I don’t like taking cheap shots at Carson Daly, Limp Bizkit or any of the gutter slush on MTV’s programming during the ’90s. Those years were all-time low moments for the network; everyone has been saying that since.

Andrew Skidmore

It went downhill, it became the dead horse that even our parents knew had fallen behind the times. But, and I know this is painful, consider just how it happened. Internet magazines, blogs and deluxe established nine-dollar British music rags started feasting on the network’s demographics. Kids who were introduced to the Wu-Tang Clan, “Beavis & Butthead” and the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video turned around and were watching a Carmen Electra-helmed “Singled Out.”

But remember the good times: They played rap when the Grammys barely blinked an eye at Public Enemy, the Geto Boys and Ice Cube. Recall that the best music videos could tell a story like an opera – the collaboration between then-human Michael Jackson and film legend Vincent Price, the honest-to-goodness video epic “Thriller,” scared the bejesus out of me as a young child ( – and I still have trouble watching the clip alone).

And while we can’t blame MTV for the frequent slow periods in rap and pop, we can make an honest appraisal of the network as it stands today. It’s come back from the dead with surprisingly astute shows (anyone who doesn’t think “Laguna Beach” is some of the most grotesque social commentary since Brett Easton Ellis isn’t watching hard enough) and – gasp – a new focus on music.

So while I’m happy to see music back in the meat of its programming, on a closer look, it’s off-putting to see the position of the actual music within the context of the network.

What’s the bread and butter of MTV?

“Real World,” “Laguna Beach,”

“Pimp My Ride,” etc.

So with no real “music-driven” show as the network’s flagship, MTV’s formula for keeping music as part of the mix has been to advertise, promote and condense emerging artists and albums into manageable sound bites suitable for transitioning to and from commercial breaks.

Now, while I’m sure young outfits like Boyz N Da Hood and Relient K are thirsty for the coverage, we have to look at what MTV is doing to the music.

They’re trying to make everything palatable. They’re creating the uneasy association between art and product. Their “reality” shows are never without a Fall Out Boy/Ludacris/Coldplay soundtrack (depending on each show’s target demographic), the new bands deemed “hot” get sandwiched into bite-sized commercial-break morsels on the “10 Spot” (the block of programming between 10-11 on weekday nights – MTV’s equivalent of prime time). Even the experienced members of the network (John Norris, Kurt Loder) stay strictly on the “catalogue the week’s new releases, disclose latest Courtney Love/Paris Hilton escapade, repeat” whenever they get camera time.

In a sinister way, it’s worse than their “ignore the music, place “Real World” cast member in front of camera” attitude at the turn of the millennium. Then they just ignored music and shuffled it off to early afternoons when high school kids weren’t home. Now they’re making it just another commodity, another good not unlike a candy bar or soap. Don’t listen, just buy.

They are, and maybe this is what’s necessary today, giving tons of people 15 minutes of fame when, really, some people deserve a whole hour of the spotlight and others need only a few seconds. MTV keeps the top 10 percent of bands equal to the bottom thirds. It’s time for MTV to start editorializing, to start breaking bands that deserve to be broken. It’s time to start playing music videos on “TRL” or “Direct Effect” for more than 30 seconds before climbing up the countdown again.

So of course I’ve made the situation out to be far more problematic than it is.

If you’re still under the thumb of your RA and most of your meals are chicken broccoli bake, then there’s a nice little surprise in store.

MTV2 and mtvU (the latter of which is only available on American college campuses) have begun a fresh ascent toward independence. MTV2 has angled itself as a two-headed force providing surprisingly deep music video coverage from both the worlds of indie-rock and hip-hop. What’s more, they’ve actually done some reporting and history instruction in their excellent “My Block” series about overlooked American hip-hop cities (Memphis, Miami, etc. -). MtvU, for all its amateurish camera work and poor editing, is just what it says it is – a music channel for college kids. Regina Spektor? Got it. Interpol? Got it. Videos from 50 Cent’s mix tapes? Uh huh. Throwback skate-punk video countdowns featuring Rancid and Dookie-era Green Day? Check!

Ah, I miss the dorms. I feel old. MTV will do that to you.

 

Evan fantasizes about being cast on one of MTV’s fascinating reality shows, and especially wants the number of every girl on “Laguna Beach.” Share your MTV fetish with him at evanbmcg@umich.edu

 

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