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Video Killed the Radio Star: A Deeper Meaning
Its 2 p.m. on August 1st, 1981...
The first music video ever launched on MTV was about to air and provide the earliest evidence that MTV was going to make it. The song was a big hit in England in 1979, but pretty much unknown in the United States. When MTV went on the air, it was on only a few cable systems, but record stores in those areas started selling lots of Buggles records. You may not recognize the Buggles at first glance, but you may recognize their one-hit-wonder; a lofty tune, a blissful melody that was bound to drive its way within listener’s brains and play incessantly as if it were stuck on repeat for days upon days. That melody rang clear on the air as the Buggles sang for the first time on MTV, “Oh-a-oh! Oh-a-oh! Video killed the radio star! Video killed the radio star!” The Buggles and their hit song “Video Killed the Radio Star”, written by Bruce Woolley and Geoff Downes, kicked off the increasingly popular art of the “music video”, an art which was intended to further display the meaning of lyrics and beats through visual rhetoric. “Video Killed the Radio Star” definitely has a direct meaning in the sense that new technology came and replaced old technology, and that pictures and looks bring whole new meanings to songs, stories, documentaries, and many other works that were once just recorded audibly. However, there is certainly a hidden meaning within this song that is not so apparent and literal as the song and video suggest.
When breaking down just the lyrics of “Video Killed the Radio Star”, most lines are very literal and point directly to the causes of technological advances, specifically the impact of television (new technology) and its replacing effect on the radio (old technology). This is apparent in the second verse or section of lyrics, when Bruce Woolley wrote “They took the credit for your second symphony. Rewritten by machine on new technology, and now I understand the problems you can see.” This verse infers that “they”, being television, stole the primary revenue that radio stations needed to operate. Woolley suggests that television, combining audio and visual rhetoric, made radio stations more obsolete and unneeded because T.V. had all the old technology the radio had and more. This created the problem that Woolley popularly refers to as how “video killed the radio star”. Since radio stations were no longer making as much revenue as before television began its big boom, many radio stations did not have the money to operate and as a result, the demise of so-say the “radio star” began. This is evident in the sixth verse, “and now we meet in an abandoned studio. We hear the playback and it seems so long ago. And you remember the jingles used to go.” The “death” of the radio star is also clear in the “you were the first one… you were the last one” lyric just after the sixth verse. This infers that the radio stars came and went so quickly during the period when television became popular. This is due to the fact that the advent of the radio as an entertainment, musically, gave only a small number of years for a radio star to develop until the radio industry was assumed to be majorly replaced, monetarily, by MTV in the latter years.
Despite this very literal and direct lyrics that infer the cause and effect relationship between the television and radio industry, Bruce Woolley and Geoff Downes definitely intended to make the meaning more ambiguous and open for interpretation through his selection of word choices; which cannot be simply a coincidence. For example, the very first verse of the song begins with “I heard you on the wireless back in fifty two, lying awake intent at tuning in on you. If I was young it didn’t stop you coming through.” This line can metaphorical suppose a teenagers-type love because even if this lyric is taken literally, he is personifying the radio as “you”, making the radio like a person rather than an inanimate thing. This is not the only ambiguous lyric that suggests a deeper meaning. A lyric in the third verse says “I met your children”, now this further personifies the radio suggesting that it is like a human being with children. Maybe this is referring to newer technology, followers of the new trends, or perhaps literally children. The sixth and seventh verses, I have already deemed as a lyric directly related to the relationship between television and radio, however, Woolley’s specific word choice cast more uncertainty of a deeper meaning. The sixth verse says “You were the first one… you were the last one” and the seventh verse, “And now we meet in an abandoned studio, we hear the playback and it seems so long ago. And you remember the jingles used to go.” The sixth verse is open to two translations. First, the literal translation which I mentioned before. The second, it may suggest a romance because words such as “my first” and “my last” often deal with relationships. Its connection with the radio, again, must be a personification or resemblance of a person. In addition, the seventh verse creates more confusion. Why would the narrator meet the radio, why didn’t Woolley simply write lyrics such as finding his old radio or something along those lines. This again, personifies the radio as being able to meet. Also regarding the seventh verse, Woolley essentially says that the radio can “remember” as if the radio has a memory like a human being. This raises the question if “you”, being the radio or television, is really the case. Is “you” the radio, television, or an actual person? The eighth verse, again, brings more suspicion to a deeper meaning. The eighth verse says “In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far. Pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VCR.” This line infers that now the radio has a heart that can be broken and “we” have gone too far. “We” suggests that there must be two people and it resembles a mistake or regret the “we” did. This word choice by Woolley intends to add a feeling of guilt in the song. In a literal sense, technology is always changing so why does is this incident make the narrator want to rewind so much?
