MTV: Advertisers carry the clout. Under fire for snarl-and-seduction imagery, producers leaning toward less threat, but more flesh.
New York — I just wanted to make an Errol Flynn movie.'' That's the way video director Martin Kahan describes his impulse in creating ``Too Young to Fall in Love'' for the ``heavy metal'' band M"otley Cr"ue. What came out, however, was the usual punch-up m'elange that other heavy-metal videomakers have become famous for.
``To me, it's the epitome of `heavy metal' violence,'' one video producer comments about Mr. Kahan's work, adding: ``I definitely feel it's exploitative.''
To many critics and friends alike, the violence in Kahan's videos and those of his contemporaries has been almost synonymous with MTV; and critics of the channel have increasingly complained about sadistic males humiliating and overpowering females in the music videos it shows. Generally, the violence is more implicit than explicit, since there is almost no blood, and little physical contact. But this is little comfort to people like Dr. Thomas Radecki, chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence, who complains that ``music videos contain roughly three times as much violence as rock lyrics.'' Another researcher points out that it is difficult to measure the violence or sexuality of music videos, because, while a video may have few overt acts of sex or violence, it may still be charged with sexual-sadistic imagery.
Violence permeates only part of Martin Kahan's work, as a screening of his output -- including a Ricky Skaags lyrical, banjo-banging evocation of New York City and an Ian Hunter number full of slave girls and airheaded sexiness -- readily shows.
But it's the sex and sadism combination in such Kahan classics as ``Lick It Up'' (Kiss) that has stuck to his name -- and to the public image of MTV.
That, according to industry observers, is why MTV has decided it won't be showing much more of this kind of violence.
Earlier this year, the programming strategists at the channel cut out most heavy-metal-type clips it had been showing, leaving behind some of the snarl-and-seduction imagery they present. Although MTV executives maintain that this move was motivated by research showing that there has been just too much heavy-metal music for viewers' tastes, most industry observers feel that the channel is really reacting to public criticism and advertiser skittishness.
But this move will do little to improve the situation, in the eyes of some critics.
``The violence against women hasn't changed in content since [the decision to limit these videos],'' contends staff coordinator Evelina Kane of Women Against Pornography. She adds that her group's list of the 14 videos it finds most humiliating to women includes less than a quarter that are heavy metal. She worries that music videos in general are ``affecting young men and women's attitudes while they are growing,'' and she's afraid that the young people will, at some level, emulate the behavior of their rock heroes.
Strangely, Martin Kahan supports her theory. ``Kids at that age want heroes,'' he told the Monitor. ``They like to identify with larger-than-life characters.'' It's not uncommon, he adds, to hear ``a 15-year-old say, `Yeah, I want to be just like [heavy-metal performer] Nikki Sixx.' ''
It's just this fact that has created a backlash against much music video programming, as well as what Jane Fisher, editor of the Journal of Communications (published by the Annenberg School of Communications), calls ``a groundswell of research'' on music videos.
Two scholarly studies -- by Barry L. Sherman and Joseph R. Dominick at the University of Georgia and Jane D. Brown and Kenneth Campbell of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- recently documented in hard numbers a high incidence of sex, violence, and racial/sexual stereotyping on MTV. Among other conclusions, the study ``found an overwhelming connection between sex and violence [on music television]. . . . The effects of linking these two activities in content seen primarily by young people is a topic that bears further attention.''
Women Against Pornography in New York City issued an 11-page indictment of the music video business for, in the words of Ms. Kane, ``dehumanizing women'' and promoting ``a value system showing women's only worth to be a sexuality that can be traded as a commodity.''
Under a commission from the Junior League of Nebraska, Women Against Pornography has prepared an educational package about music videos, available to schools across the country. It includes a slide presentation, homework assignments, a script for teachers, and the group's white paper on the subject.
Some researchers have been planning field studies among teen-agers to gauge the impact music videos might have on their attitudes toward women, sex, and violence.
MTV executive vice-president Robert Pittman brushes off all of this criticism, arguing that it stems from the ``self-interest'' of the criticizers. He characterizes newspaper writers who question the substance and morality of music videos as people for whom ``it is terrible anytime a product comes along that is not based on words.'' Similarly, researchers who criticize the medium are looking for ``a hot topic'' that can help them ``attract a lot of grants.''
Video producers and record company executives agree with Mr. Pittman on at least one point: MTV is not motivated by public criticism. ``They'll react to advertisers a lot quicker than they will to the National Coalition on TV Violence,'' observes John Diaz, president and chief operating officer of Overview Productions, one of the leading video producers. Mr. Diaz argues that MTV executives are ``anxious to satisfy advertisers by getting away from stuff that is fairly offensive to a middle-aged product manager.''
But he doesn't offer much hope to those groups that would like to see MTV assume more positive social value.
Flipping on a video system, he shows two of his company's latest creations as examples of the kind of thing now getting heavy play from MTV.
The first, a clip from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers called ``Don't Come Around Here No More,'' uses Alice-in-Wonderland imagery. It ends with Alice, her body turned into cake, watching in horror as Petty's band cuts her up and eats her. The second, ``Some Like It Hot'' for Power Station, is one that ``MTV considers the sexiest video they've ever gotten,'' according to Diaz. It features a realistically animated woman, who looks strikingly as if she is dancing topless.
In the absence of overt violence, which he says he personally deplores, Diaz thinks that MTV will strive to do something to continue creating a sensation.
``That's how they got where they are,'' he observes, adding that ``MTV is ecstatic over the Tom Petty piece, because it's so controversial.'' Asked if he thinks a move toward sexier videos might offend the same advertisers who are put off by violence, he nods his head in the direction of the screen where ``Some Like It Hot'' just flashed by and says flatly:
``As far as Madison Avenue is concerned, sex sells. That clip is mainstream Madison Avenue.''