A Golden Age


A couple of weekends back, MTV presented a late-night Hard Rock A-Z special: wide-ranging sets of several videos in a row, with mini mal VJ banter. It was just the sort of music-heavy programming that fans frustrated with Road Rules and Real World marathons have demanded. And it proved once and for all that MTV has no business catering to music junkies. Who wants to tune in a laundry list? Good songs are just about worthless these days; there are way too many of them, especially when you throw in old ones. (After nearly two decades, MTV is as old as its teenage viewership.) We’d be better off if most of the good music in circulation could just be obliterated.

Well, MTV has done it! In September 1998, answering critics who said it had stopped showing videos, the channel introduced Total Request Live, a show that defines the pop zeitgeist by highlighting 10 dominant songs each day, and has since watched its numbers hit record highs. When MTV showcased its TRL mainstays on the Video Music Awards this September, 12 million people watched, the highest basic cable rating ever.

The show rarely even airs the full songs, because everyone’s seen them a million times, on previous broadcasts or TRL-wannabe shows like Hot Zone. The rest of the 90 minutes can be spent on appearances by those 10 acts, fans gushing about those 10 acts, trivia contests devoted to those 10 acts, or cross-media promotions tied to those 10 acts. It’s very involving. Glamorous. Nothing else need exist.

Young viewers will look back on this era of MTV as a golden age, as George Lucas did the Top 40 of American Graffiti. They might have been overwhelmed by choices, by finicky electronic genres that kept changing their names and 24-CD Duke Ellington boxes. Thank God there was only one top-of-the-pops music video channel, harnessing the Web sites and infostreams.

To be sure, whole worlds of musicianship had to be sacrificed to attain such intensity of focus. MTV acknowledges this. During the awards show, and subsequently, the channel ran promos like one where a stupefied 7-Eleven clerk plays a Replacements tune on his boombox to feel better. In the most touching, a guy makes a mix tape for a lost male friend, filled with Big Star and Beach Boys, classic and neosoul. He’s not mourning his love so much as all the classic tunes MTV can’t acknowledge.

That’s why some alternative types can’t abide the new MTV. Comedian David Cross, on Hot Zone to promote an HBO special, mentioned he was MC’ing Matador’s anniversary party: “a lot of bands you don’t play on MTV.” The Hot Zone host said she’d pretend she didn’t hear that, and went back to talking about the new Backstreet Boys video. California punks are less snooty: Blink 182’s new video, and part of the Offspring’s new video, parody TRL favorites and have become deserved favorites themselves.

It briefly looked as if all rock on MTV would perish, sacrificed for a model closer to bombastic Europop. Then somebody remembered that boys might want to request videos too. So rock is back, cock rock: Return of the Rock, a recent special, featured not a single woman. Nor, during endless segments on the Family Values tour, was any question about sexism posed to Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst.

The place of black music in all this definitely needs working out—TRL is far more open to white and Latino acts, and the nightly half-hour rap and r&b shows are shrunken remnants of past coverage. And of course, most MTV music is panderingly derivative, morally conservative, catchy and personable fluff.

Nevertheless, Pop has a clear center again. It’s tough to listen to, and dull to watch, but compulsive to monitor. Nor are the artists necessarily disposable. Look at Mariah Carey, whose new No. 1 says it best: “I just keep on coming back incessantly.” How many versions of “Heartbreaker” are there? Let Britney and Christina tell you. Groomed to be all-media personalities, they’re as comfortable guest-hosting TRL as performing on it.

Extending the TRL concept, MTV is airing “making the video” specials, so we can concentrate on just one song for 30 minutes at a time. Album sales for the act generally go up 50 percent the subsequent week. Future programs will focus on classic MTV, too, like the making of Nirvana Unplugged. Remember: there’s no need to fear pop history—just narrow it down to 10 crucial moments!

But what’s really special about the new MTV is how it and its new stars honor the fans, treating them not as fools but contestants. Michelle waited a year to get through so she could tell TRL‘s host: “Carson, I think you’re adorable.” That’s Carson Daly, a genius at not mocking girls in the eyes of girls and seeming to mock girls in the eyes of boys. Fans even more devoted land on the karaoke show, to hear, “You faked it beautifully! I give you an 8!”

This MTV too shall pass. Barbarians will appear at the gate, some so talented the kids won’t be able to resist. Everybody knows it; that’s what so eerie about this moment in pop. Everybody is going through the cycle self-aware, smiling. Because when you grind it in hard enough, today’s trash becomes tomorrow’s guilty pleasure, and that’s a fine VH1 market in its own right.