November 17, 2008

The Day the Music Television Died

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If there’s one sure sign of the death of music television, it’s the disappearance of Pop-Up Video.
PUV was, for six years, the best way to waste an afternoon. Featuring music videos culled from the depths of eighties glam-rock and New Wave electronica, the show would add little pop-up bubbles with interesting factoids about the making of the videos and the idiosyncrasies of the artists at hand. One might learn, for example, that children used to tease Marvin Gaye by adding “is” before his last name, or that the bartender in Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” spent much of the video shoot passed out on a pool table. The opportunities for learning were endless.
But PUV was not just great because of its informative value. It also had that trademark VH1 brand of snarky humor that has since been corrupted by shows like I Love the 90’s. Hairstyles and leggings were mocked; oblique references to future catastrophes were made. Throughout, a cheery bubbly noise would accompany each fact, keeping the reader entranced and eager not to miss a beat. One would leave an episode feeling both smarter and a bit cooler, possessed of that ironical pretension that comes with insider knowledge of the pop music world.
But the good die young. PUV was axed in 2002 during the Great Purge that occurred right around the turn of the millennium on MTV and VH1. During this time, anything having to do with actual music was cut — videos were abandoned, music news was phased out and the airwaves were clogged with retrospectives and the banalities of reality TV. Music fans were shunned in favor of teenyboppers with low IQs as the channels became parodies of themselves, infomercials for the very conformist corporation-driven lifestyle they had once set out to mock.
And so one can see in the decline and fall of Pop-Up Video the story of music television itself. There was once a time when MTV and VH1 took pop music and its associated culture seriously. They were standard-bearers of the young and restless; no manner how profit-driven their motives, they still preserved a modicum of street cred by at least pretending to stick it to the man and by staying true to that central driving force — the music.
Serious pop musicians used to hold MTV and VH1 as allies. The channels were conduits for the musicians’ art as well as fellow travelers in the irreverent youth scene. And as time went on and music television entered its second decade, the channels acted as guardians of the video age’s mythic past. Here especially VH1 shined: shows like the campy Behind the Music and Top 100 countdowns preserved the classic videos and artists and endowed them with the aura of legend. PUV was, of course, the best at this, deconstructing and lightly mocking the videos it had made into a canon. And even when music television veered into the bizarre and the outright ridiculous, as in MTV’s unforgettable Celebrity Deathmatch, it was still with a sense that pop music was something important and worth preserving.
Not so anymore. A newcomer to MTV would be hard-pressed to explain the channel’s name. Its schedule is filled with self-important reality crap and voyeuristic celebrity peep shows, an abysmal slate of programming that does little more than paint an ultra-materialistic and blithely disinterested picture of American youth. Even TRL, its faintest gesture at relevancy in the music world, ended its run last night.
And what of VH1? The channel that used to define itself as a historically-minded haven for the pop literati has now submerged itself into a morass of B-list celebrity competitions and money-grabs. Anything that celebrates the humiliating and the depraved is fair game, and the snide tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery that was used with restraint on PUV has been transformed into the often-vicious, always-obnoxious silliness that defines the I Love The … retrospective series.
The sad fact of music television’s overhaul is that the culture loosely defined as “rock and roll” no longer has any mainstream advocates. MTV and VH1 now treat the stars they once revered as objects of ridicule and emblems of a naïve past. Nothing is sacred in the pop culture universe. The lighthearted and learned pop sensibility of Pop-Up Video has disappeared, and the world is poorer for it. There seems little else to do but sigh and remember the days when MTV really was Music Television and VH1 really was Video Hits One — an age that, it seems, is gone for good.