MTV turns 30 on Monday. To celebrate, we’re running a bunch of pieces on the channel, its legacy, and its future.
Back when he was a music-obsessed teenager growing up on Long Island, and long before he started the influential music website Stereogum, Scott Lapatine never missed an episode of 120 Minutes. He also had a tendency to procrastinate. This often led to many late Sunday nights in his parent’s basement where he would have to multi-task. “I would run from one room with a computer in it and my textbook in my lap to the other room to catch what they were playing on 120 Minutes, and have my mind blown by the latest Porno For Pyros video that they aired,” he says with a chuckle.
Along with college radio, fanzines and publications like Spin, MTV’s music-video show 120 Minutes was one of the main ways non-mainstream acts found fans in the pre-Internet era. If you get enough music fans of a certain age in a room together, you’re likely to hear tales of how this program blew young minds, especially if any of them tuned in the night the program debuted Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (This particular writer will cop to pretty much having his young heart rewired upon catching the 120 premiere of Radiohead’s video for “Fake Plastic Trees.”)
Traditionally airing at midnight on Sundays, 120 Minutes was created in 1986 by MTV producer and goth enthusiast Dave Kendall, who also hosted it for many years. It was started in response to the growing popularity of groups like R.E.M., Depeche Mode and many others acts that were then called either “post-punk” or “college rock” and now more or less get called “alternative” or “indie” (not without some hand-wringing, but that’s a debate for another day). The show is fondly remembered for playing videos by the likes of Sonic Youth, Siouxsie And The Banshees and Pavement that otherwise would never have gotten MTV airtime, and for having a loose enough sense of genre that distortion-drenched punk bands, gothic keyboard-driven acts and quirky singer-songwriters all somehow belonged on the same playlist. (And, yeah, there were also occasionally things like this, but very few people made it out of the ’90s without a few missteps.)
The show had a variety of hosts through the years, but is mainly remembered for the stints led by Kendall and Matt Pinfield, a tirelessly enthusiastic, husky-voiced man renowned for having seemingly memorized every fact about every artist, in highly specific detail.
Tomorrow night at 1 a.m., the volubly titled MTV2’s 120 Minutes With Matt Pinfield will premiere. “We’re always looking for a way to expose new music, and as we started brainstorming, we realized that there is still a lot of love for the 120 brand,” says MTV exec Amy Doyle, who points to the extensive number of 120 Minutes fan sites (here’s Exhibit A) as proof that there’s still interest in the show. “So rather than reinvent the wheel, why not bring 120 back in a reinvented, multi-screen way that fits the way that modern music fans experience music?”
“We have always kept in touch with Matt Pinfield, who continues to be this walking, talking, tweeting musical encylopedia,’ she says. “Every time that show was on there was a real trust factor from the audience that the artists were really worth knowing, and we want to make sure that maintain that sensibility. That’s a big part of why Matt Pinfield is coming back to host the show, he also has that credibility, that knowledge.”
It’s been a big week for Gen-X nostalgia, but MTV is trying to push beyond the “remember when?” appeal to reach both old fans and younger viewers who were too young to catch it the first time. The new 120 will feature around 10 artist interviews per episode, up from the one to two of the original, and it will branch out to include indie hip-hop (Theophilus London will discuss his love of Morrissey in the premiere) as well as dubstep and DJ culture, although that isn’t anything too radical for a show that once featured videos from The Beastie Boys and The Chemical Brothers. There will also be the de rigeur push to get fans to check out the 120 site, which will feature extended video interviews, classic 120 Moments (this one is certainly worth your time) and a weekly interview segment called 120 Seconds.
But those people hewing to the old idea will have to get used to two changes: Instead of airing on Sunday nights, 120 will air on Saturdays. And it’ll only be on once a month.
“It really gives us enough time to make sure that the show, once a month, is really the best show it could possibly be, so that weekly we’re not grasping for artists, I’d rather have way more artists than you could fit in than just start populating the show with artists that, you know, might not normally fit the filter,” says Doyle. “I really like the idea of kicking it off monthly and then seeing, ‘Are we going to end up with way more artists on a monthly basis that we wished we could have squeezed in?’ And then maybe we expand it from there.”
