Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Is It More Than Rock and Roll?: Considering Music Video as Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Is It More Than Rock and Roll?: Considering Music Video as Argument

Article excerpt


At 12:01 A.M. on August 1, 1981, in the Loft restaurant of Fort Lee, New Jersey, popular culture history was made. With the words, "Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n roll," the Music Television cable network (MTV) began broadcasting nationwide, 24 hours a day. Now, more than a decade later, "MTV" seems synonymous with popular youth culture, with an estimated audience of 210 million in 78 countries (Wells, 1992, p. A8). MTV has estimated that, in any given week, 28 million viewers tune in to music television in the United States; 39 million in Europe. Further, record companies spend over 50 million dollars annually to make music videos (Ross, 1990; Wells, 1992).

Music video, no longer an ephemeral fad, has become an enduring feature of popular culture; a feature of potentially influential social expression. "Music videos," Pat Aufterheide writes, "are pioneers in video expression, and the results of their reshaping the form extend far beyond the television set" (1986, p. 57). ABC television's Judd Rose, reporting on MTV in a Prime Time Live piece, suggests that "MTV's style, frenetic, nonverbal, and dazzlingly visual, has influenced everything from movies, to TV dramas, to commercials, even campaign ads." Further, Rose asserts, "MTV [and music video] speaks a language everyone understands, a language of images. Of course, what those images say is another matter" (Ross, 1990; see also Denisoff, 1989). Aufterheide surmises that "one of music video's distinctive features as a social expression is its open-ended quality, aiming to engulf the viewer in its communication with itself, its fashioning of an alternative world where image is reality" (1986).

Music video involves the audience. "Part of music video's commercial success," Lisa St. Clair Harvey points out, "is attributed to the form's exceptional malleability; few other genres are as open to audience interpretation as are experiential, highly impressionistic music videos" (1990, p. 40). Citing the work of Muriel Cantor (1987), St. Clair Harvey asserts that music video audiences may desire to decode meanings in the television text. Music video appears potentially fertile with meaning. Stuart Hall comments that

MTV is quite extraordinary. It takes fragmentation, the plurality of signification, to new heights. But I certainly couldn't say that it is unintelligible. Each so-called meaningless fragment seems to me rich with connotations. It seems perfectly clear where MTV comes from; indeed, it is almost too predictable in its 'unpredictability.' 'Unpredictability' is its meta-message. We know enough about the tendencies of mass culture for the last hundred years to recognize that MTV does not come from outer space. (Grossberg, 1986, p. 61)

In sum, music video exists as a form of social expression in which audiences participate actively to interpret meaning. This suggests the potential for considering music video as persuasive argument; messages that advance claims in order to gain the adherence of viewers.

This essay addresses music video as argument. It does so by reporting on one study that comprises part of a research project on music video and social influence. The study, involving almost two hundred student viewers, examines the extent to which people identify in music videos dominant claims that seek viewer adherence. As its grounding, this article presents a theoretical orientation and a review of relevant music video empirical research.

Mediated Communication as Social Action

This study of viewers' judgments about music video as argument reflects a perspective of communication as social action, as presented in the work of Anderson and Meyer (1988). These scholars note that "for most of the history of research in mass communication, content has been seen as a silver bullet shot from a media gun to penetrate a hapless audience". Audiences are not hapless nor passive. Media audiences participate actively in mediated communication; they construct meanings from the content they perceive. …

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