"I think, in the end, all videos ruin the song. They block the song into a mental image, and for the rest of your life you'll see that image with that song."
-- Billy Corgan, lead singer of the group Smashing Pumpkins, after the 1996 MTV Video Awards Show
How real are TV images? Roger Waters, former bassist/singer/songwriter for the British supergroup Pink Floyd, answers this question in his album Amused To Death. Released in 1992, this elegant and beautiful 72-minute musical work takes the listener on a journey through Waters' mind as he examines the images shown nightly on television.
What does television do to our view of life? What is this machine doing to our society? Images. Images. Images. Consider images flashing rapidly before your eyes into infinity. What do these images hold?
The album begins and ends with an old man telling the story of the death of Private William Hubbard of the Royal Fusiliers. This man's tale of tragedy in the battlefields of World War I is one for which no photographs, and certainly no video tapes, exist. This is the type of story told through words -- a grandfather speaking to his grandson. If human history is to be told through television, these types of stories will vanish. At the end of the album, the storyteller's voice trails off into a field of crickets. "The Ballad of Bill Hubbard" is extremely important to the continuity of Waters' album. It shows that television can show many things, but not everything. A world which relies only on television for information will disregard other types of knowledge.
In the next song, "What God Wants," Waters' attempts to list the things television can display: goodness, mayhem, peace, war, famine, chain stores, sex, freedom, crack, wetbacks, law, shrines, voodoo, organized crime, small towns, gold, politics, fame, friendship, money, poverty, etc. . . All these things exist in the world, and they exist on television. They can be easily seen in one four-hour nightly session in front of the tube. "What God Wants" is broken up into three parts, and during each section, the music repeatedly crescendos with the lyric: "What God wants God gets God help us all." (59k) Sarcastically, Waters' insinuates that the things God wants are the things that appear on television.
During each part of "What God Wants," the musical chant (59k) is somewhat disturbing. However, Waters' is not trying to promote blasphemy with this lyric, but rather to invoke thought about whether television is truly portraying the world in a good way -- the way God would want.
"This song was written, I suppose, as a sort of irritable response to the idea that God can be on somebody's side and not on somebody else's side," Waters said on the Westwood One Radio program after the release of the album. "If God exists, my suspicion is that he's not interested whether the Democrats or Republicans win the next election or whether it would be right or wrong for the allies to go and bomb Baghdad right now, or any of those questions. His mind is on other things. And that is what this song is about in the ludicrous nature of people's adherence to the idea that God can be incorporated in our side."
Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 war against Iraq for invading the country of Kuwait, underlies the next few songs, "Perfect Sense," "The Bravery Of Being Out Of Range," and "Late Home Tonight." (78k) This war began and ended on CNN (Cable News Network); and launched this station to being one of the top television news organizations in the world. In one song Waters sings:
In another song, he sings:
Watching a war unfold on television is certainly a new phenomenon. In the medium of television, a war is just like any other program. Along with missiles firing are colorful 3-D graphics and cool sounds. The reality is taken out. "Thanks to television, we watched a murky missiles-and-fireworks display from the roof of a Baghdad hotel, and learned no more than we could see with our own eyes," Waters told Billboard Magazine in 1992. "Now [President] Bush is shopping the election-year idea of invading Iraq again and it's all the same cheap, dishonest game show."
In the album, Waters does equate a television-war to a game show. Marv Albert, the voice of the NBA (National Basketball Association), does the play-by-play. (39k)
Throughout Amused To Death (59k), Waters attacks television news programs as frivolous. The song "What God Wants, Part III," ends with the lyrics:
The television war can be turned off and forgotten just like any other program. "I think it would be very good if every human being in the world, as their right, had a news channel that was not selling corn flakes," Waters said on Westwood One. "Who's duty was to gather information and disseminate it without caring about whether or not it helped them sell corn flakes. Who didn't care what their ratings were and who were not interested in putting on something that had to compete with a game show or a re-run of Happy Days."
The title of Amused To Death (59k) comes from a book by New York University Professor Neil Postman entitled Amusing Ourselves To Death. In the book, Postman chronicles how information has changed from the typographic age to the television age. "Television has become, so to speak, the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe," wrote Postman. "The all-but-imperceptible residue of the electronic big bang of a century past, so familiar and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing in the background or see the flickering gray light."
Postman's book, though a bit preachy, does a good job showing the changes in American culture with the advent of television as the major media force. The biggest effect is that images have now replaced thought. Showing somebody thinking does not look good on TV. "The average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see," Postman said in his book.
"Television offers viewers a variety of subject matter, requires minimal skills to comprehend it, and is largely aimed at emotional gratification. Even commercials, which some regard as an annoyance, are exquisitely crafted, always pleasing to the eye and accompanied by exciting music."
"It is the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest," Postman said. "That is to say, to accommodate the values of show business."
This one of the main points put forth in both Postman's and Waters' works: All television is entertainment, even the news.
The lyrics in the title song of Waters' album paint a wonderful musical explanation of the culture created by the television set: a culture concerned with Jessica Hahn and Melrose Place; with consumerism (98k); children huddled together staring at the tube (98k); and a need to be constantly entertained. (59k)
"I had at one point this rather depressing image of some alien creature seeing the death of this planet and coming down in their spaceships and sniffing around and finding all our skeletons sitting around our TV sets," Waters told the L.A. Times.
"They come to the conclusion that we amused ourselves to death . . . television, when it becomes commercialized and profit-based, tends to trivialize and dehumanize our lives. So I became interested in this idea of television as a two-edged sword, that it can be a great medium for spreading information and understanding between peoples, but when it's a tool of our slavish adherence to the incumbent philosophy that the free market is the God that we should all bow down to, it's a very dangerous medium." (59k)
Copyright 1997 by Ron Kaufman
Read a review of Roger Waters' 1999 "In The Flesh" concert.