Music Critics Get TV Shows


None of us actually looks like this

There’s never going to be a rock-critic equivalent of Ebert & Roeper. It’s just inconceivable. Music, as much as I hate to admit it, has nowhere near the cultural cache that movies or TV or sports have. An extremely successful album, these days, sells in the low millions; roughly the same number of people go see a moderately successful Hollywood movie on its opening weekend. Most of the major cable networks ostensibly devoted to music hardly ever show any actual music-based programming. For that, you need some extreme-niche shit like the MTV Jams channel, which blew my mind by running an hour straight of old Too Short videos when I was in Virginia this past weekend; if Time Warner Cable adds it to its digital-cable package, I’ll die happy. Magazines like Entertainment Weekly, from what I understand, almost always take a sales hit when they put musicians on the cover. When music-based programming translates into high TV ratings, the reasons almost never have anything to do with actual music, like when Michael Jackson showcases his transcendent insanity to Oprah and gives everyone a water-cooler car wreck for that week. The big exception is American Idol, which has somehow become the highest-rated TV show in America by turning pop music into a sporting event, but that’s a whole other article. For the most part, there’s a reason why musical acts don’t get to take the stage on Leno or Letterman until the end of the show, even if they’re more famous than the actors who come before them. Music just doesn’t make for good TV all that often, so it follows that discussion about music would make for even worse TV. Ebert & Roeper isn’t exactly a ratings sensation, but it has its niche. It’s fun to watch these guys argue about movies because, in doing so, they’re talking about huge cultural figures plying their trade. Musicians generally don’t have the name-recognition of movie stars, and when you talk about music, you inevitably end up getting into minutia about riffs or beats, the sort of stuff that makes people like my fiancee (i.e. normal people with healthy social interactions) bored as all hell at a dinner table. Nobody’s going to want to watch people do that shit on TV. In the past, music critics’ TV time has been limited to those VH1 best-whatever-ever lists, where great writers like Rob Sheffield or Joe Levy are brought in to give two-second sound-bites, paring their ideas down to quick little one-liners. But in the next couple of days, a couple of reality shows driven by music criticism in one way or another are going to be making their debuts, and I cannot wait.

The first of those shows, I’m From Rolling Stone, is based on an absolutely bizarre premise: somehow, people are supposed to be interested in watching a show about a group of young people competing to become Rolling Stone staff-writers. I love my job to pieces, but I can’t imagine that the life of a music-critic is particularly compelling television. Here’s my typical day: I wake up, I watch yesterday’s Rap City on DVR, I walk a mile to the subway, I ride the train, I come into the Village Voice office and sit at my desk, I trawl around the internet for a few hours looking for something to write about, I find it, I write it, I post it, I go home. I go to a lot of shows. Sometimes I get drinks with other critics and have long conversations that would bore most people to tears. Every once in a while, I have a horribly awkward phone or in-person interview with an artist who I love or who I, even more awkwardly, don’t care about at all. That’s it. I can’t imagine doing a whole lot else with my life, but I’m not sure that even I would watch a TV show about me. On the show’s YouTube trailer, though, things look a lot more ridiculous and surreal and hyper-dramatic, more like TV. One girl seems to be under the grievously misinformed impression that a job at a music magazine will save her family from poverty, so it’ll be fun to watch that dream fall apart. And we’ll also get to see Slug from Atmosphere act like a total sleaze, which is always a blast. We’ll get to see one of the contestants arm-wrestle Method Man about fifteen minutes before I do this interview. I’ll be watching it, of course, because it’s a show about rock critics and I’m a rock critic, the same way I imagine all detectives with OCD are probably seriously amped to watch Monk every week. I honestly have no idea whether normal people will share my enthusiasm. If any of these kids turns out to be a decent writer, it’ll be a bonus, but I’m not holding my breath.

The other show, though, is the one I’m really expecting to be great, and not in a guilty-pleasure way either. It’s ego trip’s The White Rapper Show, and I’m looking forward to months of bloggers comparing me to cast members on the show. The concept is a lot of fun: MC Serch takes a bunch of would-be white rappers and throws them into awkward situations where their whiteness will be exploited to maximum comic potential. But for me, the show’s real appeal rests in the first two words of its title. The ego trip dudes ran a wildly entertaining fanzine in the 90s, and they went on to write two great books and produced several of the best one-hour specials in VH1 history; ego trip’s Race Riot is practically begging for a DVD release. Since starting the magazine, most of them have gone on to do great things as writers. They’ve got a lethal combination working for them: they’ve got encyclopedic music-and-culture knowledge, and they’ve got the wicked creativity to deploy that knowledge to some truly thought-provoking and funny ends. If anyone can make a show like this one work for anything other than a cheap laugh (and God knows Ice-T couldn’t), it’ll be these guys. Fair warning: you’re probably going to see a whole lot of blog entries about both these shows in the coming months. Be ready.