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Who Killed the Video Star?

By Molly Kordares

Something strange happened after Michael Jackson died. MTV started playing music videos again. A lot of them. Back-to-back. And uninterrupted, save for commercial or news breaks.

Aside from the fact that they were all Michael Jackson videos, viewers of a certain age saw something for the first time in a long time: music television actually playing music.

Many generalizations will be made about Jackson in the aftermath of his death, some true, and some exaggerated. But one thing can hardly be disputed: Jackson's particular rise to international stardom, fueled by his music videos, could not be replicated today.

Like every generation, ours has redefined what it means to be a pop star. You don't have to dance. Thanks to high-tech editing and auto-tuning, you don't even have to sing. And if you make a music video, we might not ever see it.

When MTV went live in 1981, the first video played was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles, a choice that was appropriate and also true. Many bemoaned the new medium, accusing it of diluting music in its purest form: heard, not seen. But as music videos became more mainstream, artists like Madonna, Paula Abdul, Whitney Houston and, of course, Michael Jackson, thrived.

Videos were flashy, over-produced, highly-choreographed spectacles with a price tag to match, sometimes costing millions of dollars to produce.

"Michael Jackson's videos were the most expensive music videos ever made" at the time, said Saul Austerlitz, author of "Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes". "Thriller" cost more than half a million dollars. "Bad" cost more than $2 million. And "Scream" cost a record-setting $7 million. When you wanted to see them, you turned on your television.

Because of this, "the level of cultural ubiquity that Michael Jackson's videos had will never occur again," predicts Austerlitz. Not only did Jackson have "a crossover appeal" rarely matched by today's pop stars, but he also peaked during a decade when music videos mattered because they helped sell albums. "Videos drove success," Austerlitz explained, "and now success drives videos."

Record labels don't see the same returns on music videos as they saw during the '80s and early '90s, so they are less willing to spend large amounts of money. Plus, there's simply no place for them on television anymore. For the past decade, MTV's programming has focused on reality programming, and VH1 and BET are following suit.

Even "Total Request Live," the last daytime show left on MTV dedicated to top music videos, has been canceled. Does this mean MTV, of all things, killed the video star? Not exactly.

The problem with the old-school model is that, like many old-school models, it wasn't prepared for the Internet. Why would someone wait around to catch a music video on TV when it was available online instantly? Viewership declined, then ad revenue, steering television executives away from music and towards original content. Music videos migrated to the web, and everything about them shrunk, from screen to scope.

"If I had written my book a few years prior [to 2008], I would have said music videos had come and gone," said Austerlitz. "But with their migration to the Internet, there has been a rebirth and a resurgence of interest in the form.

They are smaller in every possible way, but I would say that makes them more artistic."

Rik Cordero, a video director at Three/21 Films, agreed. "Music videos are becoming an art form. They're not commercials anymore, which is what they first were, back when everyone was still trying to figure them out," he said.

When Cordero first entered the industry in the '90s, rap videos would easily require half a million dollars to make. Now, budgets can run as low as $15,000. "You can't bank all your money on one song and one video like they used to," Cordero said.

Nor, it seems, would he want to. Cordero prefers to focus on storytelling, on acting, on getting an artist to reveal the emotion behind the lyrics. "It's not always pretty," he said. But it's real.

Cordero was shocked when nominated for Video Director of the Year at this year's BET Awards. Only three of his music videos have ever aired on the channel. The rest were Internet-only.

"They threw me in [this category] with all these big names. That makes a statement," he said. "The music video is still very alive. It's just changing."

"Fracturing" is what some insiders call it, and it's not just happening to music videos, but to music in general.

"All it means," said Austerlitz, "is that there is no collective anymore." Everyone on the street isn't listening to the same thing. Awards like the Grammy's don't mean as much, and might eventually become obsolete.

So while we will have good music, and plenty of it, there will never be another star like Michael Jackson or another single like "Thriller." Though you know a song by heart, you may never see its music video.

New songs will struggle to become as popular as older ones, songs created when music's canon was smaller and its artists were much, much bigger.

BY Molly Kordares

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