Late-Night MTV: Total Anarchy

akon_full.gifApparently, this guy rules the world

I did something this morning I've been meaning to do for a while: I sat down and watched three straight hours of music videos on MTV, something that the miracle of DVR allowed me to do in about an hour, since I could fast-forward through all the interminable commercial breaks and repeat-showings of videos and promos for whatever Nick Cannon's doing now. Late-night MTV is maybe the last frontier for straight-up blenderized pop-music confusion, for everything that MTV once was. MTV hasn't consistently showed actual videos in the daytime or prime-time hours for well over a decade now; these days, I'd rather rewatch the Karl Rove rap video on YouTube than listen to anyone bitch about how MTV doesn't even play videos anymore. (Seriously, is it wrong that the whole MC Rove thing makes me loathe that guy about a million times more virulently than I ever did before? I hated him before and all, but I'm just saying.) I didn't grow up with cable, so I grabbed whatever scraps of MTV I could at friends' houses or in hotel rooms, soaking up as much ZZ Top and Urban Dance Squad and Bobby Brown as time allowed. And even when I was a kid, MTV interested me way more than the radio for reasons that went way beyond the obvious visual stimuli. Radio stratified itself into genres and demographics, and the nine-year-old me didn't have any idea whether he was a rap guy or a metal guy or a dancepop guy or what. (The 27-year-old me still hasn't figured it out.) I first started paying attention to pop music the year I lived in England, where Top of the Pops threw whoever had a popular song that week on a stage together with no regard for context, and MTV offered a similarly anarchic landscape of artists and genres that couldn't have had less to do with one another. Video channels don't really do that anymore; even the ones that show actual videos divide up their blocks of time according to demographics, and even deep-cable destinations like the MTV Jams Channel (which I love) define themselves by blocking off a specific niche and then exploring within its borders. And so that absence of planning made this morning's quick little MTV marathon a great way to spend an hour; all of a sudden, nothing had to make sense anymore.

To be sure, there's still plenty of bullshit on late-night MTV. The channel really does show the same fifteen videos over and over. ("This Is Why I'm Hot" three times in three hours: this is why I'm bored.) And they also devote too much time to big-budget megastar miscalculations like Justin Timberlake's unbelievably shitty "What Goes Around..." soap-opera. And the diversity certainly has its limits; we'll probably never see a country video on MTV. But because anyone who spends money on a video looks for ways to make it stand out, the sheer quick-cut dizziness of the imagery can sometimes make pop music look more interesting than it actually is. Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend," for example, is an unbelievably irritating song, but the video runs with the Twisted Sister cartoon-violence precedent and gleefully (and, at one point, literally) shits all over the one guy's significant other for no reason other than that she exists. Even though Avril plays both protagonist and antagonist, it's all a little bit much, but MTV videos should always be a little bit much. Three 6 Mafia's "Doe Boy Fresh," a video I've already seen a bazillion times but only because I watch way too much Rap City, uses Being John Malkovitch to pull of a neat little statement on the escapist fantasy-fulfillment aspect of rap's appeal. And even the otherwise unremarkable videos can offer intriguingly random little details, like why the fuck is Federico from Six Feet Under the pilot in Fergie's "Glamorous" video?

In the midst of all the flash, MTV loves to throw in a few lesser-known artists with no-budget videos for, what, critical acclaim? What critics watch MTV at four in the morning (besides, um, me)? Some of these artists actually get heavy rotation, which can eventually lead to some really weird events, like that week last fall when Lady Sovereign had the #1 video on TRL. Mostly, though, it just looks weird. Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" sounds slick enough to sit comfortably in rotation between Akon and the Gym Class Heroes, but the video looks like straight mud amidst all the bright filters. Even more disorienting were the two times that MTV, in its infinite wisdom, deigned to show Mastodon's "Colony of Birchmen" video. Mastodon! On MTV! And not even during Headbanger's Ball or whatever! Granted, "Colony of Birchmen" is pretty accessible for a Mastodon song, but that's like saying Beirut is pretty good for a blog-rock band; it's not exactly saying a whole lot. And the video itself is an endearing crapfest: the band playing in a cave or something, a cameraman with vaseline and negative-color filters on his lens running through a forest, some animation that resembles nothing so much of the cartoon movie version of The Hobbit that I watched a million times when I was eight. It couldn't possibly be more out of place, and I was overjoyed to see it.

And so here we have Mims, Justin Timberlake, Avril Lavigne, Three 6 Mafia, Fergie, Akon, the Gym Class Heroes, Amy Winehouse, and Mastodon. If you put all these people into a room together unsupervised, I'm guessing they'd all just shuffle around awkwardly and stare at their own feet, but on MTV's programming-free late night, they're all indistinguishable parts of an enormous whole. I guess this is the part of the column where I say that the record industry's horrendous fortunes of late may have something to do with its recent passion for narrowcasting, for giving up on general-appeal superstars and zooming in on target-markets instead. Maybe if more anarchic playgrounds like late-night MTV existed, business wouldn't be in such a slump. I have no idea if that's actually true or not, though; there's probably not a single magic solution to the industry's problems. I will say, however, that before this morning's mini-marathon, I had no idea that Joss Stone's new single "Tell Me 'Bout It" was such a fucking blast. When she introduced herself a couple of years back with that godawful White Stripes cover, I was pretty content to write her off as a blue-eyed neo-soul snooze and ignore her completely, but this new song is like "Ain't No Other Man," except better, and with a sort of early-70s disco-funk lushness buoying it. I probably would've never listened to that song if not for MTV, and I think a revelation like that one is worth something.


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