A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music. It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.
The Song: “Video Killed the Radio Star“
from the 1980 album The Age of Plastic by the Buggles
reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart
Prologue: Into A Vinyl Sea
It’s the most cliched way to begin an article, but: let’s take a walk through history.
15 July 1949: Trevor Charles Horn is born to John and Elizabeth Horn in the north of England. His interest in music is apparent from an early age, and he teaches himself how to play the bass and the electric guitar. At fourteen he forms a band called the Outer Limits, the name taken from a television series revolving around sci-fi stories and inexplicable phenomena. Over time he builds his own studio, gets to grips with producing, and forms a band with keyboardist Geoff Downes and guitarist Bruce Woolley in 1977. After he jokes that “we’ll never be as big as the Beatles”, Downes has the very dubious idea to name them “the Buggles”. They are not a fashionable band.
14 November 1952: music magazine New Musical Express (NME) issues its first ever Top 12, a chart of the fifteen most popular songs in the country. (Yup, you read that right. People didn’t know how to count back then.) Their advertisement manager gathers the list by phoning up around 20 record stores himself and asking them what their best-selling singles are — a time-consuming and laborious process. The charts show how quickly music changes in the ensuing decade: mushy ballads give way to rock and roll give way to Merseybeat and so on. But it also denotes another change: image and appeal in the record store overtakes airplay as the most important indicator of sales. Radio no longer reigns supreme.
7 September 1979: as the decade ends, punk rock and disco retreats into the background on both sides on the Atlantic. A new wave of artists blend elements of both together to become, well, new wave music. In the UK, the charts are filled with robots: deadpan recording artist M has his smash hit “Pop Muzik”, a song where the synthesizers take centre stage with an infectious hook. An even more emotionless and lonely singer, Gary Numan, has just released his first solo album after landing two consecutive #1s on the Singles Chart. Amidst all this, the Buggles release their debut single “Video Killed the Radio Star”, a shamelessly sci-fi song that is still futuristic, even when its central theme of nostalgia is laid on thick.
And finally, 1 August 1981: a new television channel called “Music Television” (MTV) debuts on New Jersey cable TV at midnight. Over footage of a space shuttle lifting off into the air and the Apollo 11 moon landing, an announcer proclaims: “ladies and gentlemen — rock and roll”. The first music video played is the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Its opening shots: a sea constructed from a garbage bag, and a child listening to a radio that subsequently explodes. A new age has begun: music can now be enjoyed through the realm of sight, 24/7.
At the centre of all this: the Buggles’ debut single, “Video Killed the Radio Star”. A gruesomely named song, yet it remains beloved by many after all these years, a shining, timeless tune that weaves history in between the lines, and at the same time weaves itself into music history. Within and without it, we find not just a song worth singing — something within this vast sea of lyrics reminds us of days to be relived, of futures that have passed us by, and of entire mythologies of stories, waiting to be told. Let’s dive in once more, and see what we can piece together.
Chapter 1: I WanT My Alternate Reality
Since we’re going to get all existential about music videos — or “MVs” for short — we might as well start by talking about what constitutes a “music video”. Because it’s not as simple as saying “it’s a video with music”. Even the placing of those two words, “music” before “video”, is deceptive, because it’s the latter that is auxiliary: there is simply no reason for the video to exist without the music inspiring its creation. This is why Wikipedia informs us that a music video usually exists for “promotional or artistic purposes” — but that raises a lot of questions too. That cover you did on YouTube of Oasis’ “Wonderwall”: could that be a music video? It’s certainly quite unlike a lot of the music videos nowadays, but it serves to promote you as a singer, and even if you are blindingly tone-deaf, you’re still serving some kind of artistic purpose (however hard your listeners may disagree).
