In light of its 20th anniversary, it would be sheer overkill for me to criticize MTV for all the same reasons that everyone else does. You know the drill: that most of their programming is slapdash, hectic, edited by monkeys, and seemingly held together by Elmer’s glue and advertising. That their half-hearted attempts at social responsibility are nullified by softcore kiddie porn and reality-based date-rape primers/how-tos. That their growing library of feature films is on pace to beat the all-time ineptitude records held by Lorne Michaels and National Lampoon. That instead of working with their strengths and building a better cable network, they’re busy creating MTV-brand gun-metal mercury desk lamps. That their plan for invigorating youth culture has always been to mimic the colorful palette of Japanese pop commercialism without any of the wit, fashion sense, or anarchy. That their one, true talent of discovering one-hit wonders and novelty acts à la Dr. Demento is overshadowed by their penchant for beating stillborn horses with bad haircuts. I’m not gonna walk down those well-traversed alleyways.
Instead, I’d like to focus on one of the more positive aspects of a network often reviled by even its most faithful demographic (Butterfinger-eating white males aged between two and six in single-parent homes out there somewhere). That is, MTV’s, and its sister channel MTV2’s, and its hermana channel MTV Spanish’s, and—more to the point of this article—its angry lil’ brother channel MTV X’s ability to unload hour after hour of brain-dead repetitive programming and yet occasionally, accidentally, show some stuff worth watching.
It is this very ability that has kept me tuning in throughout the April Wine years, the Mission U.K. years, the Ned’s Atomic Dustbin years, and the Reel Big Fish years. For every 50 airings of Cheyenne’s latest drippy canción de amor on MTV Spanish, I get a moment like the other night when they unleashed a Manu Chao rock-block that had me tripping over the divan in an effort to find a blank videotape. This, in fact, has always been MTV’s genius: to make people feel like they’re missing something if they don’t keep their eyes glued to the tube.
I pay $437.50 every month for the right to watch digital cable, and—along with the channels I’ve mentioned—I get VH1, VH1 Classic, and VH1 Country. Not to mention 30 audio channels, including Musica Latina, Tropical, Mexicana, Tejano, Folklorica, Boleros, Brazilian Pop, and Brazilian Beat! (If you don’t have access to any of these, well, what can I say—when has it not sucked being you?) But I find myself drawn to the hard-rock MTV X more than the others for three simple reasons: (1) I’m an idiot. (2) I like to point my finger at the screen and howl at bad rock bands (who I inevitably end up loving—see No. 1). (3) There are no commercials, and I’m a masochist.
MTV X is dominated by that nearly lame horse called, for reasons unknown to me, nü metal. Nü metal isn’t really metal, and it’s been around for years, so you can understand my confusion. It’s just a convenient tag for hard rock that uses metal riffs and crunch, hardcore punk barking, occasional ersatz rapping (although this seems to be disappearing), and occasional new-wave crooning over synths and electronics. The song structures roughly follow the “grrrr/la la la/grrrr/la la la” model. Forefathers of the genre would include Faith No More, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry. The convenient tag, however, may be a bit too convenient, as it tends to lump a lot of groups together, fairly or unfairly, into a category that is all too easy to dismiss and avoid if you happen to despise the two main gods of nü metal, Korn and Limp Bizkit. Just as heavy metal is a tag that many fine groups find stigmatizing, nü metal bands also find . . . no, wait, most of them are pretty lousy.
At this point, I feel I must divulge certain facts before proceeding. I am not 14 years old, and my interest in pro wrestling started to wane around the time that I saw Chief Jay Strongbow best the Iron Sheik in my high school gymnasium. (The chorus of boos that erupted when the Sheik lifted the Iranian flag over his head still reverberates in my ears.) Having said that, there is no one on earth who loves loud, obnoxious rock as much as I do. But having said that, what am I to make of a band like Spineshank and their video for the song “New Disease”? (Disease, sickness, malady, invasive surgical procedures, goo, muck, filth, and icky gunk all being prevalent nü metal themes.)
First of all, why “Spineshank”? Why not just “Spine,” or plain old “Shank”? The music strives for such Reznorian anonymity that you begin to think the whole thing was cooked up by some aggro-rock Muzak company looking for video-game, action-flick, and X-game promo dollars. Not to mention that the memory of the video lasts only as long as the video itself. (Luckily, in between the crappy stuff, MTV X throws some BÖC, Joan Jett, or Judas Priest your way. Mostly for kitsch value, I suppose, but it does help to cleanse the palate after watching, say, an extra-long adventure in spine-tingling claymation by prog-plod dorks Tool.)
Or how about Finger Eleven, whose name must be a reference to some sort of creepy extra finger that only truly creepy people have. Their song “Drag You Down” has the NIN midtempo march of the slugs thingy down pat. The lyrics sound like stuff Trent Reznor writes down in the middle of the night to help him remember his dreams better: “Teething,” “It’s biting,” “I’m bleeding.” And the video itself, much like Spineshank’s and a whole lot by other nü-by bands, takes place in one of those haunted machine shops that evoke NAFTA more than they evoke some blasted postapocalyptic vision of decay. Blame it on Einstürzende Neubauten, or maybe Janet Jackson. Or Helmet, whose prescient 1992 “Unsung” video introduced warehouse space, lockstepped dude-friendly Big Black riffs, skater shorts, and Dischordian X-estential vagueness to a generation of future Finger Elevens whose previous delvings into metal consisted of their big sister’s Ratt collection. Anyway, Finger Eleven’s bass player, like most bass players, has one of the lamest hairdos on earth. And the guitarist is still wearing X-tremely huge pants which everyone will agree are like so over.
