Another Vivian Boo-Boo…and a bit of history

No textbook is perfect, but a good text should at least get people’s names right. I have earlier complained about John Vivian perpetuating mistakes in his text, The Media of Mass Communication, which I use in the large lecture course in mass communication I teach at West Chester University. I like the book, and I will likely continue to use it, but the careless mistakes in it are annoying.

So I wasn’t surprised when one of my students pointed out another mistake to me today (thanks, Laura!). Near the end of chapter 13, in a “Media People” pullout box, is a brief bio of hip-hop star Nelly. The textbook states that Nelly “was christened Cornell Hayes, Jr.” Nelly’s last name is Haynes, not Hayes. My student wrote that this mistake is significant “because he even refers to his name in one of his top songs, Number One, where he plays off the relationship between the underwear brand Haines and his last name Haynes.” (Actually, I believe the correct way to identify this song is #1, with a pound sign and a numeral, but that’s beside the point.)

I might add that while I was looking over this part of the text, I found another mistake in the same section. In the caption below the picture of Nelly with Christina Aguilera, a reference is made to the “MTV Music Video Awards.” Ooops. It’s the “MTV Video Music Awards,” not the “MTV Music Video Awards.” It’s been that way since they were started in 1984, and they are often referred to as simply the VMAs or VMA Awards (although technically the second is rather redundant, since the “A” in VMA stands for Awards).

Many people might wonder why it’s called the “MTV Video Music Awards” when the term “music video” is more widely used today than the term “video music.” So let me just share a bit of history…

In the very early days of MTV, the term “video music” was commonly used to describe this kind of television programming. I even used it in the title of the thesis I wrote for my master’s degree back in 1983 (Future Radio: Video Music and its Effects on Radio Listening.) Keep in mind that this was at a time when the genre was just coming together, so people weren’t sure what to call what MTV was doing.

Music was a popular form of televised entertainment long before MTV came on the scene. The Ed Sullivan Show regularly featured musical performances, and helped propel Elvis Presley and The Beatles to stardom. A number of TV shows were built around music performances, including My Hit Parade and American Bandstand. But most musical performance during TV’s early years emphasized the music, and rarely attempted to visually illustrate a story. They were essentially the video equivalent of a concert performance.

Monkees_season2.jpgOne of the first successful TV shows to integrate music into a visually-supported storyline was The Monkees, launched in 1966 on NBC. Although many critics at the time panned The Monkees as a cheap knockoff of The Beatles, the program quickly became a smash hit, and even won two Emmy Awards. A typical episode of The Monkees featured a simple and often campy comedic story that would culminate in a musical performance which was integrated into the storyline. These performances were not simply shots of the band singing and playing guitars; the musical performances were a key part of the plot of each episode. The technique was similar to the narrative approach used in filmed musicals, like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, as well as the approach used in presenting The Beatles in the films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! But while The Monkees was built on these traditions, it was a pioneering adaptation of this storytelling approach to fit the constraints of television. It would also spawn other pop-music based TV shows, including The Partridge Family and The Archies.

Then in 1977, one of the original Monkees, Michael Nesmith, produced a “conceptual” video clip to help promote his song Rio. Although Rio was not a major pop hit in America, it was a modest success in Britain, and inspired many musicians to experiment with video as an art form itself, and not simply as a visual recording of a musical performance. Rio would later be incorporated into Nesmith’s hour-long video masterpiece called Elephant Pants, which won the very first Grammy award in the “Video of the Year” category in 1981. It wasn’t until 1985 that the Grammys started calling this category “Best Music Video,” since the term “music video” didn’t come into wide use until well after MTV was launched in 1981.

Nesmith also created Popclips, a program which many historians identify as the most direct predecessor of MTV. Popclips aired on the Nickelodeon cable channel (which today is one of the “sister networks” of MTV). The program featured videos of mostly pop music performances, hosted by on-camera “Vee Jays” (including the relatively unknown Canadian comic Howie Mandell). Nesmith would eventually sell the Popclips idea to Warner-Amex, which developed it into the Music Television cable channel (which would soon be known simply as MTV).

So when MTV started the VMAs in 1984, it was at a time when many people still thought it more appropriate to use “video” as an adjective for this kind of music, rather than use “music” as an adjective to describe this kind of video. Some people still prefer the term “Video Music,” and I for one am glad MTV has stuck with it in the name of their award program.

Now if only we can get Vivian to get the name right in his textbook…

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