock music's impact on the young when, in 1966, it aired ``The Monkees,'' a half-hour comedy featuring a rock band of the same name assembled by TV executives. Most shows featured chase scenes, set to a Monkees' tune. These sequences led the way to music video.
The promotional aspect of the rock-star, moving-picture combination was what made the mix so valuable to the music industry. Rock stars such as Elvis and the Beatles certainly helped Ed Sullivan's ratings, but more important they helped themselves. The live broadcasts turned myth into reality for millions of viewers who had seen these stars only in photos.
Even if the promotional opportunities were clear, it took logistical, business, and creative expertise to generate the phenomenon now called rock video.
In the mid-'70s, says Michael Shore in his book ``The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video,'' many of the major record companies made simple promotional clips for international audiences. These never showed much more than the rock musicians performing before a camera or lip-syncing while walking down a beach.
In Britain, promotional films of American groups were used on ``Top of the Pops,'' a weekly TV countdown show. Similarly, promotional clips of British bands were popular in Australia. In both cases, the clips were used to cut the expense and difficulty of a tour.
Although logistics necessitated early, inexpensive promotional clips, business made rock video happen. MTV was a corporate creation of Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Corporation.
MTV succeeded because it arranged to use promotional clips from all major record labels for free. (Because the exposure was so valuable, the few early holdouts soon came around.) As a result, record companies were forced to make music videos to compete in the marketplace MTV had created.
Even so, creative talents saw music video as an emerging art form. What began as the music business's promotional tool provided opportunities for creativity. The mixed-media nature of music video drew in a diverse group of artists. Television executives like Bruce Gower, creator of the rock group Queen's ``Bohemian Rhapsody,'' put their television talents to work in the emerging art form.
From the rock music field, established performers like David Bowie took an early interest. In Bowie's case, because the visual element was already an integral part of his stage performances, music videos were a logical next step.
And then there was Devo, a futuristic, post-punk band in radiation suits. What made Devo stand out in rock video history is that the visual element was as important as the music itself, and developed alongside it.
In its early years when video was an avant-garde medium, it attracted and fostered some unusual visual and musical artists. They brought video innovations such as fast-paced, stroboscopic images flashing on and off the screen to rock rhythms. Similarly, the high-fashion look that appears today in many videos had scarcely ever been seen on television before.
As the promotional value of rock video became clearer, creative interests often became secondary to business. The special look was so frequently repeated that it lost its freshness.
Despite the ubiquitous promotional nature of video, however, artists like Michael Jackson and Peter Gabriel continue to let us know that video was and still is an avenue for artistic, political, and cultural expression.
Candle in the Wind Goodbye, Norma Jean. Though I never knew you at all, You had the grace to hold yourself While those around you crawled. They crawled out of the woodwork And they whispered into your brain. They set you on the treadmill And they made you change your name.
And it seems to me you lived your life Like a candle in the wind, Never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in. I would have liked to have known you But I was just a kid. Your candle burned out long before Your legend ever did.
Loneliness was tough, The toughest role you ever played. Hollywood created a superstar And pain was the price you paid. And even when you died, The press still hounded you. All the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude.
Goodbye, Norma Jean. Though I never knew you at all, You had the grace to hold yourself While those around you crawled.
Goodbye, Norma Jean, From the young man in the 22nd row Who sees you as something more than
sexual, More than just our Marilyn Monroe.
Words and music by Elton John and Berni Taupin, 1987, MCA Records. Used by permission.
THE rock video pictured here is Elton John's ``Candle in the Wind.'' It's a combination of video types - a concept video in that its images are meant to illustrate the ideas in the music, and a concert video because it fades in and out of a live performance at the Sydney Opera House.
Unlike many recent videos, it was made from a past hit. (The song was released in 1978). Nonfictional, it includes newsclips of Marilyn Monroe (or Norma Jean Dougherty). Although untypical, it does show some of the problems involved in wedding visuals to a song.
The video was fairly inexpensive to make; it cost only $25,000. The mix of concert footage and newsclips works on a literal level; it offers visuals of two stars. Cutting back and forth from one star to the other helps unify the video. The shots of Elton John singing are almost like narrative passages in a book guiding the viewer through the piece. Superimposing Marilyn footage over shots of Elton John and of the concert audience further unites the elements.
In terms of the song's story, however, the clips don't stand up to close scrutiny. They portray a smiling star while the lyrics condemn the process of turning a young woman into a Hollywood product who was blown around like a ``candle in the wind.'' The song tells one story while the images tell another. Even so, ``Candle in the Wind'' is valuable for its exploration of the theme of stardom and promotion. Because of the close connection between the music video industry and the Hollywood that promoted Marilyn Monroe, Elton John's commentary about this sometimes-destructive process makes constructive use of the music video medium.
Elton John may not suggest the same criticisms for those who make videos as he does for those who ``crawled'' around Marilyn. Nonetheless, the promotional nature of music video parallels that of the film industry that launched Marilyn.
The exploration of the destructive aspects of the promotional process within the very medium that thrives on promotion (i.e., music video) shows that the medium has the potential to delve into meaningful issues and emotions.
The ability of an artist to present such issues and emotions through music suggests that there is more to music video than just promotion. Elton John as well as many other musicians, technicians, and designers show us that even within a commercial medium there is interest in art.