Mediamatic Magazine vol 5#4 Errki Huhtamo 1 Jan 1991

Rock around the Clock Music Television, Postmodernism & Consumer Culture - E. Ann Kaplan

Methuen (pub) New York/London 1987 ISBN 0-416-33370-7, English text, pp. 196, 6,95 pounds

One of the leading TV scholars in the United States, E. Ann Kaplan is also the writer of the first book-length study of music videos.


Rocking around the Clock Music Television -

Rocking Around die Clock. Music Television, Postmodernism & Consumer Culture has raised considerable debate; sometimes ridiculed as an improbable attempt by a middle-aged academic to enter a territory she couldn't hope to master. On the other hand, as Kaplan says, If my book did everything right, there would be no room for others.

Have there been any changes in American MTV since your book was published?

Yes, it has changed in many, many ways. Even as I was writing the book, between 1982 and 1986 - which was when I sent it to the press -1 was constantly having to revise the manuscript because MTV was constantly changing. But 1 tried to incorporate all the changes before it went to press, first of all, they brought in the ‘block’ programming. When I wrote the book, only two videos would be run at the most, and then there would be ads. But now they have - following FM radio - blocks of at least four videos, so the ad saturation is lower. I suspect, however, that if you watched over 24 hours, they catch up somewhere, so they are not losing anything. Secondly, they have changed the special programs: when I was doing my research, they had heavy metal slots which they don't have any more. Heavy metal is now so routinely cycled, it doesn’t need special packaging.

They also had a slot called The New Video which has been replaced by - guess what - The Postmodern Video, since my book came out. I was talking to a young woman on MTV just the other day: She called me saying I have just been hired. I've been looking for your book but I can't find it. I've been told that I have to re-edit the Postmodern Video slot, because we don't have the concept (which is true, they didn't) and now I want to read your book just to find out what the concept is, so that I can make our slot more in keeping with the concept. All they were doing in The Postmodern Video was bringing together sort of odd collections of videos, not really understanding the idea.

They also brought on a game show called Remote Control which was not on at the time of my writing, and they started a new section called Rockumentaries. One day I turned on MTV and what the host of that section was doing amounted to a deconstruction of sexism in videos. She used her own body as a little image, dressed in a mixture of little girl/old lady attire, walking over a sexy Sheila Easton video and pointing out how large the breasts were on the image. She was doing a demonstration, but in quite a Postmodern way. because the seriousness of her intent was quite ambiguous: it stood between parodying concerns about sexism in videos and actually taking such a stance. Perhaps MTV had in mind the right-wing Parents Media Resources Center-kind of objections. Perhaps they had certain feminist responses in mind -1 don't know.

You have said that the model for mtv was the 24-hour fm rock stations, but you don't perceive a problem in the relationship between these stations and Postmodernism. Does your argument about mtv as a Postmodern phenomenon also hold in respect of that?
That's an interesting question which raises an important area for future research. As you know, we have dealt much less with sound. Postmodernism has been constructed very much as a visual phenomenon, connected with architecture, painting, television, even dance. It is rarely used either in relation to the novel - that silent consumption form - or to a purely oral sound form. I would need to think about that. We should try to better understand why Postmodernist theories were constructed so much around the visual.

Now, I think it is true that we are living in an increasingly saturated visual culture. However, we are also living in a more heavily saturated sound culture. But I think sight seems to dominate and also construct us more that sound. I would not off hand use the word Postmodern about 24-hour sound. The reason is that while you are engaged in listening to rock music you are also doing all kinds of other things with your eyes. You don’t just sit - although I suspect some kids do - on the bed with your eyes closed, listening to rock videos. I know lots of kids do do their homework while having MTV on. By-and-large, since I listen to rock music non-stop in the car, my visual senses are engaged. I could talk about that as a Postmodern phenomenon: that I am doing a zillion things and I am also listening. It has something to do with the combination of sight and sound as absorbing the total person’s senses. But it wouldn't be the radio per se.

