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Since its inception the music video has shaped what we wear and how we wear it.
This story first appeared in the August 29, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Would Madonna have happened without MTV?” asked John Sykes, a music industry veteran who was part of the pioneering team that launched the music cable network. It’s a provocative boast, yet considering the masterful way Mrs. Richie has manipulated the video art form, as well as the cable network and its various offshoots, he does have a point.
After all, without Madonna, it’s possible that many trends never would have landed on the fashion radar: lingerie as outerwear, crucifixes as jewelry and cowgirl chic, to name just a few. So it comes as no surprise that MTV has had as much of an affect on fashion as it has had on popular culture.”Thanks to MTV, music videos have become entrenched in the culture — so much so that a whole generation of kids can’t imagine not thinking of music in terms of its attendant imagery,” said director Mark Romanek, MTV’s 1997 Video Vanguard recipient, whose videos for Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” are in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Music videos had been flickering in the culture for decades: Historians note the first shorts synchronized to jazz and classical music appeared in Germany in 1921, and The Beatles, The Kinks and The Who all taped clips in 1966. Clubs in New York and London began playing them on monitors by the mid-Seventies. Then in the late Seventies, regional shows featuring videos emerged on major networks and public access channels, yet it wasn’t until MTV that the industry and the public plugged in.
It might have been on cable and in a minority of American homes, yet its impact blazed across the cultural landscape. If you didn’t have it, you knew someone who did, and it was only a matter of time before kids in the ’burbs could find a local hair stylist who could wack off the Farrah feather rolls in favor of a Human League-inspired asymmetrical cut before hitting the mall for the kind of striped shirts favored by Pat Benatar.
“I definitely remember the first time I saw MTV at a friend’s house,” said No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani. “[Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ version of] ‘Come on Eileen’ was the one video that affected me the most. I had dreams of wearing overalls and went everywhere looking for the right ones.”
Young music fans managed to dress like their favorite rock stars before, but never as fast and as easily as they did post-MTV. Suddenly, not only did the kids in America, and later the world, have a template for personal style — so did designers, retail buyers, advertising directors and the legions of others who make a living co-opting street and youth style and serving it right back to the populous.
“I was totally inspired by Stevie Nicks’ bell sleeves and crochet clothes,” recalled designer Anna Sui. “I based an entire collection around her ethereal wood nymph look. She was a big fashion inspiration of mine — as were so many rock stars and music videos.”
Historically, rock ’n’ roll and television have run a parallel track, sharing post-World War II births and similar growing pains with censors, market forces and technological advances. But with the launch on Aug. 1, 1981, of an appropriately-monikered 24-hour cable network — MTV or Music Television — the two pop culture forces formally merged into a single medium.
Now an executive at MTV’s parent company Viacom, Sykes noted that once music videos were given a home at MTV (and subsequently VH1, MTV2, and its other offshoots), the artists who “rejected any kind of style quickly faded. That opened the door for a new group of young artists who understood that it was about how you looked as well as how you sounded. The British got it because there was a club scene in London with style.”
Indeed, with its burgeoning post-punk scenes such as new romantics, goths, psychobillies and second wave mods, British music and style once again conquered America. Bands such as ABC, Culture Club and Duran Duran spread their catchy tunes and kookoo hairstyles through music videos. “A lot of these British film directors had done British TV commercials,” added Sykes, “so their videos were so much more creative than what was happening in the U.S. We were still squeezing the Charmin, and they had these wild, visual stylistic commercials.”
Not that American rockers missed out, as MTV’s early videos show. “Even the most credible working class rocker, Bruce Springsteen, got a look with ‘Born in the USA.’ Those artists who cared about style would be careful to pick the right video director. Springsteen picked Brian De Palma; the Talking Heads picked Jonathan Demme,” Sykes added.
They’ve also long turned to their favorite designers. Primal Scream recently enlisted pal Alexander McQueen for second-skin leather outfits for its video vixens, while hip-hop artists have imbued brands such as Versace, Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger with a heady dose of street credibility.
Of course, back in the day, remembered Debbie Harry, many artists “only had downtown connections, which worked for us. I mostly wore Stephen Sprouse’s clothes in most of Blondies’ videos since he was dressing me anyway.” As for those short tuxedo pants she wore in “Rapture,” said Harry, “Somebody gave me a long pair of tuxedo pants to wear in that video, which were cool. But I cut them off really short. After that, people kept asking me where to get tuxedo HotPants! I said, ‘Cut ’em off, baby!’”
On MTV or on department store monitors, the impact of music videos as a fashion resource is undeniable. The medium has spurred, for better or worse, fan homages of Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde’s kohl eyes and low-slung black jeans; Boy George’s multiculti drag; Salt ’N Peppa’s flygirl chic; Siouxie Sioux’s goth gear; Janet Jackson’s urban military; Courtney Love’s kinderwhore; Eryka Badu’s sky-high turban; Britney Spears’ naughty schoolgirl, and Lil Kim’s ghetto fabulousness.