The first episode has a “something for everyone” feel to it, including a little something for people who like to complain about Kings Of Leon. There are interviews with the Kings as well as Dave Grohl, PJ Harvey, Dangermouse with Danielle Luppi, Das Racist, Sleigh Bells, Lupe Fiasco, Zach Braff, The Black Angels, Fitz and the Tantrums and London. There are also, Pinfield stressed, “at least 12 videos in every hour shown completely. Which is nice, right?”
Nice, and pretty rare. Complaining that MTV and MTV2 don’t play music videos has ossified into something beyond cliché. But Doyle, who got her start programming alternative rock radio stations in the ’90s, takes exception to the oft-repeated charge that MTV abandoned music, pointing out that nearly all of the channel’s reality-TV and sports programming is soundtracked by up-and-coming artists. “The thing is that for our audience, for millennials, they know that music videos are at their fingertips, 24/7. Music videos is an on-demand experience. We still have a place for music videos, however we’re not the only game in the music video town, so to speak.”
YouTube and websites like Stereogum and Pitchfork.TV have changed the ways fans discover new music and new music videos, and Doyle thinks the sheer amount of options available to fans will give the new 120 a built-in advantage. “It’s impossible for even the most avid music to sift through everything that is available online,” she says “so having that trusted curation, we’ve heard again and again from music fans, they’re really hungry for it.”
Years after leaving 120, Pinfield continues to be closely associated with the show. Fans regularly stop him on the street to tell him how he turned them on to artists, and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys once texted him to say, “You don’t know how you affected my life with the bands that you played and the stories you told.” He says that he’s heard that many artists are glad the show is back, but some fans’ enthusiasm is more guarded.
“I’m surprised that they’re bringing it back. I think it’s going to be challenging for them to find an audience, given that the current generation is where it is,” says Lapatine, who cites Pinfield and the original 120 Minutes as a big inspiration for Stereogum, “It’s a golden age for music videos, but they’re already online, and there’s so many filters that already exist.
“I don’t know that you’re going to need to have that passive experience of a viewer sitting down and watching two hours of music videos, and they might no longer have the brand affinity that they once had.” Lapatine says. “I would suspect that (fans) don’t associate MTV with music programming—I mean, there’s just so much reality TV coverage on the network. It’s going to be a challenge unless the format is totally different, and they bring in cast members from Jersey Shore to keep people interested.
“But certainly if anyone could be at the helm, trying to resuscitate it, it should be Matt Pinfield,” Lapatine says. “His enthusiasm is infectious.”
A few years after Pinfield left MTV, 120 Minutes was moved to MTV2, at the time the network’s all-music sister channel, and now home to more reruns of Martin than one would imagine there could possibly be a demand for. After a dismal run in 2000 that saw multiple timeslot delays and Papa Roach and Sum 41 videos regularly invading the playlist, 120 Minutes rebounded on MTV2 with an emphasis on artists like The Flaming Lips and Interpol, and the endearingly overgrown teenager type Jim Shearer as host. A 120 fan, Shearer answered a call for an MTV open audition with a homemade audition tape and worked his way up to hosting 120 in 2002. The show was cancelled a year later.
“I think they wanted to rebrand it. Two hours was a big time slot, especially for independent music,” Shearer says. “They were bringing back Headbanger’s Ball, and at that time there couldn’t be two classic, retro shows with the same name. It’s funny now how years later it’s 120 Minutes again.”
MTV2’s alt-rock block was reduced to an hour and renamed Subterranean. It debuted on Friday night, then began a wild journey across the spectrum of MTV2’s schedule.
“What happened along the way was, whenever they showed a rerun of a reality show or anything, it would always do better than Subterranean,” Shearer says. “I remember we would usually get our best ratings on a Monday holiday, and then I guess once the programming department caught on they were like ‘Well, they got good ratings for Subterranean, let’s just show another thing. We’ll get even better ratings for a reality-show rerun.’
“Once that happened, we became expendable. And then it got the point where they were putting it on random hours on random days,” says Shearer, who know hosts VH1’s Top 20 Video Countdown. “I remember I left MTV2 and I couldn’t find it on TV, and then one random night I was like, ‘Wow, it’s on Thursday at 4 o’clock in the morning!’ It was impossible to track!”
