Against my better judgment, I watched (well, half-watched) the 25th MTV Video Music Awards last night. The only reason I did so was because Russell Brand was hosting and I was curious about what kind of reaction he would receive in front of whoever actually cares about MTV these days (and I also think I had a perverse curiosity about what was passing for music now, especially since I've refrained from watching music television and listening to mainstream radio for the past few years). The show was a train wreck beyond my wildest nightmares beginning and ending with pop tart, Britney Spears (I can only thank whoever put the show together that she wasn't actually performing that night). Russell Brand was rather brilliant, lambasting the current American administration (calling Bush a "retarded cowboy") and the Republican teen pregnancy debacle, and mocking the Jonas Brothers and their promise rings, treading all over political correctness and hypocrisy with his characteristic charming blend of verbosity and extensive vocabulary. And of course, most either sat in shock or politely applauded without seemingly having a clue how to react or perhaps not even understanding what he was on about. Despite the fact Brand used to have his own ridiculous show on MTV in the UK and has hosted any number of stupid programs, he was still too intelligent and witty for the likes of this kind of awards show.
The kicker for me was when Jordin Sparks, some vapid pop idol who appears to be surrounded by an aura of holier-than-thou inauthenticity, defended promise rings by essentially calling Brand a slut. Yes, Russell Brand is a slut, but at the very least he's completely honest about it. To attempt to preach virtue and abstinence at a show such as the VMAs where three awards can be won by a woman who is basically glorified trailer trash and whose genitals overshadowed her one single this past year (but who still kept thanking God for her awards) is absolutely ludicrous. Also, Sparks obviously didn't know who she was up against - like Simon Amstell told Donny Tourette about taking on Bill Bailey on an episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, "you won't win." Brand came back with a mocking apology to the newest incarnation of Hanson and to those who believe in promise rings (with one of my favourite lines, which to my memory went like this: "I don't want to piss off teenagers, quite the opposite actually. Well, not quite the opposite, I don't want to piss on teenagers. There's been enough of that in the past.")
Contrary to initial appearances, I would rather not rant extensively on how physically ill I felt watching the pieces of the VMAs I did while flicking back to the Canadian Walk of Fame show that was giving a star to one of my earlier obsessions, Michael J. Fox. Instead, I will choose to rant about the state of MTV and/or "music television" in general. What struck me even harder in the face than the fact I hated every artist performing at the VMAs was the fact these awards were supposed to be about videos. Because this was supposedly a special 25th anniversary VMAs, presenters kept paying lip service to the early days of MTV and the VMAs, reminding the audience of who won some of the first ones - names like David Bowie, Michael Jackson and Prince came up. And I would be in agreement that, like them or not, these artists deserved to win for attempting to create proper videos that were an art in their own right. You would think that at a 25th anniversary show of Video Music Awards that there would be some attempt to incorporate videos into the actual show. This attempt wasn't made at all. Perhaps in their paranoia to stay painfully youthful and relevant, MTV opted to ignore the past entirely. (Who is MTV's target audience anyway? Judging by the appearances by Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and the cast of High School Musical, I would guess twelve-year-olds.) Maybe it wasn't in the budget to make creative performance pieces in tribute to older music videos. What all of this points to for me is the fact that most artists don't make great music videos anymore. And that MTV is no longer music television - a duly noted observation for the past ten years.
Rather than broadcast a stream of music videos, MTV, and its Canadian counterparts MuchMusic and MuchMoreMusic, are now built on programming. MTV-made shows like Pimp My Ride, Punk'd, Jackass, and a plethora of other horrid reality/competition shows dominate music television with usually no link to music whatsoever aside from the music played in the background of these shows or the fact these shows may follow music stars around in their daily (usually inane) lives. Last night I turned on MuchMoreMusic (the Canadian VH1) and saw Party of Five. I know I'm too young to have really watched the old style of music television during its heyday in the 80s, but I'm old enough to remember still seeing actual music videos when I was teenager. I also like to think VJs used to know something about music rather than just have the ability to flap their lips. I still recall the days when MuchMusic used to run weekend-long video marathons with themes like the 80s. That would never happen again. And one of the big reasons why is you can get streams of older videos on both the specialty cable channel MuchRetro and even more easily on YouTube. If video killed the radio star, narrowcasting and YouTube killed the video channel.
I'm not naive enough to think all music videos in the past were spectacular and creative - in many cases, earlier music videos suffered from filmmakers wanting to try too much at once. And after all, MTV was/is primarily an advertising channel. A large chunk of 80s videos are hugely cheesy rather than high art, but even with some of the cheese, these videos were memorable. Even with their postcolonial, imperialistic missteps, Duran Duran videos can still spring to mind rather quickly when the songs are played. Music videos used to be iconic. They used to push the envelope. How many videos made in the last ten years can be said to be iconic? OK Go's YouTube success story in the form of the treadmill video for Here It Goes Again. Maybe The White Stripes' video for Seven Nation Army. Then there are those videos that only fans would seek out and see - I personally find the videos for IAMX's President and Song of Imaginary Beings rather visually stunning, but you'll only ever see them online. Like every other facet of society that's being transformed by a digital/download society, music videos can now be manufactured by anyone with access to software and the Internet and everyone can customize their own music television via computer playlists. In this process, creativity and artist independence have likely increased, but now you have to know where to look to find these quality videos as the more mainstream media like MTV have effectively squeezed out their original purpose and homogenized the music video. MTV, which used to be characterized by its slogan "I Want My MTV," connoting some sort of youthful, subcultural choice, is now the place where you will find the least amount of choice and individuality.
And so, for who knows how long, the MTV VMAs have not celebrated videos, but merely the music itself or the flavour-of-the-year artists in some sort of disgusting Top 40 popularity contest. The Video Music Awards should just be called Music Awards and MTV should drop the "music" from its name. In which case, you'd just be watching the TV Music Awards. And I think those are called the Grammys.
Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles
Seen the Future - Lloyd Cole