“I remember when I was like sixteen, every lunch time without fail we’d go back to my friend’s house who lived five minutes away and watch MTV until we had five minutes to get back to class. That was our lunch break, every day.”
Jamie Jackson, the exhausted creative director of FreeStyle Games, is talking about music videos while nestled deep into the folds of a black leather couch a month before the release of his latest game. Even though a different song blasts from each of the half-dozen or so TVs in the room, a cacophony that sounds like a bored college radio DJ playing three songs at once, Jackson perpetually seems three seconds away from falling asleep. It’s the middle of the afternoon and we’re in a typical indie rock dive bar—dirty floors, little light, posters for old shows covering every inch of wall space—in a small town north of London, and we’re not here to see bands play but to pretend we’re in bands with FreeStyle’s new game Guitar Hero Live.
If you’ve seen any ads for Guitar Hero Live, or any in-game footage, you know the big hook of the game is how it puts you in the shoes of a rock star. You’re on a stage, there’s a huge crowd in front of you, band mates at your side, and it all looks real, with real people, and none of the cartoon characters of the old game. This is being pushed as the game’s chief selling point, but what’s most interesting about the game, and what might be the riskiest decision in a game full of them, is what FreeStyle is calling Guitar Hero TV. Imagine MTV as it was in the 1980s and early ‘90s, a non-stop stream of music videos, but with the ability to play along on a Guitar Hero controller. Its two channels run all day long, providing both videos and new playable songs for an audience that may not exist.
Jackson sounds hopeful that the people will get into Guitar Hero TV, even those who are too young to have that nostalgia for aimlessly watching MTV for hours on end. “Kids have been deprived of an amazing source of music and visuals and this could be an opportunity for them to get it,” he says. “If you want to watch videos today you have to search for them on YouTube or Vevo or whatever. Now it’s in a game and people will see it and there’s a lot of fun in music videos.”
Although the music video defined the 1980s, its history can be traced back to the earliest experiments with sound and film. You can trace the lineage from the Vitaphone shorts of the ‘20s, through Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Warner Brothers’ Merry Melodies from the 1930s, through the Scopitone video jukeboxes of the ‘50s. Promotional films were standard fare for such ‘60s bands as the Beatles, who also of course made two full-length movies. And really, what were film musicals if not elaborately produced and choreographed music videos?
The music video is almost as old as recorded sound itself, and yet when MTV blew up in the early 1980s many music critics and radio personalities viewed the artform with disdain. A common complaint was that music videos ruined a listener’s personal connection to a song—instead of forming our own individual interpretations of the words and music, we would now all share a single vision, often dictated not by the band but by the label and hack directors who couldn’t cut it in Hollywood.
People fear change, and although the idea of a music video was nowhere close to being new when MTV launched in 1981, a new, unheard of demand for music videos quickly revolutionized the music industry. Videos quickly grew from hastily assembled promotional clips to a medium that could promote genuine artistic expression. Many of the videos that received heavy play on MTV in its first few years might have defaulted to unexciting performance footage or leering over the gyrations of models and Playmates, but they’d air alongside such visual masterworks as Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” or the videos of Talking Heads. Michael Jackson’s videos are as iconic and evocative of the 1980s as any film from that decade, especially “Thriller” and “Beat It.” At its best, the music video can be a work of art as significant as any film or pop song, and its long-seated roots in our culture derail whatever arguments its critics might lobby against the form.
Music videos are thriving today. Anybody can put a video up on YouTube, whether they’re well-funded clips for the latest major label hits or your cousin’s high school swim team’s homemade rap parody. With a lot of money or a little bit of luck people might actually choose to watch them. Beyond a steady stream of new videos from bands of all sizes, practically the entire history of the music video is available to anybody who can type a few words into a search engine. If you’re a fan of music videos you don’t really have much to complain about today.