Shearer is “pumped” about the return of 120, but he hopes it gets a better treatment than his show did. “I think it will be great if they put gasoline into it. I mean, they’re starting it off slow, once a month. As long as they keep it on at the same time, same day, people can rally behind it. If they keep switching times and dates, people will be confused. It will meet the same fate that it did back in the day.” (The higher-ups are at least saying they agree; “There’s a real confidence in the franchise and a commitment to give it what it needs to hopefully find an audience, and keep it on as long as possible,” says Doyle.)
Pinfield’s aware of the concerns, but he hopes fans will give him a shot anyway. “I believe the 120 name and knowing that I’m serious about what I do and my heart is in the right place, people will find it and support and let everyone else know about it,” he says.
Pinfield looks almost exactly the same as you might remember him, and old fans might have a moment when he kicks off the first episode with “I’m so proud to say these words again: I’m Matt Pinfield, and welcome to 120 Minutes.” Pinfield is confident in the new show, and he’s hopeful that it will draw enough viewers to eventually go weekly. “I was talking to someone at South By Southwest, and they said to me, ‘You might hear someone say there’s so much out there now. How can 120 be an important tool and factor in entertainment still?’ And I said, ‘Of course it can.’ And this is what another writer said to me, ‘120 can be as relevant as it was when it was first on the air, because back then it was the one place you could really go to get music, now there are so many places that it is so overwhelming, that it’s great to have a curation.’ It’s a place that you can go so you have those two hours to get turned on to new bands and see some of your favorite old ones.”
A conversation with Pinfield is very much like viewers of 120 would imagine, boisterous, energetic and filled with asides. (Three of his most memorable moments: watching his former neighbor Jon Spencer “get rocked” on Jack Daniels and strip out of his Santa suit during a Christmas episode; trying to follow a conversation with Evan Dando under the influence of what “might have been hallucinogenic”; and riding in a van back from the Tibetan Freedom Concert with Sarah McLachlan, Stephen Malkmus and Lee “Scratch” Perry. “And we were all bonding!”) Until very recently, he hosted the morning show on the station formerly known as WRXP, and he thinks he got the relaunch rolling when he reached out to MTV executives about bringing back his old show as a late-night radio program called 120 More Minutes. MTV brass seemed open to the idea, and when Pinfield introduced the Arcade Fire at their Madison Square Garden debut last summer, he announced from the stage “that 120 Minutes is coming back! Meaning the radio show!,” he says with a laugh. “But I think it actually started people talking about it again.”
That defiantly singular artists on independent labels like the Arcade Fire can sell out Madison Square Garden and win a Grammys goes a long way to explaining why network executives might think that there’s an audience out there for 120 Minutes. “Indie, alternative rock is in one of the healthiest places it’s been since maybe the early ’90s. There’s so much great music out there, and I get a new record every day and I hear something and I go ‘I fucking love this.’ ” Pinfield says. “It could be Animal Collective, it could be The Villagers, maybe it’s No Age, maybe it’s Fucked Up. There’s just so much cool shit. I still have a CD player in my kitchen, and I stack CDs and I listen to so much new stuff all the time, I never really stop.”
For 120 Minutes to succeed in its new incarnation, it will have to outlive the nostalgic buzz of seeing Pinfield talk to bands and become a place where fans can go to seek out new artists. He’s the type of uber-obsessive who can, on a moment’s notice, almost certainly name everybody who has ever played in The Cure. (Not that I asked him or anything.) Fortunately, he’s also the type of obsessive who would never believe it was better back in his day, and is always looking for the next band he could love as much as he loves The Cure. Even if it wasn’t his job, it’s hard to shake the feeling that he would be evangelizing his favorite music anyway.
“I have the passion for new music that I’ve had ever since I was a kid, nothing has really changed with me. Obviously, music has evolved, television has evolved, so there are changes in the way it’s presented,” Pinfield says. “But at the root of it all is still me, the passionate guy who gives a shit and wants to tell you why you should like a band. That human element cannot be replaced.
“To see it come back almost 11 years later for me is an amazing thing,” he says. “It’s been missing for a while.”
(For more about what Pinfield has been up to, check out next week’s Village Voice.)