So: MVs don’t have to be a glossy, intensely choreographed affair; they can be low-budget, rough around the edges, so as long as it serves the song. That amorphic quality means that pinning down that one single video where it all began is therefore nigh impossible: some say that it began as soon as people learned how to marry sound with film, that the first music video comes when Al Jolson performs “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” in The Jazz Singer, the first ever feature-length sound film. Others say that it comes a bit later, that animator Max Fleischer’s sing-along “bouncing ball” films were the first real music videos with their onscreen lyrics and lip-syncing artists. And legendary crooner Tony Bennett claims that he invented music videos with his 1955 hit “Stranger in Paradise”, but I haven’t been able to find any trace of that online (and I have better things to do than factcheck Tony Bennett’s autobiography).
For me, it all begins in the 1950s, when musicals, with their stunning choreography and vibrant colours are all the rage. Now listeners are eager to consume music in smaller venues, in bars, nightclubs, record stores — and they want to see it too, see their anguish and their ecstasies reflected in the singers’ faces. That immersion comes in the year 1958, when two videos from Europe give music aficionados a whole new way of enjoying music. In communist Czechoslovakia, two actor-singers recorded a video for “Dáme si do bytu” (“We’ll Put in the Apartment”), which Google tells me is really just a chirpy tune about the joy of indoor furnishing. The one that I’m choosing to spotlight, though, is a darker, edgier song from the same year: Serge Gainsbourg’s first single “Le poinçonneur des Lilas”, released in September 1958, came with a video that showed him sitting depressed in a Paris Metro ticket office, punching tickets like his protagonist. Now, Gainsbourg was still a few years away from writing the songs that marked him as a colossal pervert, but you can already some kind of persona being built in the video for “Le poinçonneur des Lilas”: the dishevelled man in the corner, an abyss of darkness behind his sullen eyes. It’s rough, it’s depressing — and it’s inarguably a music video. The first of its kind, in fact.
What these two videos have in common, however, is a sense of surrealness. Cardboard cutouts of vases don’t just appear out of nowhere; a ticket conductor mumbling lyrics would likewise raise eyebrows. Yet these very practical concerns tell us how, from the very start, MVs were never about representing the real world. See, for listeners like us, it isn’t enough to take the song as simply one moment in space and time: we need a story, a backstory, plucked out from in between the lines. And it isn’t one we can find in the real world: the protagonists in pop music seem to live their lives at an intensity we can never aspire to. So instead, the music video takes these abstract feelings and turns them concrete. It creates characters, settings, a whole alternate universe where all these people and feelings can be real, even believable with a before and after. I can’t watch the music video for “Take On Me”, for instance, without thinking about (and overthinking) the comic-book world that the members of a-ha live in: the unspoken history that suddenly exists between the two protagonists, the slightly absurd way they fall in love. That isn’t possible in the real world, but it is in THIS one.
But the music video doesn’t just create new worlds — they make what happens in them matter as well. When I watch that video, I don’t just see a story being played out when Morten Harket takes his girlfriend’s hand, I see two people I actively root for too: I know that the two of them are gonna end up together (at least, until the sequel), but I still lean forward and fear for them when the dystopian policemen show up. It’s just that immersive. Sometimes, they even manage to make you think about your own past and present: after all, the best pop songs are always ones where you can self-insert or imagine that you can have the same experience. Yes, pop music is ultimately just a performance, but those performances can contain infinite intricate layers, layers which we might interweave our experiences into. Perhaps, in this process, it even gives us feelings we never knew we had: how many people discovered romantic love through the prism of a love song? It might be another world we see in these videos… but it’s one we believe in nonetheless. As a critic once pointed out, it’s all rather like the musicals MVs took their inspiration from: nobody breaks into song and dance so suddenly in real life, but you still wished that their world was your world, that you could do what they do, feel what they feel. That’s the magic of music videos: they show us what we could be like, taps into feelings we once or never had, and remind us of just how good it could be, all over again.
So that’s the past (finally) dealt with. What about the other two?
