Even casual viewers of music videos know the odd sense of detachment brought on by these bursts of sound and image. There's no anchoring context. For a couple minutes your senses are absorbed and your brain may even attempt to grasp some significance from what you are viewing. Yet a minute later another set of images wipes the thought processes clear.
You get the same feeling, unfortunately if not surprisingly, from MTV's "The Year in Rock, 1990," the rock-video cable channel's annual retrospective, which debuts at 8 tonight.
The rock world actually made a lot of mainstream news this year, including Paul McCartney's gonzo tour, Judas Priest's acquittal on charges of sending suicidal subliminal messages, the Two Live Crew obscenity controversy, Milli Vanilli's confession of not singing a note in their hits and, most recently, MTV's own contribution of banning Madonna's latest video.
All these developments and a lot more are covered in the MTV special, reviewing a time period in which, it is said, "the surprise hit of the year was the first amendment of the Constitution."
But all the developments seem to carry the same weight of significance -- or, more accurately, insignificance. They merely whiz across the screen in sound and visual "bites," as host Kurt Loder seems to shrug them off with Deadhead indifference.
In fairness, MTV does lead the show with l'affaire Madonna. About 15 seconds of the early erotic action from the banned "Justify My Love" is shown in a montage of her previous work and quick clips from some interviews.
Ironically, a cut is included from an AIDS benefit in which the singer uses a taboo word, which MTV primly bleeps out here. Yet in a report later on heavy metal, the same word is clearly heard in a song lyric. Guys can sing it and girls can't say it?
And sorely missing from this show is any input from the other principal side of the controversy, MTV itself. Thus nobody addresses the fundamental question of the story: How does MTV define the standards which Madonna apparently violated and TC host of sado-erotic videos do not?
You end up agreeing with the blond phenom herself when she says, in a context-less interview clip, "I think it's better to have a sense of humor."
And just as with MTV's daily video lineup, the images reel by, leaving the viewer reeling from such incongruous juxtapositions as the synthesizer band Depeche Mode followed by New Kids On the Block, or filthy comic Sam Kinison replaced by Ronald Reagan.
If MTV's principal audience is teens, implicit in this approach is an insult to the young viewers, for it suggests -- quite wrongly -- that they have neither the attention span nor the intelligence to absorb and contemplate issues.
*Steve McKerrow's Media Monitor column appears Monday through Friday in the Accent section of The Evening Sun.