- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Earlier this year, VH-1 named Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” the greatest music video of all time. The video was heralded for its plot, clever use of costuming and creative choreography.

Mr. Jackson’s 1982 video and its immediate successors are directly responsible for the emergence of MTV, VH1 and similar networks offering music videos. Unfortunately, the thrill that once came from watching your favorite song unfold on screen is long gone.

The majority of today’s hip-hop videos are visual postcards from the land of excess — glorifying material possessions, sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol use, and the degradation of women. Whereas the “Thriller” video was groundbreaking, today’s hip-hop videos follow a predictable formula: warm location, expensive items, and half-naked women.

What’s the big deal? Proponents of free artistic expression will cite the artist’s right to make videos and the viewer’s option to turn the channel. However, the issue is not adults and choices, but the negative influence of such videos on our youth.

Television programs in general and music videos in particular have long played a significant role in setting trends and influencing popular culture. Before the advent of cable television and music videos, television shows like “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” (still airing after 30 years) influenced the fashion, dances and lexicon of generations of young people.

Mr. Jackson’s “Thriller” and other videos in his discography influenced these and other aspects of pop culture. Throngs of young people rushed out to purchase the multizippered “Thriller” jackets while others spent hours mimicking the artist’s signature dance moves. Today’s music videos play a similar role in determining the new trends in pop culture. But there is a much more dangerous and corrosive element to this influence.

Why is it so dangerous? The message many of today’s videos send is that moral and criminal behavior are not only OK but worth glorifying. For example, in the video for his song “P.I.M.P,” rapper 50 Cent is joined on screen by fellow rapper Snoop Dogg and a group of pimps and scantily clad women while lip-synching lyrics that pay homage to the “profession” of pimping. Sadly, “P.I.M.P” and other such videos are not the exception; they are the norm — sending the message that immoral and illegal activity is acceptable, as long as it has musical accompaniment.

Besides the negative messages these videos send directly, they are corrosive to our young in other, more subtle, ways as well. According to a recent poll commissioned by Black America’s Political Action Committee, parents and music artists are the most influential figures in the African-American community. Music artists are more influential than ministers, politicians and athletes. For this reason, a visual medium like a music video can be more damaging to young minds than the CDs alone. Listening to a song glorifying immoral conduct or a song liberally peppered with profanity might lead a child to develop a certain image. A music video takes this one step further: presenting a visual image that can be difficult for a young person to distinguish from reality.

The power of this medium is only rarely harnessed for good. We saw this in the rapper “Nas” video “I Can,” which featured a group of children singing, “I know I can, be what I want to be, if I work hard at it, I’ll be where I wanna be.” But such positive messages are rare in the world of video rap.

All this might not be a cause for great concern if such videos were hard to get. But our kids face these damaging, negative messages relentlessly: 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition to MTV, BET and other music channels on cable television, young people can watch any video they desire at any time via the Internet. BET even packaged the “best of the worst” in a late night program called “Uncut,” offering videos considered too risque for broadcast during standard programming hours.

The responsibility for policing the world of music video is a shared one, with parents, artists, television and record-company executives and society in general all having a role.

Parents, in particular, must set standards of morality and character in their homes that are clear and strong enough to withstand the continuing video assault.

Just as the ghosts rose from the dead in Mr. Jackson’s “Thriller,” let’s hope we can look to videos past and resurrect the concept of good taste.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC).

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