Tuning in to what is rarely turned off

Dancing in the Distraction Factory
March 31, 1995

Andrew Goodwin has produced probably the most readable and informed book to date on MTV, the 24-hour American music television channel which started off with a fairly mainstream white rock and "new pop" orientation and has since become what young people turn on and keep on while they are at home.

Alongside the documentation of the rise of MTV, Goodwin's study provides the first detailed and convincing cultural analysis of the pop video. He does not, as Simon Frith's blurb on the back of book suggests, "skewer" the postmodernists for taking the pop video as reflective of the "end of meaning", rather he challenges two distinct ways of looking at pop videos that have been directly or indirectly influenced by post-modern theory. Both are in my opinion easy targets and it is unfortunate that post-modernism gets so badly tarnished by what are basically thin or insubstantial works. For example E. Ann Kaplan's book on music videos is as much mistaken for its attempt to apply film theory to pop video, as it is for its appropriation of post-modern thinking. And the other snippets which Goodwin quotes as examples of the awfulness of post-modern writing would be equally awful and simply unacceptable as contributions to academic debate if the word post-modernism had never appeared in them. What is more, there is a tendency to overestimate the scale of this kind of writing. It is as though all but a few sensible cultural sociologists remain capable of writing in a lucid and useful way while all the so-called cultural studies types have been seduced by Baudrillard's abandonment of the social and have as a result moved into the realms of writing nonsense.

At points Goodwin veers towards one of the most infuriating of academic modes. Misconstrue your enemies, knock them all down and then present your own case as infinitely better.

While he is frequently tempted by this rather embittered style of writing, Goodwin's overwhelming interest in music, in music videos and in popular culture enables him to leave the mean-spirited battles that are being waged by men who want to possess cultural studies as their own. He shows how the video form is more often an extension of the aesthetics of performance than an eclipsing of the aural by the visual. He also shows the significance of the video in the competitive world of music production and the record companies' attempts to anchor popular taste by connecting it to a particular visual image, usually that of the star.

Goodwin argues strongly for a return to the study of cultural production including the industrial and institutional dimensions of making pop videos. This would mark a decisive shift away from the search for meaning as something which exists solely in the "text".

Goodwin ends by returning to those aspects of MTV which trouble him most, the endless objectification of the female body and the marginalisation of black music. Though this latter has in recent months been clearly revised on the basis of the non-stoppable rise of rap. Nonetheless the question of race leads Goodwin back to the failings of the industry and also to its power to dictate taste and manipulate meaning. Despite this, like most commentators on popular culture, myself included, his sheer enjoyment of classic clips shines through.

Angela McRobbie is principal lecturer in sociology, Thames Valley University.

Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture

Author - Andrew Goodwin
ISBN - 0 415 09169 1 and 09170 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 237pp

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