You researched the music video in the context of television, particularly mtv, and you connect it with the discussion about Postmodernism. Do you think that music videos could be fruitfully studied in another context, or is this the natural one? Oh no. I can see that there are other ways. As I said, I was drawn to this approach when wanting to theorize about television, and at the same time, I was drawn to Jameson and Baudrillard. I might say now that I overstated the case in terms of carrying the Baudrillardian argument a little bit to the extreme. I have been thinking about something the reviewers pointed out, namely spending more time on the spectator, which I don't do in the book. It's a series of textual analyses and I think that was legitimate as part of a dialectic. The theory took us to texts in the Seventies and I apply that because I came with that model from film studies. It is also true that the cultural studies group in Britain, out of Stuart Hall's Cultural Studies Centre, began focusing on the audience. The problem is that they privilege the audience over the text, while we privilege the text over the audience and what we need to work towards is a position that combines them. But I continue to argue that texts construct the spectator. On the other hand, it is also clear that individuals bring all kinds of prior frameworks to, say, music videos and read them in the light of these frameworks. Every experience is a contestation between positions that the videos try to make me accept, and my own background - class, ethnicity, age - formations which are encouraging me to read in a certain way the position videos construct for me.

Jane Brown recently made an empirical study of teenage spectators. She focused on Madonna's Papa, Don't Preach and Open Your Heart: she put on one side my readings, and then she interviewed teenagers, separating them by gender and race, about what meanings they saw. Her preliminary data collection shows extraordinary things; for instance, some teenagers don't even realize that Madonna is pregnant in Papa, Don't Preach. All they really seem to see is that father and daughter seem to be at odds. For Open Your Heart she got all kinds of different readings: for some it was celebrating female sexuality; a lot of males, of course, said it was a turn-on - all they remembered was how exciting it was to see Madonna in that costume. Women focused on the little boy; but none gave my reading: that it was about deconstructing porn parlors.

Obviously a study like that absolutely proves what we know intuitively, that no text has a set meaning - or at least, I think texts do have a set meaning, but no text is read the same in terms of its meaning by different groups. So I would be interested in a more empirical study now, for instance, on the way teenagers use MTV.

That’s one route. Another is to work on interlocking discourses, the paraphernalia like T-shirts surrounding the videos; the Madonna look-alikes (wannabesjand the Dress Like Madonna shows; album covers; promotional enterprises and ads. Does this mean questioning the basic idea in your book, the equation of mtv with Postmodernism?

I'm not sure if it means questioning that so much. In fact, in some way dealing with all contesting or interweaving discourses could be very Postmodern. One aspect of Postmodernism is the blurring of different sites; it means simply extending tbe discussion of consumerism, which I see as an inherent part of Postmodernism. We should show how objects are proliferated to increase sales, and to create the context for selling the image.
I guess the break in Postmodern theory has to do with the resisting spectator. Actually, spectators resist more than Baudrillard knows or believes. His is a sort of apocalyptic vision which leaves the individuals as blank spaces who automatically allow the media to simply consume them. I don’t believe that. I think the media are proliferating and there’s an increasing identification with images. I think young people believe for a little while that they are Madonna when they dress like her. But it’s short-lived, and there are many other aspects of teenagers' fives that prevent their total absorption into the media. I do think, however, that race and class are significant here.

I suspect that the more a child has alternate things in its fife - such as the family doing other things, or positive experiences with different family members, in relation to alternative modes to television - the theater, for instance - the less total identification with the media would be. Those children in America with a very unstable family who have very little access to anything else in the culture and who sit in front of the tv for hours a day would be susceptible to the Postmodern fantasy, no longer knowing what's the image and what’s the self - the simulacra argument. But I certainly think that I perhaps overstated this argument in the book.

Bill Horrigan reviews Rock Around The Clock

A question addressed to origins: why write a book about a subject which you lack the capability for any sympathy? Not desire for sympathy; not interest in sympathy, but a capability to sympathetically imagine. What would constitute a reasonable minimum requirement for authorship of a book on music television? A sympathetic, knowing attraction to the genre, perceived as a (mine-filled) zone of pleasure and release. Whose pleasure? The pleasure of the music fan, of the rock ’n’ roll fan, of the dispossessed fan to whom rock is better than fife, the fan for whom rock can make buoyant the mundane. Rock music and music television are also, of course, ‘consciousness industries' that construct and nourish consumers, but what they sell are surely acoustic pleasures before they are visual. That is to say, music television is closer to radio than television.

