MTV show: some signs of art lurking in the wings

One critic calls it ``the quintessential postmodern form -- this week, anyway.'' Another says it's ``eclectic, expansive, and . . . less a set of rhythms and attitudes than a representation of reality.''

What new rage in aesthetics has prompted such soaring statements? The music video, of course. A pop-culture hybrid born of TV and rock-and-roll, it's drawing praise from fans, derision from foes, and a growing body of analysis from observers in the music, film, and video worlds.

A journalist reports that the form has even changed the behavior of rock concertgoers. You can tell habitual music-video watchers, according to this theory, because they sit quietly and passively (as if watching television) instead of standing and yelling like traditional fans. By extension, the videos have altered performance styles, too: Along with broad gestures that play to huge auditorium crowds, singers must now master the nuances of expression that show up on the intimate TV tube.

For all its freshness as a form, music video has a long pedigree in entertainments of the past. It would be hard to doubt this after the second annual ``MTV Video Music Awards Show,'' hosted by Eddie Murphy and carried recently on MTV, the television channel specializing in music video. It aped the Academy Awards format so slavishly that only Murphy's four-letter substitutes for wit (a far cry from Johnny Carson's patented innuendo) proved that rock freaks, not old-fashioned moviegoers, were the prime t arget of this particular pandering session.

Along with Hollywood pictures, other precursors of MTV include record-promotion films of the '60s, ``experimental'' movies by artists as different as Jean Cocteau and Bruce Conner, video art by the likes of Ed Emshwiller and Nam June Paik, eye-zapping video games, and quick-cutting commercials of the sort aired by MTV itself --reportedly the only profitable branch of cable television these days.

Since it makes money, music video is clearly commercial. But students of the form are asking another question, too: Is it art? Some answer with a hearty yes, others with a wavering maybe -- or a plea not to spoil the fun with high-flown labels.

Currently joining the debate is the celebrated Museum of Modern Art, which has assembled nearly three hours of tape into a show called ``Music Video: The Industry and Its Fringes.'' The very existence of such a program suggests that art is lurking in the music-video wings even if it hasn't yet taken center stage.

The show starts with promo films for two Beatles songs, ``Penny Lane'' and ``Strawberry Fields Forever,'' made in 1967. They modestly echo the rambunctious visuals of ``A Hard Day's Night'' -- the seminal Beatles comedy by Richard Lester, another forebear of the MTV style -- and prefigure the jaunty psychedelia of the group's later ``Magical Mystery Tour'' extravaganza.

At the other end of the program are two prodigiously bleak items made just this year: ``Tainted Love,'' by the Coil, lamenting the AIDS illness; and ``Total State Machine,'' by Test Department, a bitter vision of life in a fascist society. The subjects of these videos attest a growing seriousness in ``tube rock'' circles. But their failure to say anything fresh, or even particularly coherent, reminds us that maturity and insight have rarely loomed large on the pop-culture scene.

Fortunately, the bulk of the museum show falls between these extremes of celebrity self-celebration and Big Subject pretension. There's the anarchic glee of an offbeat comical item by art-rocker Don Van Vliet, wherein his alter ego, Captain Beefheart, peddles his latest disc. Later there's the absurdist imagery of ``Secret Agent Man,'' directed by Chuck Statler with music by Devo; and the Hollywooden delirium of ``Rio,'' directed by Bill Dear with Michael Nesmith music. The morbid musings of ``Frankie T eardrop,'' with music by Alan Vega and Suicide, rubs elbows with the exuberant ``Two Triple Cheese, Side Order of Fries,'' directed by Joe Dea with Commander Cody music. The concise formalism of ``One Minute Movies,'' made by Graeme Whifler and the Residents, gives way to the elaborate evocations of ``Ren'e and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War,'' directed by video artist Joan Logue with music by Paul Simon.

Some big names give us forgettable videos. If you're not already a Michael Jackson fan, you won't figure out his appeal from ``Beat It,'' directed by Bob Giraldi. Miles Davis makes a shaky case for his music in ``Decoy,'' directed by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton. ``Act III,'' directed by video veteran John Sanborn with Philip Glass music, is flashy but empty. ``Sharkey's Day,'' by Laurie Anderson is overexpanded, like the album its music comes from. ``Hello Again,'' directed by Andy Warhol and Don Mu nroe with Cars music, doesn't pack much visual wallop. Ditto for ``Ashes to Ashes,'' made by David Mallet and David Bowie.

But nice surprises crop up often enough to make the survey a pleasure as well as an education. It's hard to resist the macabre goofiness of ``Land of 1,000 Dances,'' by the Residents, say, or the exhilarating energy of ``Road to Nowhere,'' by David Byrne and Stephen Johnson with music by the Talking Heads. There's nothing quite like an encounter with the weird vocalizing of Yello, or discovering a video that does more with a single visual device (the dissolve) than some do with a dozen.

Its history is brief, its accomplishments uneven. But music video is here to stay, as Danny and the Juniors used to sing -- accurately, it turns out! -- about rock-and-roll itself.

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