Chapter 2: Between Before and After
Unlike music videos, the Buggles themselves don’t really have a past. I’ve mentioned much of it in my opening crawl, and there’s not much more I can add to it. (Cue sighs of relief from readers.) But though they were only active for about three years and had only one hit, they’ve since become a touchstone of the 80s; in fact, a lot of people say that 80s pop culture began with this very song. And yet it’s tempting to look at these people and go “really?”: we’re used to the idea that trendsetters in pop culture must always have the looks of a sex god (or Paul McCartney) to match. That these two completely uncool people could kick-start a whole decade seems… well, weird.
Actually, there HAD been a sex god in the Buggles: Bruce Woolley, the group’s original vocalist. Well, calling him a sex god is vastly overstating things, but when parked next to Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes — who looked like a discount Elton John and a yuppie respectively — he looked downright radiant. He loved the idea of futuristic, machine-like music almost as much as Horn, and had a hand in writing “Video Killed the Radio Star”. (He was the one who suggested the “radio becomes obsolete” angle.) The problem was, nobody really wanted to hear their version of pop music, and by the time Horn managed to secure a record deal at a label his girlfriend worked at, Woolley had gone solo. Months later, he would release his own version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
I know I’m risking first-version preference syndrome here, but Bruce Woolley’s version is such a departure from our song for today that I simply have to mention it. Critics at the time seem to have been much more enthusiastic about this version, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s a sleek, sprightly banger that clips along at a furious pace. In fact, everything about this song is fast and furious: Woolley delivers the words as if he’s genuinely anguished about how video is killing the radio star. Behind him, the musicians play loud and fast, too, as if trying to give the radio star some sort of Viking funeral. Listening to it must have been like sitting on a bullet train, speeding away into a tunnel of light — an impression that the surrounding synths only reinforce.
About that last one. Synths were fast becoming part of the musical soundscape in 1979: they might have sounded inauthentic, but more and more artists were using them, that steely, alien squeal suggesting something avant-garde. (When I started writing, I originally wanted to explore why we associate synths with the future, but I couldn’t get past “that faint electronic buzz’s like something alien from the future, innit”.) Kraftwerk, Donna Summer, David Bowie had all used synths to great effect in their work and now it was hip to not be human: you could send people into a different world, a futuristic world, with the help of just an electronic keyboard. Bruce Woolley uses them too, in a show of his avant-garde credentials: they loudly underscore the song as he tells us of the irrevocable march into the future, popping up at every available opportunity.
And that’s a problem. The synths here are so omnipresent that after a while it simply becomes part of the background, one technical feature amongst many. Our affection for the future is limited to only glimpses of it: stay in it for too long, and it begins to lose its novelty. People like to say that “the past is a foreign country”; allow me to say the same of the future, and that you have only two choices once you get there: become just another denizen, or go back to where you came from. In Woolley’s case, he chooses the former: this version of the song is so full of futuristic sounds that any emotive or narrative heft the song demands simply disappears. When he howls “put the blame… ON VTR!”, it’s so hammy that you instantly realise it’s a performance, that he’s trying to blend into the future, not stand out. It’s a version that looks to the future for inspiration, but only succeeds in reflecting the here and now.
The here and now loved it — at least, the critics of 1979 did. Commercially, Woolley’s version of “Video Killed the Radio Star” went nowhere on the charts. (The fact that he never bothered releasing a music video may have had something to do with it.) Meanwhile, back at Buggles base, Trevor Horn had taken over vocal duties (“reluctantly”, according to one of the sites I read). To hear him and Downes tell it, this was a preeminently disastrous idea: Horn’s vocals, they seem to imply, were so not up to scratch that they had to swamp it in filters, so that any perceived shortcomings would at least be heavily distorted and lost in the mix. And as is so often the case with these things, it turned out to be the best decision they could have made…
Chapter 3: The Problem You Can See
Unlike Bruce Woolley’s version, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” does not come charging out of the gate with synths and guitars a-blazing. Instead, we hear a piano introduction, soft and peaceful, echoing into nothingness. After a while, the synths come in, but they only mimic the piano, lightly buzzing underneath, pushing the boundaries of the void even further away. Immediately you can pick out the loneliness permeating the entire song: you are alone, under a sky full of stars, gazing at the full moon before you — there’s nothing else you can stare at, anyway. The sounds reverberate and fade, leaving us in almost total darkness, silence.
