Being a film student during the MTV revolution I watched as movie editing and visual narratives leaped into head-spinning hyperdrive with both awe and horror. It was clear that movies that worked at their own pace would no longer work in a world that quickly became hooked on the slam cut.
No more would a film leisurely explore a character for its first twenty minutes before setting them onto their journey. Audiences with an accustomed taste for five-minute mini music video narratives (some of which barely made sense, or pretended to) would gladly accept twenty minutes of action before they needed to understand who the main character was or why they were on their journey.
Everyone griped at the time that music videos destroyed the art of cinema by changing the narrative pace, but if anything ruined movies it was the Walkman. While we were all busy pointing at the screen and complaining about the way the images were put together it was our aural landscape that was most radical change taking place, and it took over our lives not just our movies.
If you look at movies set before 1979, in an anthropological way, there’s a fascinating experience you can see repeated over and over. A character will come home, alone, remove their shoes or pour themselves a glass of wine, and then go and on some music on the stereo. The music fits the mood, of the character and the scene, and often there will be no dialog. It’s a private moment that involves a desire, a selection, and a conscious decision to seek solace in a particular album of music.
The Walkman was a step into the future where you could take your personal music everywhere you went. The world in you head was viewed through a personal soundtrack. The sanctity of music in the home (and to some extent in the car) had lost its personal cathedral. There was no need to wait until you were home to steep in your private mix, you could do it all the time. At work, while jogging, on the bus. The soundtrack became a constant and, as with music video editing, we came to expect music all the time to fit the mood.
The movies echoed this by programming a soundtrack of songs specific to the story. Soundtracks became collections of songs that would help rekindle our memories of the images, in addition to add profits to the films and artists involved. We surrendered our personal peace for a relentless musical landscape. We no longer listen to music, we consume it, and as a result our ears have become dulled to the idea of personal connection. We either have a constant need for what’s new, newer, newest, or we retreat to the comfort of the familiar. Movie soundtracks do the same thing, and while it might stand in for the mood of the moment, the music has no real connection with the mood of the character.
I can clearly remember days coming home from work late at night, quietly turning on my stereo, and listening to whatever suited my mood. Beethoven’s Pastorale. “The Last Chance Texaco.” Maybe all of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Yes, I can listen to these things today any time I want, but that’s sort of the problem. Because I can dial them up at any given moment I’ve lost the moment of communion I once had with music. Personal music has lost its rites and rituals, as far as I can tell.
Music has become such wallpaper in our lives that up until I started this sentence I had my iTunes running quietly in the background. I don’t find that ironic, I find it sad. I’ve grown so accustomed to having a “soundtrack for writing” that I don’t even notice it’s there.
I find that a little sad. And I blame the Walkman.