The video has been driven to the Internet, where it is available on-demand, any time. But quality, of both sound and picture, is the price of accessibility. In the past few years, televisions have become exponentially larger and broadcasts clearer. Videos, conversely, have become smaller and blurrier.
Given the medium's decreased visibility and influence as a promotional tool, it seems fair to say that its peak era has ended. Which means the time is ripe for a history. I've written previously that it's too early to assess any all-time great videos as they continue to evolve technically and aesthetically. But I've read biographies of people in their twenties, so there's always room for a story-so-far.
Saul Austerlitz's Money For Nothing looked like just the book for the job but fell well short of my expectations. The subtitle is a bit of a misnomer: "A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes." History? Not quite.
The first chapter contains a brief overview of the medium's antecedents (the work of Oskar Fischinger and George Snader, Scopitones, Walt Disney's Fantasia) and pre-MTV development (A Hard Day's Night, "Subterranean Homesick Blues", the Residents). It's slight, but informative and interesting. So far so good.
The coverage of thirty years of music video as we now understand it, however, is limited strictly to Austerlitz's musings on meaning and symbolism. There are no interviews and seemingly very little research, just page after page of one- or two-paragraph synopses and analyses of every video that happened to catch Austerlitz's eye.
Which is not to say his observations aren't interesting; he seems like he'd be a fun guy with whom to sit around, watching videos and arguing about them. But for a book purporting to be a history of the medium, a few interviews could have gone a long way. Did Austerlitz even try to set up a session with, say, Mike Nesmith? Dave Kendall? Kevin Godley and/or Lol Creme? David Mallet? Tim Pope? Matt Pinfield? Fab 5 Freddy? I have a hard time believing that none of these people would have been willing to be interviewed for the book, and all of them have important stories to tell.
So instead of asking Sam Bayer how the video for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came about and what the ideas were behind it, Austerlitz simply explains that it "maintains the structure of existing institutions in order to twist them, pretzel-like, into a new, more accomodating shape." Anyone who's listened to the commentaries on Mark Romanek's Director's Label DVD knows he has plenty of insightful things to say about his own work. But when discussing Romanek's video for Johnny Cash's "Hurt", Austerlitz takes it upon himself to explain that "Cash's face is a punctuation mark to this series of images, its time-ravaged quality a synecdoche for the pocket career summary that follows."
Again, it's not that I find Austerlitz's observations especially lacking. Sure, the book drags a little in this format, but most of his commentary is interesting enough. It's just that without a single primary source, this isn't a history; it's a term paper.