Then Trevor Horn sings. “I heard you on the wireless back in fifty-two…”
It’s a voice straight out of the empty darkness, but it’s not one that shocks you or jolts you awake. That voice is muffled, distorted, a small voice at the back of your head that’s somehow sneaked its way into the front, politely insisting that you pay attention to it. And we do, because it’s just us and Trevor Horn in that wide, infinite expanse: besides, there’s something odd about the things he just said. Usually in songs it’s the singer who sings and us who listen, yet here he is, talking about his experiences of listening to us. The relationship between giver and receiver seems to have been turned on its head, and we sense a backstory beginning to build.
But wait: it’s not just him telling a straight story. That distortion carries on even as he continues talking and explaining: it’s not a gimmick designed purely to draw your attention. It continues as the drums kick in, as the piano resolves into clarity, as the chorus looms closer and closer. By the time the backing singers sing their first syllables, we’ve gotten used to Horn’s manipulated voice as the norm: now it’s them who sound startlingly alien with their crystalline voices. Somehow, the voice that sounds like it’s being filtered through a telephone is the one we hang on to. And no wonder: it feels like he’s beaming in from somewhere — and sometime — far, far away. That sense of distance that the telephone filter creates feels special: it’s like discovering something that’s been lost to humanity for ages. But this isn’t just anything, either: it’s a transmission from some forgotten past, degraded by the ravages of time — and it also happens to be about us, about how the singer grew up listening to us sing on the radio.
But that was years ago. That was when radio, with the soft and calming tunes they hosted, was still the way people listened to music. Here in the future, we’re surrounded by falling synths, a frantic, pulsating beat — and a desolate landscape. As Trevor Horn’s narrator talks about meeting us in an abandoned studio, you can picture it yourself, see the discarded tape loops all around you, the microphones gathering dust. And slowly you piece together that sense of loss, you become aware of just how big a fall from grace you’ve suffered. Perhaps if you pieced the tapes together, gave it a bit of a clean-up… but no. It’s not us that’s lost our voices, it’s a public that’s moved on. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: we’re still big, it’s the pictures that made us small. Put the blame on VTR. And talking of pictures…
They lay it on thick in the video. The first explosion comes about five seconds in, and then they just keep coming as the song progresses: every time the music threatens to get loud, we cut to another shot of that same huge radio blowing its top off, because video’s got to kill the radio star or something. But it’s not just heavy-handed symbolism in the MV, because there are some genuinely beautiful bits too, like that initial shot of the moon over the vinyl sea, or the sight of dual Trevor Horns overlaid on the shot of that little girl gasping in wonder at the glowing radio. And you see the rise and fall of radio right before you, and watching this video, you kind of understand the allure of it, why everybody’s abandoned audio for the more spectacular visual form. There’s just so much more to it than you previously imagined.
That doesn’t take away from the melancholia. When we hear the backing singers jauntily repeating “video killed the radio star, video killed the radio star” in their artificially authentic voices, we long for something authentic, something human from the soundscape around us. But no, the only humans here are ourselves: in the video, the backing singers sport wigs dyed bubble-gum pink, their eyes hidden behind vacant sunglasses. Even Horn and Downes, with their spangly suits and faraway stares, look like beings from another planet (I mean, look at those glasses, what Earthling wears those). No, the closest thing to company we have is a disembodied voice from the future, communicated through the most archaic of means, vainly trying to tell us how good we used to be. It’s at that moment you realise what Trevor Horn means when he says “pictures came and broke your heart”: technology marches on, but puny old humans like us just can’t keep up, and we eventually fall to the onslaught of modernity.