My deeper interpretation of these lyrics suggest that this song was written about not only the changing and replacing of technologies, but also a first love, specifically, Geoff Downes first love, the keyboard player for the Buggles. Geoff Downes was the only member of the Buggles who was born in 1952, referring to the first lyrics of the song, “I heard you on the wireless back in fifty two.” I can infer that when the song continues, “Lying awake intent at tuning in on you. If I was young it didn’t stop you coming through.”, that Downes was born to love this girl, and it was meant to be; “wireless” suggesting that he believed within his mind and she believed within her mind that it was a predetermined love at birth. Then the second verse takes a new twist at this predetermined love when Woolley and Downes wrote, “Rewritten by new technology and now I understand the problems you can see.” These lyrics conclude that this love was being overridden by new people, suggesting that this predetermined love had problems because Downes found out that his meant-to-be girl found love with other new people. This is very apparent because in an 1983 magazine interview, Geoff Downes’ fellow bandmate, John Wetton, wrote “[Downes] was going through a complete emotional turmoil over a girl about a year and a half ago, and I identified so strongly that I went home and wrote the song “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” in 5 minutes. Boom! Sat right down at the piano and there it was. If anything’s straight from the heart, that song is.” This interview leaves me no doubt that “Video Killed the Radio Star”, which was first written during this period of emotional turmoil as a result of Downes’ first divorce, that it too, has the deeper meaning of a replaced love. In fact, the song “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” depicts the very nature of Downes’ relationship with his first wife. It clearly claims that it was his wife that was seeing other men and forbidding his daughter to see him throughout the divorce, which made Downes begin to question if his daughter was really “his”. This is extremely important and relevant in “Video Killed the Radio Star” when the lyrics say “I met your children, what did you tell them? Video killed the radio star”. He is literally saying that his wife was telling their children that Downes broke their marriage and referencing to the next line, he “broke her heart”. This definitely begins to make sense the feeling of guilt that is later referenced in the song when it says “In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far. Put the blame on VCR.” This depicts Downes’ unstable state of emotion and how the guilt is coming out. He also is essentially blaming the incident on the VCR or in other words, the new love of his life. Further validation that this song is in fact referring to Geoff Downes and his love with his first wife, is found in the in the sixth verse when it says “and we meet in an abandoned studio. We hear the playback and it seems so long ago. And you remember the jingles used to go.” Years before Geoff Downes and his first wife initiated the divorce, Downes made his meager revenue by producing jingles for T.V. commercials using a “clapped-out” Hammond organ nearly 15 years old. This sixth verse simply expresses Downes recollection of his old memories with his former wife and he is very regretful of what he did.
The music video that accompanied “Video Killed the Radio Star” very much supports my argument and interpretation of the lyrics in the deeper state of Downes’ love. The initial scene of the music video displays the moon over a shimmering water representing the idea of “beauty”, specifically the start of this new love. The moonlight on the river in symbolic in the sense that “Video Killed the Radio Star” is Downes version of singing “Moonlight Serenade” as Downes “So don’t let me wait, come to me tenderly in the June night. I stand at your gate and I sing you a song in the moonlight, a love song, my darling, a moonlight serenade.” This song is about respecting and loving a women; Downes is doing the same thing with “Video Killed the Radio Star” because it is similar by inferring that he is respecting and loving a women by essentially admitting his guilt and remembering his forgotten love for her.
After the short clip of moonlight on the river, there is an enduring theme that is established throughout the rest of the music video. There is a little girl sitting beside a radio, turning the knobs. The suddenly she jumps back from the radio and the radio explodes at the cue of singing, “Video killed the radio star.” This is symbolic again for the young love between Downes and his first wife. It resembles an immature relationship that represented what you can called “puppy love”, an intense but relatively shallow romantic attachment that is typically associated with adolescents. Often times these types of relationships result in very strong emotional responses which would explain why the radio explodes; this is symbolic for the emotional turmoil of Downes essentially, this song is the “explosion” of those emotions.
Shortly after the explosion of the radio, the little girl in the video morphs into an adult version of the child on the lyrical cue, “Pictures came and broke your heart.” So this is essentially symbolic of the “growing pains” Downes wife encountered as a result of their divorce. She was a little innocent girl one moment and then the next moment her broken heart forced her to change into an adult immediately. After she completely morphed into an adult, the lyrics turn to the sixth verse, “And now we meet in an abandoned studio, we hear the playback and it seems so long ago. And you remember the jingles used to go.” This is where the video becomes very interesting and my deeper interpretation of the lyrics match up to a tee. The woman, who represents Downes former wife, is contained in a giant tube in the studio and outside of that tube is the “little girl” version of her. This is crazy symbolic as it represents that the adult version of Downes’ wife is stuck in reality and cannot rewind into the past; it is contained to this giant tube, whereas the little girl, who now represents her memories and reminiscent love with Downes, is free to roam outside of her physical body. Ultimately, the little girl within her mind is free to rewind her consciousness, but never can she physically go back to those days because the damage has been done (the exploded radio cannot rewind what it once had played because it is busted/the emotionally ruined Downes can never love her again because the love has been broken and cannot be re-mended).
I believe that the Buggles one-hit-wonder “Video Killed the Radio Star” can be taken literally as it represents the cause and effect relationship between new technologies and how they replace the old technologies. However, there is a deeper interpretation that tells a story of a young love relationship forgotten and remembered, and all the pains within it. I am almost certain that this song points to the relationship between Geoff Downes and his first wife. However, I am also sure that there are many other interpretations that can be conceived from the music video and lyrics of this song. This is simply how I interpret them.
Overall, I find this song in particular very important. If I was to teach “Video Killed the Radio Star” to a class it would be on a lesson on critical thinking because with this song, you cannot simply accept your common sense. The first thing that comes to mind when you listen to this song is, well, video killed the radio stars! Sure it is about replacing old technology with new technology but this is merely the tip of the iceberg. I would challenge my students to uncover what is beneath the surface of what they first hear and see, to grasp the very essence of the song by asking a series of questions; very much like I asked myself a series of questions in third paragraph. Once I have the students pondering over questions that suggest ambiguity, we can turn to research to solve the rest of the paradox; much like I did through the remained of the analysis of the lyrics. Once my students have grasped what was originally beyond their initial thought and subsequently found research to support their arguments, then we turn to other sources for additionally support, such as using the music video for “Video Killed the Radio Star” in such ways that further enhance the argument. I think this method of teaching, challenging students by asking a series of carefully planned questions, is the best way for students to learn. Education is not passive, students cannot learn from being spoon-fed a slideshow or a lecture.