By Seth Colter Walls
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Last week, MTV announced that it would pay homage to Yo! MTV Raps, the hip-hop show that aired from 1988 to 1995. The retrospective, scheduled for December 4, is a half-hour-long look back that will air after a newly minted awards show honoring present-day hip-hop, and it'll air not on the maiden channel but on its slightly less music-video-hostile sister, MTV2. But you wouldn't know that from the headlines accompanying the announcement, which trumpeted the "comeback" of the show and were accompanied by stories gushing over golden ages and recalling the best freestyles it hosted.
This isn't the first time this year—or even this autumn—that MTV Networks' suite of channels has reached back to remind audiences of their favorites of years' past. The misfit chronicle Beavis And Butt-Head returned to the channel's prime-time lineup last month, with topical story lines and the pair of couch potatoes riffing on MTV's current galaxy of young drunks and younger baby mamas; Liquid Television, the animation showcase where Beavis first aired, has been given a second life online. And 120 Minutes, the alt-rock chronicle that was relaunched with host Matt Pinfield earlier this year, just got bumped up from a once-monthly special on MTV2 to a weekly show on the channel.
2011 has, of course, been suffused with nostalgia all around; the think pieces on this year being the 20th anniversary of albums such as Nirvana's Nevermind and Primal Scream's Screamadelica have only temporarily subsided as music scribes engage in some last-minute cramming for their year-end lists. Grasping for a past where the torrent of music was less overwhelming, or at least more successfully organized in a top-down way, is an understandable gesture in a time when the sheer volume of music is only rivaled by the increasingly incoherent ways in which to navigate its existence.
But MTV Networks' increasingly craven embrace of the past raises a question: Why won't the channel just launch an offshoot of itself that's blatantly geared toward the Gen Xers who chatter excitedly about Beavis' return, and understand the snipes at Snooki because they still tune in for the errant episode of Jersey Shore or True Life? Resurrect the name MTVX—once used for an MTV offshoot that, when it was around, specialized in Woodstock '99-worthy mook rock—and go all in; mimic the programming days of 20 years ago, right down to the mid-afternoon reruns of the fourth-wall-breaking Pauly Shore showcase Totally Pauly. (If nothing else, programming video blocks at opportune times and charting their ratings will give the honchos ammo against the stale, business-ignorant complaints about its channels "not playing music videos anymore.")
True, one channel on MTV Networks' dial specializes in looking back already: VH1 Classic launched in 2000 with shows that focused on the '60s and '70s, and enough time has passed that it now has its own 120 Minutes homage. But the evolution of the term "classic" embraced by the channel has, like that of classic-rock radio, caused a bit of a thematic disconnect here and there; nostalgia becomes not centered on a specific time that might have singular resonance to one person or another but on the action of saying "remember when" and having that question answered in the affirmative. Taking it all in at once is like leafing through a digital photo album in which every picture, no matter what date it was originally taken on, has identical Hipstamatic filters placed over it, thus making each image look like it's from the same similarly indistinct time period as those that came before and after it.
One band that has been firmly in the VH1 Classic stable since its launch is Guns N' Roses, the yowling Los Angeles concern that balanced the menacing (Axl Rose's screech on "Welcome To The Jungle," the unabashed nihilism of "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone") with the sweet (the coda to the bombastic "Rocket Queen," the much-karaoked "Sweet Child O' Mine") in a way that felt threatening both to the audience and to the people onstage making the music. The first Guns album, Appetite For Destruction, came out in 1987. (Get ready for lots of 25th-anniversary think pieces on it next year.)
Thursday night the currently touring version of GN'R pulled into the Izod Center; the band has gone from a lean five-piece to a sprawling eight-member concern, with three guitarists sharing duties on the solos originally laid down by Slash and former Replacements member Tommy Stinson (referred to by Rose as "the Replacement for the Replacements") playing bass. Despite the extra members, the band ripped through a three-hour set, with serpentine licks and rumbling bass and Rose's exquisite yowl curling into the arena's center. The set was designed to celebrate the 2008 GN'R album Chinese Democracy, but it also had a healthy amount of tunes from two-decades-plus ago. (Although while the Use Your Illusion diptych celebrated its 20th anniversary in September, this fact was left unmentioned by Rose during his bits of banter.)
And the nostalgia train reached a bit further back—over the course of the evening, the band also paid homage to "classic" classic-rock staples like Wings, the Who, and Pink Floyd. On the one hand, these homages further confused the idea of just whose past was being celebrated; the rapturous reception given to Appetite staples like "It's So Easy" and "Nightrain" far exceeded the reaction to newer tracks like "Better." On the other, they served as a way to ground the band in history. After all, the way that the sneering "My Generation" gave way to the Who's place in the pop-cultural firmament isn't all that dissimilar to the path between "Jungle's" exhilaration that "you're gonna diiiiiie" and the place where Axl Rose is now. He's survived that prediction and is still touring the country at 49, and while he might have different supporting personnel and more money than he did when he first penned that chronicle of life in Los Angeles' underbelly, he's still managing to channel his anger and fear in such a way that the crowds he faces are more than happy to scream his words right back at him.
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