But what riches it leaves behind. Even in that abandoned studio, we hear such amazing playback that it’s impossible to be too mad at what technology hath wrought. The thing about this version of the song is that you can actually picture the things that Trevor Horn mentions, the abandoned studio and the forlorn singer standing in the detritus. Part of it is, of course, down to the music video: that image of us and the cheap-ass moon, floating above a sea of vinyl, is unlikely to erase itself from your mind once you’ve seen it. But it’s more than that: you feel in the lines a story, a story that did not belong to you when you started the recording, but which you now experience in full, treat as your very own. That surreal transmission, that phantom bereavement, weaves itself subtly but surely into your own history, and you feel the sadness within, aching for the memories of a time you do not even know, and can never have the pleasure of joining.
But maybe, just maybe, you don’t need to know it. Perhaps you can be content to float, to drift in a sea of memories and melodies which you can call your own in the here and now. Perhaps you hear Horn’s line about lying awake and intently tuning in, and you take his experience as your own, reminiscing about the days when you used to lie in bed and drift off to the sound of soft music coming from your radio. Or perhaps something within the song’s arrangement hits you, and it just rises and envelops you. Which brings me to my favourite part: it’s always the bit after the second chorus, where the only vocals are the backing singers going “oh, a-a-a-oh” and the synths rise and bounce all around you. I mentioned the analogy of travelling on a bullet train when I talked about Woolley’s version: this time, it’s a good old-fashioned plane, and you’re looking out the window as it picks up speed and seeing the lights and the colours falling away as you travel ever deeper into the night. It’s an awesomely pretty part, for in that moment you ascend into paradise, and you can feel the champagne gold of the stars as they twinkle around you, almost touch the synths as they fall in a shower of stardust. For those twenty seconds, you forget that you are a miserable wretch stuck in past generations, and you simply sit there, marvelling at the spectral landscape of the future.
It can’t last. It can never last. The music picks back up, a far-off voice reminds us that we are “the RADIO star”. And so the robot ladies come back in, the dream dies, and we are left staring at a bunch of almost inhuman singers from afar, all repeating the same phrase, over and over again: “video killed the radio star, video killed the radio star”. We fade to white, and our fate is seemingly sealed… but there’s one last bit of hope for those who cling to the glories of the past. Whereas the video abandons us after that final chorus, Horn and Downes have a treat in store for those of us still listening on the album: a soft piano outro, underscored by synths, just like we began. It’s like the final handfuls of soil thrown onto the coffin, and as they patter away, ghostly, serene, we stand and contemplate just what we’ve been put through.
What a beautiful wasteland. What a glorious tale. The song fades out, and we leave the way we came — quietly, peacefully, into the dark night of oblivion.
Chapter 4: Rewinding Scattered Pictures
British YouTuber and man I’ve been aping all this time Tom Scott has a wonderful video parodying the typical music video narrative: against a visual backdrop of cliched MV scenarios, Scott explains in a calm and unironic tone how each scene contributes to the viewer’s pleasure and comprehension. There is the disorienting initial shot that draws you in, there is an explanation of how product placement can be sneaked in, and there’s even a guest appearance from Dodie blatantly saying that her appearance is nothing but “an attempt to cross-promote us”. It’s a beautifully funny and insightful piece of work all-in-all — what you would expect, in other words, from a Tom Scott video.
What strikes me as an interesting twist, however, is the final line: Scott tells us that the ending mirrors the beginning because “it makes the audience think there’s a sensible, circular narrative that ties everything together, even if there isn’t”. And that was something that caught me: why do these people insist on finding a credible narrative within videos of popular music? We have said that it helps us appreciate a song more, but when you think about it, there’s no real need to do so: pop music is often an auditory form. Grammar is second-hand to the feelings expressed, and to not only demand a visual equivalent, but to demand that it makes sense and has a credible beginning and end, is kind of weird when you think about it.