The on demand nature of the internet eliminates part of what made music television so exciting to watch in our youth, though. Like listening to the radio, part of the thrill of MTV was never knowing what was coming next. Sure, at different points in time you could guess Michael Jackson or Guns ‘n’ Roses or Snoop Dogg were coming up soon and never be wrong, but that sense of mystery was a large part of why it was so much fun to watch MTV, and so hard to turn it off. If you stuck around for one more video, you might see “With or Without You” for the tenth time that week, or you might discover a new favorite song from a band you’d never heard of before. If you were like me, you’d stick around for one more video after one more video until you fell asleep with the TV on.
Channel drift killed traditional music television throughout the early ‘90s. MTV dominated the market in the ‘80s, becoming synonymous with the very concept of the music video, but it’s been a running joke that the M no longer stands for music for over 20 years now. Game shows and cartoons and reality shows and countless hours of lifestyle fluff drove videos to the middle of the night before eventually vanquishing them almost altogether. MTV2, the station that was created to show videos after MTV stopped showing videos, hasn’t regularly shown videos in over a decade. VH1 Classic, which was so much fun its first few years in the early ‘00s, is currently airing Major League as I write this. Music television seemed like a relic before the first Guitar Hero game even came out in 2005.
It got so bad that the music video was practically considered extinct before video streaming on the internet became widespread. Smaller labels and bands stopped spending money on videos in the late ‘90s, once 120 Minutes became the home of bands like Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth and killed what little exposure an indie label could’ve gotten on MTV. Within a few years even world-conquering artists like Beyonce and Eminem had to watch their pricey videos get sliced and cropped and overlaid with asinine fan comments and dedications the few times MTV would actually play them. Videos became a questionable expense for all but the most famous of musicians; if you weren’t massively popular or risking the full promotional support of a major label there was no point in ever making one.
Now the internet is drowning in new music videos. Freed from the restrictions of basic cable, artists and directors have explored edgier territory and indulged in more graphic imagery, turning the idea of the NSFW music video into a tired cliché. Music websites like this one premiere new videos pretty much every single day. The catalogue is there for any network willing to recreate the early days of MTV, but it’s taken a videogame to truly give it a go.
Somehow the first company willing to try to recreate that classic MTV atmosphere makes videogames. The record labels were excited to see such any new avenue for the video open up, even such a nontraditional one. “We went to [labels] and were like ‘we want your music’ and they were like [disinterested] ‘yeah yeah yeah,’” Jackson says. “And then we were like ‘and we want your video’ and they were like [excited] ‘you want our video?!? Nobody wants videos anymore! This is brilliant, we’ve got an outlet for the video again!’”
Playing along to Guitar Hero TV is the closest thing I’ve felt to watching MTV since the early days of VH1 Classic. I can load it up, grab the guitar controller, and make hours disappear while playing through its constant stream of videos. And unlike the MTV of my youth, when there’s a video I don’t like, I can pull up a second channel and hope to find something more to my liking. The only thing that comes close to ruining that vintage MTV vibe is being able to pull up a master list of every video currently available in the game. Nothing’s truly surprising when you know everything that could possibly arrive, although that’s not that different from MTV either—its playlists could be so tight, especially as the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, that there was often little genuine surprise at anything the station played. And when Guitar Hero TV finally does add new videos, as it will soon, the familiarity I’m developing with the current playlists will make that moment of discovery even more exciting.
Jackson, sinking deeper into that couch, is visibly excited about Guitar Hero TV , even though he’s clearly tired. It’s exhausting to make games, but also exhausting to promote them, especially when it’s a game that attempts to resuscitate not just a moribund videogame franchise, and not just an entire genre of games that long ago fell out of favor with the public, but an entire distribution method for a very specific artform. With Guitar Hero TV Jackson hopes to bring the fun of watching music videos back to your living room. And if you want to pick up the guitar controller and play along, that’d be just fine with him.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He has a few VHS tapes full of old 120 Minutes episodes buried somewhere in his parents’ basement. Feel free to talk to him about music videos on Twitter.