“Millions of girls started to dress like Madonna after the ‘Borderline’ video came out and, oddly enough, she was doing a fashion shoot in the middle of that video!” said Michael Shore, author of “The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video” and “Music Video: A Consumer Guide.” “Videos shortened the cycle of how fast trends spun off. They’ve always moved quickly in cities, but after MTV, every kid in America looked like a rock star right after the video went into heavy rotation.”
Despite the power to set trends, Trish Summerville, stylist to Christina Aguilera, Pink, Michelle Branch and Mya said she’s “not a fan of videos that are just big fashion shows. Even if designers give me a bunch of great stuff, I don’t ever want to overpower the concept of the video or the artists. It comes down to whether the video is about the artist pitching the song or the clothes. The clothes are a big part of the imagery, but they shouldn’t be more important.”
As the fashion industry increasingly finds ways for branding opportunities in the music arena, “a kind of snobbism that pop music and fashion are becoming contaminated by big corporate culture is rising among many of the same people who are crafting those images,” said Fashion Institute of Technology curator Valerie Steele. “There’s a competition of authenticity going on in fashion and music, and right now it’s about not wanting to look too commercial by wearing too many designer logos. But street fashion is inseparable from high fashion. Even a garage band can carefully craft its image. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.”
By tapping into the fashion world, George Michael actually broke the music video formula of spotlighting the artist by using supermodels exclusively in his 1990 video “Freedom ’90.” (It also marked his break from his teenybop Wham! career.) In “Too Funky,” Michael also bowed out in lieu of the superset parading down a runway in Thierry Mugler’s motorbike corsets. Mugler even took a turn as director. And forever after, models have become a staple of music videos.
Others, in fact, believe the music and fashion worlds should merge even further. “I would like to see a fashion house sponsor a video,” said director Matthew Rolston. He nearly succeeded several years ago in making such a connection between Janet Jackson and Dior, but the singer opted on another concept altogether. Yet it’s a prospect worth considering since it could subsidize video budgets, which are increasingly under attack from record companies. Consider that while a music video budget could run from $150,000 to $3 million, producing a 30-second commercial for a beauty or fashion brand could run between $500,000 to $1 million. “It’s sound economics,” said Rolston. “And that would be the true marriage of video, music and fashion.”
It’s already a union that’s inspired many careers, including that of stylist and costume designer Arianne Phillips, who saw it as a lifeline out of her small northern California hometown. “I watched ‘American Bandstand’ and ‘Soul Train’ religiously at a young age. I spent hours staring at my album covers, and my walls were covered with tear-outs from music magazines. But I remember when MTV came out. It was a seminal moment where I knew I had to be a part of that,” she said.
Just as directors have used videos as a platform for film and vice versa, so have fashion photographers such as Herb Ritts, Terence Donovan and Rolston. While David LaChapelle tends to pluck inspiration from Federico Fellini films or Renaissance paintings for his music videos and photography (he drew from the film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” for a notoriously wicked MTV ad picturing an aged Madonna and Courtney Love), he readily acknowledges influence of music videos and MTV on his own life. He met his art director of nine years some 18 years ago on the set of a Chaka Khan video when the two were extras. He also paid the rent as an extra in Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell.”
“We were club kids living in the East Village and we’d hear about these music videos being shot. We’d all want to be there,” remembered LaChapelle, whose video for Elton John’s “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore,” starring ’NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake as a young incarnation of the legendary piano man, is up for an MTV Video Music Award this year. He and his team recently wrapped up production with the Vines on the Australian band’s second video and the director’s first filming of a live performance.
The band, along with the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives and others in the new wave of stripped-down rock bands has, in fact, many directors, stylists and fans encouraged about the future of music and videos.
“Those videos don’t demand a lot of money, which can be a good thing,” said Francis Lawrence, who has directed multimillion-dollar video epics, including the MTV VMA-nominated Shakira, POD and Britney Spears videos. Low-fi rock and high-tech are not exclusive worlds, after all.
“You can do effects on a home computer now and edit at home,” Lawrence continued. “What we need now is more creative artists demanding more creative videos. Once that happens, the MTV airwaves will be interesting again. Either way, though, I still think music videos remain relevant because people still need visual stimulation. Music videos are distributed on DVDs, the Internet, on regional shows. They’re played in stores and airplanes.”
Bands are increasingly finding other outlets to expose new listeners to their music. No Doubt, for example, recently did the soundtrack for a video game. Music videos may be called poetry and propaganda, postmodern metaphors and nihilistic ego trips, trash and art — yet they remain a medium worth our time, say fans.
“When we got to make our first one, it was unreal. It still is,” said No Doubt’s Stefani, who has also since shared a song and the camera in videos with Moby and Eve. “I could still sit and watch music videos all day long.”