This, then, was the question I found myself pondering when I started thinking about this piece in earnest. In the 1980s, MTV was an inescapable part of pop culture, endless music videos bringing the “narratives” of pop music to life. But when you look closer at the music videos they played, most of them actually didn’t mean anything. They were just excuses for the artists to dress up in silly costumes, perhaps play around a bit with visuals, but you couldn’t spot any real storylines within them. “Video Killed the Radio Star” is actually one of the rare ones where you can trace a bit of progression: the girl grows up, becomes this space-age spandex-clad woman yearning for the familiar sounds of the radio. When MTV chose it to become the first video they broadcast forty years ago tomorrow, that particular use heralded a new age, one where the surreal worlds of music videos were on offer for your perusal, 24/7.
But it wasn’t just enjoyment of a story that attracted viewers by the thousands and millions to MTV. It also offered an escape. I have mentioned before that music videos, and MTV, operated like musicals: alternate, surreal worlds where everything could have an origin, and could be neatly resolved somewhat. Perhaps it was a refuge, then, for the modern person: a respite from the complexities of life, a world where everything extraneous was stripped away — they said look, simple(ish) stories like these are still perfectly plausible if only you dare to dream. At this point, you might say that this is possible with anything that has a narrative, and I would agree. But no narrative stays longer in our minds than that of a music video, with its relatively shorter length and the memorable tune underscoring it. (Just ask any non-musical with a sequence set to a vaguely catchy song.)
Which brings me to the thorny question of why the hell I like this song in the first place. (This is, after all, what chapter 4 is usually about.) At its heart, “Video Killed the Radio Star” is, as many people point out, an elegy from the future: it’s one where people have sacrificed older forms of entertainment for newer, more immediate forms. It’s a song that engages in the most fascinating self-reflexivity: it willingly engages in the destruction of another form not only through its content, but also through the form of the MV itself, using an easy narrative to point out our penchant for taking refuge in easy narratives. What’s more, they sound positively apologetic and about that: if it’d been a self-denying rage against the merciless onset of modern technology it would have been interesting enough, but the funny thing is that Trevor Horn’s lyrics don’t seem remotely angry. Even when he says “put the blame on VTR”, he sounds hesitant, evasive. He knows that he’s partly to blame anyway.
Not only that: it perceives the melancholia that is present within us, and it seeks to empathize. Before listening to this song, you might not have given a damn about the death of radio, but the Buggles paint such a lonely picture that it’s impossible not to care at least a little, to feel on behalf of the stars in question. I imagine that we’ve all been that girl at some time or another: when you first hear the most wonderful music coming out from this metal box, and just sitting there marvelling “how is this possible?”. Now Horn and Downes have dredged up that memory, only for us to find it lifeless. The emptiness is palpable, and they’re here to comfort, to eulogize, to speak on behalf of us all. It knows that loss.
But forget video for a second. The most basic reason I love “Video Killed the Radio Star” is that it’s a damn good song. Even if you don’t have the MV on hand, you can absolutely picture yourself swimming in that sea of futurity. The pictures that the Buggles paint are all breathtaking portraits of abandonment, and you get such an awesome soundscape surrounding that it’s hard to be mad about the demise of radio. The beat is propulsive, and when those shimmering synths rise to the surface, it’s a moment that stops you in his tracks. You don’t need anything from the music video to remind you of this — after 25 years, Horn and the Buggles played “Video Killed the Radio Star” at a concert, and even without the visuals, even with everybody old and grey just playing, you can still feel the emotions, that bittersweet symphony of love and loss, all at the same time.
There’s one small detail that seals the deal for me: at the end of the performance, Horn points to a man playing lead guitar, and introduces him as “early Buggle Bruce Woolley, the three of us wrote the song”. After a quarter of a century of duelling versions, even Woolley had to submit: the version of the dated future Horn and Downes had created was just too irresistible, too exciting. Sometimes, it’s okay to just let the music wash over you, and float around in a vinyl sea of chaos.