That said, it’s a reasonable expectation of a book on music television to be conversant with, and in some regard (either distant or present) enthralled by music. This is effectively a requirement. Requirements are established not in the realm of publishing but that of ethics; and one of these decrees that people not write about subjects for which they lack all affinity. The result, otherwise, is trouble and confusion.

Music television and E. Ann Kaplan: why? Attempting to get the first word in, Kaplan commences Rocking Around the Clock by anticipating/diverting the question: In one sense, my writing a book on mtv requires no explanation. I have been long interested in popular culture (...) and mtv, as a new popular phenomenon, would seem to warrant a study as much as anything else. Kaplan then goes on to avow an interest in adolescent or youth culture since the early sixties, then decisively knots these threads of rationale by alleging that mtv seems to embody what Jameson and others have been calling Postmodernism, hence the study of mtv being, within the curtained academic milieu Kaplan calls home, of the utmost obvious urgency.

The chapter titles then proceed to kindle the worst fears of those who actually know or care deeply for music television: mtv: Advertising and Production; History, 'Reading Formulations', and the Televisual Apparatus in mtv; mtv and the Avant-Garde: the emergence of a Postmodernist anti-aesthetic ^; Ideology, Adolescent Desire and the the five types of video on mtv; Gender Address and the Gaze in mtv; and: Conclusions: mtv, Postmodernism, and the Televisual Apparatus. A stew of cultural studies, Lacanian feminist film theory, and oracular dicta ascribed to Baudrillard, the book proper has an 'Afterword' in which the author delivers what amounts to a self-annihilating coup de grace:
Even as I struggled to make generalizations, to codify, to formulate plausible theses and arguments, the channel would change and render a statement obsolete. In other words, the experience of uniting the book was an experience of getting inside a Postmodernist phenomenon.

This stunning statement is meant either as an alibi along the fines of ‘I’m doing the best I can’, or else as a rather ungracious self-endorsement: ‘Don’t blame me, blame Postmodernism.' Its an odd suggestion, however faintly registered, that the author knows her book to be outdated, hence conditional, even as she writes. Not a fatal problem, however, in the fight of all those ‘future researchers’ who will have to make a living hacking about in academe just as she does.

The least cynical thing to say about Kaplan’s mtv book is that its written from the point of view of an outsider. But which outside is that? Simply, it’s the outside of academic opportunism, here annexing mtv as a new. relatively unexploited/depleted area of speciality, ripe for academic ‘ownership'/development. It is, at any rate, possible to advance this unkind reading without imputing motivation personally to Kaplan; that is to say, it's possible to understand the field of academic industry as one in which those toiling there devote premium time to writing books and studies addressed exclusively to their confreres, a textual to-and-fro in which manifestly unempirical allegations are said to be ’proven’ and in which all the ultimately recondite questions can be counted on to be quieted (but not yet) by ‘future research’.

To counter the claim that this harshness against Kaplan's book is nothing but philistinism, a recommendation follows: Lisa Lewis's Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference (Temple University Press) springs from the same dark heart of the university as Kaplan’s book, and like it is sometimes too enthralled for anyone’s good by the sound of theories clashing by night. Where it differs, and where it justly repays attention, is in the unmistakable affinity Lewis has for her subject. Although partly reconstructed via theory, Lewis is at heart a true music fan. a devotee, a hearer of sounds Kaplan doesn’t even know she’s missing. What Lewis evinces is a kind of love, really, and it’s essential for enquiries of this nature. For Kaplan, mtv is simply virgin territory onto which she can map the most fatigued paradigms of the last decade’s film/television theory; for Lewis, mtv is a spectacle (suspicious, but even so, even so...) of enchantment. Lewis’s book makes a bad object lovable; Kaplan’s book makes the bad object worse.