Song of the Day: Madder Rose, "Hung Up in You"
The danger in writing about trends is that no matter how precise the reporting or accurate the adjudication of the subject, there's always going to be something hilariously wrong following a decade or so of hindsight. This is especially true of any piece that declares the worries about the future of an institution or downright declares it deceased, because the risk is not only in seeing said touchstone continue to exist but also find fresh ways to hit what appears to be bottom (and then still finding ways to plummet after that). Wide-ranging, long-lasting, ever-evolving pop culture monoliths—rock music, independent film, Saturday Night Live—have all survived to simultaneously defy the naysayers and also discover new ways to disappoint devotees.
MTV has been officially dead no less than a dozen times over the course of its 34 years on Earth, but like a Time Lord, it manages to change its face and direction just in time to thrill newcomers and turn passionate fans into cynical wonks. People were deriding MTV's approach to programming less than a year into its launch, complaining that the video playlist was too narrow, too focused on legacy acts, and not innovative enough. A version of that complaint has surfaced regularly since, often announcing that MTV's newest innovation—the VMAs, The Real World, MTV 2, Jackass, Jersey Shore—represented the downfall of the network and a violation of what they fundamentally represented.
The age of the protestor tends to dictate the specific nature of the complaint, but they all tend to boil down to a singular idea: MTV used to be better. For the first few waves of watchers, that tended to mean that the network no longer played music that you enjoyed; as time marched on, the issues became more about the quality of the reality programming; nowadays, in its current YA-obsessed identity, it's more about the abandonment of issue-based programming. It's a useful shorthand for aging, though: the second you start complaining about MTV is the second you enter a world in which it is possible you are too old to properly consume youth culture.
So all essays about the endtimes at MTV are wrong-headed on some level, but this piece from a 1997 issue of Spin is particularly hilarious in its wrong-headedness, both from the perspective of author Katherine Dieckmann (a director responsible for the not-terrible 2006 feature Diggers and the disastrous Uma Thurman vehicle Motherhood, as well as the two worst R.E.M. videos) and the people who were running MTV at the time (longtime MTV matriarch Judy McGrath comes across pretty well, but the rest of the executive class saddle themselves with buffoonish quotes about advertiser synergy that were anathema in '97 but are par for the course today). At the time, MTV was seemingly answering its critics by launching a strategy that re-committed the network to music-based programming that resulted in a handful of new video shows in primetime and shifted non-music programming like The Real World and Road Rules to 10 PM (MTV still uses "The 10 Spot" moniker to identify that block). The article touts a handful of shows that revolve around videos (including the clunkily titled Popular Videos People Prefer) but seems mostly obsessed with Amp, a series dedicated to showing clips from then-ascendent crossover dance acts like Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, Moby, and the Prodigy. If you've never heard of Amp, it's because it was pretty short-lived (the last episode aired in 2001, though it frequently disappeared over the course of its five year existence) and also hard to find (as noted in the piece, it tended to air weekends around 1 AM, exactly when the theoretical audience of people looking to watch drugged-out rave videos were at actual raves doing actual drugs). While none of these shows did much for MTV's outlook or bottom line, the shift back to focusing on music was successful in a roundabout way: the dual rises of Swedish teen sugar-pop and mookish nu-metal helped morph a lazy MTV request show into TRL, perhaps the last true musical juggernaut the network produced.
Of course, TRL was never a bastion for artistic adventure or cultural discovery, and according to Dieckmann, the writing was already on the wall by the time 1997 rolled around. One of her other points is that the music video had run its course as a medium, and that a handful of big name dudes had colonized the entire landscape for video production. MTV's early business model was always pretty brilliant: since record labels footed the bill for videos, the network never had to pay a dime for the bulk of its programming. That same model continues more or less unabated today and was the same in '97. Though MTV's impact on music sales had diminished by then, it was still a key component in making or breaking new artists, particularly in the pop realm. So if a label wanted to give somebody a push, that artist had to make a video, and in order to get the right level of airplay necessary to move the needle, that artist had to make a certain type of video—one that tended to be directed by Samuel Bayer or Mark Pellington or Hype Williams or McG. That narrowing of the field had essentially turned music videos—a format wherein young filmmakers tended to be free to experiment, particularly during the alternative era—into empty tentpole blockbusters that brushed aside the personalities of the artist in favor of visual effects. Dieckmann does call out Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, both of whom were playful and innovative in a way the bulk of their peers were not (and, not coincidentally, ended up making the best feature films when the time came). Dieckmann singles out heavy rotation clips like Bush's "Greedy Fly" and Spice Girls' "Spice Up Your Life" as examples of flatness in music videos (and she essentially predicted the empty high-concept clips that Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys would supply through the end of the decade), but MTV has always operated in between the mainstream schlock and indie innovation. Surely it's worth stomaching well-executed junk like the Wallflowers' "One Headlight" for the sake of underwriting all that awesome shit Bjork was doing, right?
There's also the issue of people pulling their hair out over the quality of MTV's original programming. The Spin piece seems particularly offended by The Jenny McCarthy Show, an unwatchable low-rent sketch show that was even more terrible than its reputation but mercifully only ran for six episodes, but the rest of MTV's programming was a wonderful cauldron of weirdness that included the cerebrally silly sketch show Apartment 2F (starring Randy & Jason Sklar), the Greg Fitzsimmons-hosted comedy game show Idiot Savants, and the iconic animated series Daria. Though it was beginning to lose its way, The Real World was still essential programming, though the 1997 season was the relatively dull trip to Boston. (Road Rules had a much better year, as '97 saw the airing of both Europe and Islands, two wildly entertaining pieces of reality TV nonsense.)
At the time, MTV was also briefly airing an exceptionally weird talk show called Oddville, which traded on the unusual obsession with carny culture that popped up a couple of times in the '90s (the most famous manifestation of this curiosity was the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, which used to be a key component of many of the Lollapalooza tours of the era). Hosted by a guy named Rich Brown (playing a character named Frank Hope), Oddville began as a public access show, and its early incarnation is not that much different than the version that ended up on MTV, with a rapidly revolving door of celebrity guests, animal acts, stupid human tricks, and a live band. Oddville was a lower-rent show but was still on MTV, so they were able to book a multitude of on-the-rise groups (Blink-182, Hanson) and indie stalwarts (Guided By Voices, the Frogs). Most often, though, they relied on bands that they took chances on but became nothing, like Manbreak, Skeleton Key, and Madder Rose, the latter of which performed on the show to promote their third album Tragic Magic. They were a New York-based act that played a brand of shoegaze-inspired Britpop-tinged alt-rock who I saw open for Bush in 1996 and were inexplicably signed to a major label deal despite the fact that they were not radio-ready even during the modern rock gold rush. But their middle two albums (Panic On and Tragic Magic) are both stellar, and "Hung Up in You" was a peach of a single. The idea that MTV was airing a goofball sideshow clearinghouse and giving a deeply uncommercial drone band a chance to play while a guy in a monkey costume danced along stuck in the collective craw of music critics seems like the kind of problem you want to have.