Godsmack‘s “Voodoo” video has more on the ball. Its voodoo beat is lame, and the song itself is very slow and un-metal; in a way, it’s sort of a second-rate approximation of one of those dark doomsday folk bands banging drums over in Europe. But the video has everything you need: cool belt buckles, a promising Viking intro, naked guys running through the woods, a moss-covered drum kit, Medusa, top hats, bonfires, zombies on bicycles, and a wolf that jumps out of the singer’s stomach. And the singer looks like Ed Grimly! Before I saw this one, I’d written Godsmack off as just another band with bad dye-jobs, bad tattoos, and throbbing neck veins. Kinda like Creed—only swarthier, and less in touch with their inner, upper, lower, and higher godhead.
And speaking of Godhead, their karaoke-level aggro-industrial version of “Eleanor Rigby” isn’t even as good as Orgy’s cover of “Blue Monday.” Godhead’s singer tries desperately for a Mephisto/Nosferatu look as he wanders the streets aimlessly. Disturbed do a much better job with their same-sounding techno-hard-rock version of Tears for Fears’ “Shout,” even if I can’t stand their Mussolini monkey-man singer (though I do acknowledge that he’s a worthy heir to Udo-of-Kraut-leatherboy-outfit Accept’s homoerotic fascist throne).
In brief: Second Coming‘s “Soft” might not technically be nü metal, cuz they have excellent beards and rockabilly hair plus a beat that shuffles with a satisfying kerchunka-clunk that might even be danceable! (Nü-bys are usually too miserable and sluggish to dance.) I think they might be X-ian, but the way the singer screams, “Don’t touch my friends!” in this performance vid had me screaming “Cool!” Mudvayne‘s “Pig” is Slipknot-inspired lunacy. The music is almost beside the point cuz the band has horns, which is all you need to know. (Check the spoken-word outro on their other vid, with the little kid burying her granny in the sand! Dude, it’s beatnik goth genius!) Much to the dismay of my loved ones, I can’t wait for Slipknot‘s new album, Iowa, which could very well prove to be their Nebraska. What can I say, three drummers and a singer who can do the tortured-boy croon as good as the punk-rock growl is cool by me. His growling is worthy of Ian MacKaye back in the day, or even Ray from Youth of Today. (Speaking of homoeroticism, Ray’s current band, Shelter, has a new vid where he plays a butch cop, and it makes me wonder how straight-edge punk got written out of the queer-culture history books—abstinence, sobriety, and slamming could make for some awfully steamy all-ages shows.)
Speaking of homoeroticism yet again, you have to see the vid for “I’m a Cloud” by Boy Hits Car. It starts with a group hug between band members, features Frippertronic geetar breaks, Doorsian psychodrama, and a scary Treat Williams-as-Berger-in-Hair lead singer in a Nehru jacket who out of nowhere screams, “They tried to fuck me from behind!” Yowza! As nü metal begins its death march, things finally get interesting!
But then you get Grand Theft Audio‘s “Stoopid Ass,”a promo clip for the homoerotic flick Dude, Where’s My Car?, and musically an incomprehensible hybrid of Fatboy Slim, the Stereo M.C.’s, and Sham 69. (Which sounds groovy, I’ll admit, but just ends up being noisy and sad and something else for me to somehow blame Beck for.) Or Cold‘s “End of the World,” where some guy who looks like Moby’s older, unhealthier brother sings a lament about how fake and plastic everyone at the strip club he hangs out at is, in that fake, plastic SoCal-by-way-of-Bombay-or-Babylon Matchbox 20 “smooth” diction that’s as wack as it is weird.
The saving grace for a lot of these pierced, pissed stylists is how they often let their inner Savage Garden shine through the mud. Making you wonder if they somehow ended up in the wrong band or something. Professional Murder Music and Stabbing Westward have serious Ultravox tendencies yearning to break free. Fuel‘s “Bad Day” vid, with its mundane litany of “spilled her coffee and broke a shoelace” moments, wouldn’t be out of place on the country channel or on a Goo Goo Dolls album.
But do you wanna know what really sticks out like a sore fourth thumb on MTV X? Every new video that isn’t nü metal. Whether it’s new AC/DC, Stone Temple Pilots, At the Drive-In, the Living End, Snake River Conspiracy, or Sum 41’s already classic nerf-punk clip for “Fat Lip/Pain for Pleasure.” The coolest pop-punker and non-nü hard-rock vids have one thing in common that make them more memorable than just about any humpbacked, eyeless dwarf Marilyn tosses our way: real people. Other than the band. Kids. Fans. Friends. People dancing and goofing around and having a party cuz they can’t believe they’ve been asked to show up and act dumb for a stupid video that’s gonna be on fuckin’ MTV.
The middle-of-the-road malaise that the nü-bys ponder alone in their caves is nowhere to be found in a Rancid or Green Day vid. Korn and—God help me—Limp Bizkit certainly have their moments, and just like their spiritual predecessors Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi, it’s not their fault if they’ve spawned monsters who made their sights and sounds commonplace. And the Reznor-Manson aesthetic will get most of those bands through album two. But that end-of-the-world shtick will begin to make those spooky empty sets look mighty empty indeed for groups who are primarily pop to begin with. In other words, the rotting flesh metaphors get harder to come by unless you’re a true freak or a proud metal warrior resigned to your fate in the hell of underground fandom, like Eyehategod or King Diamond. Translation: Get plan B ready now, boys. Think techno. Or calypso.