I just finished reading “I Want My MTV,” a book so briskly paced, super-informed and volcanically entertaining that it makes the Hunter S. Thompson oeuvre look like a government air filter RFP by comparison. Have any of y’all read this thing? It’s an oral history of the channel’s genesis and pre-Snooki glory days, during which a bunch of people who had no idea what they were doing birthed a massively influential cultural behemoth and, inadvertently, loosed Johnny Hates Jazz on our collective consciousness.
If you came of age in the MTV era and you haven’t checked this out, you should be ashamed of yourself (says the guy who just discovered the book, originally published in 2011, last week). In fact, out of a sense of obligation to the universe for delivering this softcover miracle to my doorstep, let me create a new disciple: I’ll send a free e-copy of the book to the individual who emails me the most compelling rebuttal to the argument that “Don’t Come Around Here No More” represents the 1985 pinnacle of human music-promotional achievement.
To the detriment of my job and my children’s welfare, I’ve spent most of the past six days catching up with the videos of my youth. I’ve referenced my hardscrabble upbringing once or twice in this column, but let me share now just how dire it eventually got: Our area of town wasn’t wired for cable TV until the late 1980s. Really, it wasn’t. This meant that my MTV watching took place in friends’ living rooms (with the supervising adults exchanging looks of deep concern) and on grainy video (courtesy of a cool Denver uncle who filled VHS tapes with the no-chit-chat overnight block of MTV programming). This is probably why, to this day, I will defend the musicallyandvisuallyindefensible with great vigor.
It’s an amazing story, when you think about it. In an era before the current everything-is-content era, music videos straddled the line. Their central underpinning, like all promotion, was “buy/consume/wear/do this.” Yet somehow they managed to inject whimsy, joy and even a sense of menace into the process. A great percentage of videos look ridiculous and self-parodic in hindsight. But at the time? The entire operation felt revolutionary.
To give these half-formed thoughts a test-drive, I spent part of the morning looking at modern-day music videos. Keeping in mind that I’m an old person awash in nostalgia and frozen in time pop-culturally, I got bored and disoriented within ten minutes. The Big Data video (and especially its f-bombing companion site) does meta-commentary really well. Taylor Swift (“Tay-Tay”) appears to have a sense of humor. That’s as far as I got.
My God - how did we watch music videos for four hours at a time back in the day? The obvious answer is “because no Internet, dummy.” But still.
My music-video walkabout came with one disappointment. Duran Duran has been on a press rampage in recent days, touting a new record (I will always say “record”) and affirming their musical relevance to anyone who will dutifully transcribe their witticisms. Yet two weeks before the new music is set to be released, there’s no video. What, is the record company no longer willing to pick up the tab for plane tickets to Sri Lanka and five cinematographers-cum-llama-handlers? Lousy unruly llamas. This depressed me.
I’m not sure I have a point about anyone or anything here. For me, the exercise served as a reality check of sorts, for the notion that any promotional content could ever land with the impact of a “Thriller” or even a “Scream.” I’d love to be proven wrong. That’s all.
Quick housekeeping announcement: I’m out next week. In lieu of a vast plane of emptiness, this space will feature what we’re calling “It’s New 2 U: Critique Classiq,” an attempt to monetize old crap… I mean, give a fresh audience to a “Video Critique” column that was criminally under-read upon original publication. Check it out, kids. Let’s see if we can’t drive that page-view counter waaaay up into the double-digits.