Never trust any music network over 20

Aug 6, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Twenty years of MTV. Would Western civilization have plummeted any more slowly into the abyss without it? Or, all things being equal, would all things be equal?
Watching cable’s music-video channel celebrate its anniversary last week-over and over and over-one thing that was obvious is that it’s not a music-video channel anymore. Dee Snider, a rock star who was a guest at the MTV party, complained about MTV’s latest makeover on the show, to the delightful embarrassment of the slow-witted “veejay” interviewing him.
MTV has turned from a music channel into “a lifestyle channel,” Snider lamented. “It’s hard to find a video on the damn thing anymore.”
The network that prided itself on being unlike other networks is now very much like other networks, with game shows and reality shows and a soap or two and hugely intrusive commercial breaks four minutes long.
At MTV, the motto is “promote, promote, promote.” And so in the days leading up to the big MTV party, during a long music-video retrospective, an animated ticker-tape insert in the lower right-hand corner of the screen played the message “Buggles to Bizkit, MTV” nonstop, all the time, through every show. The Buggles were the first group to have a video on MTV, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and Limp Bizkit is an unsavory group whose video “Boiler” is currently being featured during those few remaining hours when videos are played.
Blood in the boiler room
“Boiler” includes a scene in which a young man sitting at the counter in a diner leans his head back a little too far. A huge blood-red gash appears in his neck and the head falls off. Graphic violence is as common on MTV as sexual teasing: endless shots of throbbing derrieres and bobbing bosoms. And those are just the boys, ba-dum-bum.
MTV’s target audience starts at 12, and we all know that kids even younger watch the channel so they can be cool like their teenage siblings. What they get is a nonstop blitz of aggressively suggestive soft-core porn. Sometimes things get even randier than usual. When rock bad boys Red Hot Chili Peppers won a prize on the “MTV Video Awards” show a few years ago, one member of the group jumped up on the podium while the other simulated performing oral sex on him.
This tender moment was excised from the 75 or 80 repeats of the show that MTV aired in ensuing weeks. As rock music depends heavily on rhythmic repetition (and melodic repetition, in the event there is a melody), MTV repeats nearly everything a thousand times to drain the last drop of revenue from it. And the kids don’t seem to care. They watch uncomplainingly.
As this is being written, MTV is already on its fourth repeat of the big 20th anniversary party. Once again we get to hear comedian Jon Stewart quip, “I hear that when MTV turns 20, it’s getting a Prince Albert.” In case you don’t know, that’s a particularly grotesque piece of jewelry for a pierced penis.
Earlier, former veejay Bill Bellamy praised MTV for allowing “a lot of cats to show their talent in various ways,” including, he pointed out, his own talent, which he did not identify. A hip-hop artist exalted, “Y’all, this is fly, this is art, I love this,” and declared, “Hip-hop is the most dominant youth culture in the world.”
Thumbs-up for Butt-Head
Soon the stage was taken over by an army of rap artists, or maybe hip-hop artists-or maybe one is a subspecies of the other-and viewers were treated to a hip-hop “medley” that seemed longer than “Lohengrin.” Among those present and afforded great reverence: Funkmaster Flex and Grandmaster Flash.
Whether a Grandmaster out-ranks a Funkmaster I really do not know.
Now and then the party was interrupted for pre-taped looks back at various MTV eras. In the years from 1991 to 1994, a narrator noted, the youth of America “were ready for a new kind of music to articulate their rage and alienation.” Fortunately “a new alternative sensibility” emerged: Grunge rock out of Seattle, spearheaded by the group Nirvana, whose self-pitying leader died of a drug overdose.
MTV is just overflowing with role models.
I confess that I see a lot of stuff on MTV that I like or, occasionally, love. Mike Judge’s cartoon “Beavis and Butt-head” was a hilarious look at adolescent indolence and sex fixation, probably the second-funniest TV cartoon of the modern age, right behind “The Simpsons” on Fox.
Currently “Jackass,” though condemned for inspiring some kids to imitate its dangerous stunts, celebrates youthful abandon, impudence and recklessness. On a recent weekend, Johnny Knoxville and his cohorts attempted to navigate the Gumball Rally, Europe’s mad auto race, and the result was a funny, knockabout hour that showed parts of Hungary and Latvia and Russia and so on you’d otherwise never see on TV.
Total Request Lousy
Over the years, many of the videos have been brilliant, especially those directed by Spike Jonze. (Do you think any MTV viewers know there was another Spike Jones in the music business a few eons ago?) A recent Fatboy Slim video had Christopher Walken defying gravity and logic as he danced and flew through an empty department store. Or maybe it was a hotel.
Whatever it was, the video was inspired and lyrical and wondrous. And though it’s up for an MTV award, MTV hardly ever showed it. Instead the selection of videos is dominated by the teenage girl demographic and its preference for innocuous boy bands, exhibited daily on a living monument to brainless inanity called “TRL” (for “Total Request Live”).
Of course music videos were born to plug records and promote record sales. That was the genius of the original MTV: It was an all-commercials-all-the-time channel, commercials (the videos) interspersed with more commercials (the commercials). The big joke is that MTV is able to ally itself and exploit all that youthful “rage and alienation” even though it is owned by the gigantic conglomerate Viacom.
Sumner Redstone-there’s a rabble-rousin’ rebel for you.
The most damning words about MTV were aired during the 20th anniversary celebration itself. One can perhaps forgive the channel anything, maybe even its promotion of depravity and materialism among the young. But draw the line at this: In a bit of news footage from an inaugural ball of long ago, Bill Clinton stood on a stage and said, “MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton-Gore victory.”
Never mind the head falling off or the simulated sex or the vast commercial acreage. There it was, large as life-the biggest blot of all.