Epilogue: The Real World
19 August 2002: Russian girl group t.A.T.u. drop their first English-language single, “All the Things She Said”, produced by a 52-year-old man named Trevor Horn. The song is explosively controversial upon release: the lyrics describe two girls developing intense feelings for each other, something unthinkable in conservative Russia. Their manager, an abhorrently creepy man with a teenage fetish, ups the ante in the music video by having these two 15-year-old teens wear very skimpy school uniforms and kiss in the rain while beating on a wire fence. In interviews, Julia Volkova and Lena Katina constantly proclaim their love for each other in broken English, holding hands and even engaging in long, passionate kisses on public television. Audiences across the world are scandalized and enraptured by such brazen homosexuality: not until Julia becomes pregnant by a married man (and the girls fire their manager) do they drop the act and admit that it was all for publicity.
“All the Things She Said” is itself not a bad song — how can a song be bad when you have genius producer Trevor Horn behind the wheel? But when you mention the song these days, the first image that comes to mind — probably the only image — is of those two soaking wet girls hungrily locking lips in the music video. Now, I’m not qualified to suggest whether it was queerbaiting or not, but there was definitely something about the way Julia and Lena kept up the pretence that confused me nonetheless. Usually, the line between reality and art is drawn pretty clearly: nobody seriously believes that Morten Harket is a character from a comic book, or that a girl actually travelled into the future and met the Buggles. But the fact that t.A.T.u. stubbornly insisted on acting lesbian — leaning into the characters constructed for them — meant that suddenly, we were no longer sure about where reality ended and fabrication began. That has massive implications: are the artists we see claiming to be “the real me” in their albums the same person when you meet them on the street as well? Or is this just another “character” that they are putting on, are we unwilling participants in a piece of art that they claim to be creating?
Perhaps I grow too existential. After all, it’s rare for people to claim that they are “acting out another character” and playing out a narrative in real life. (When it’s done, it’s mostly for tax evasion purposes.) Narratives do not intrude this easily into our daily life — but this does not mean that the desire to find patterns in it does not exist. Because modern life IS confusing for me: my hyperactive mind hops from item to item, trying to find some kind of connection that links things together. A few weeks ago, I told a friend that if I didn’t write my thoughts down, on paper, in texts, just anywhere, I’d have no idea about how I really felt about something. I would love nothing more than the world to compartmentalise itself into little narratives, but alas the world does not work in such miraculous ways. These days, with the line between reality and fabrication becoming more and more blurry, that confusion is if anything set to get worse.
This is kind of a special piece for me: usually when I write these, I start the week before, looking up a couple of details, type out my ramblings for a couple of days, and voila, another thinkpiece. This time, I started way back in the beginning of the year. I knew the anniversary was coming up, and I wanted to fully capture the magic of music videos, their ability to simulate a new world where everything was polished and easy to understand. I had so, so much planned. So I read up on the Buggles, music videos, even the J. G. Ballard short story that the song is based on. Yet the more I tried to get my thoughts on paper, the more they seemed to sprawl. I deleted full paragraphs. I changed my theme twice. Chapter 3, which normally is the easiest chapter for me to write, took me three effing days because I just couldn’t get the tone of the song right. (If this has not been apparent throughout this piece, then please ignore everything you have read in this paragraph so far.) Like all things in the real world, “Video Killed the Radio Star” refused to fit neatly into the narrative I want to construct.
So after almost 6000 words, what does the Buggles’ only hit tell us (or just me)? Perhaps it tells us that progress is confusing, inevitable and cruel. Perhaps it tells us that music videos are an amazing reflection of life. Perhaps it tells me that I should really loosen up, and think about writing less pretentious pieces next time round. Or perhaps, ultimately, it says a lot about the status of modern life: that unlike the medium and the television it boosted, that song is really just a bunch of sentiments loosely strung together by one single phrase, and to find rhyme and reason within them, a way of explaining it all, is a fool’s errand. I just don’t know. I suppose it’s time for me to let go, and let them fade back into the messy fabric of modernity.
Happy 40th birthday, MTV. Here’s to another forty interesting years.
(Cover copyrighted to Island Records.)