04 April 2007

I Want My MTV: The promo spot as short film in the DVD age

I think every American my age (early 30s) can remember a specific period in their lives when MTV mattered. Even if we weren't particularly fond of the more mainstream fare, there were always specialty shows (120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps, Alternative Nation/Postmodern MTV) that showed the videos we wanted to see, plus the occasional treat of an unexpected breakout success. Personally, I've never even had cable television, but whether it was getting tapes of last Sunday's 120M from J— every week or staking out the dormitory's TV lounge before the Star Trek geeks got there to make sure we'd get to watch 120M, MTV was always a part of my pop cultural consciousness from about 1989 to, say, 1994.

The secret to MTV's enduring cultural relevance was its blunt refusal to age with its audience. The channel continuously moved on to the latest flavour of the month while its audience replenished itself with a never-ending supply of teenagers. You don't grow up with MTV; you outgrow it. I haven't actually seen the channel in several years, but that's okay; I have little interest in it. As far as I know, they no longer even show videos, having long since relegated those to their satellite-only offshoots in order to make room in the schedule for Road Rules marathons and the like.1

What's interesting about MTV's cultural hegemony is that my memories of it are just as much of the channel's branding as they are of the content. Other than ESPN, I can't think of any other specialty cable channel that's achieved that. And the secret to that lasting impression was, more than anything else, the ubiquitous promo spots that ran at the front and back of almost every commercial break. They'd come in groups of about a half-dozen or so, saturate the channel for a few months at a time, then vanish into the ether.

I recently picked up a used VHS tape called I Want My MTV. It's a 40-minute compilation of the aforementioned 30-second promo spots that ran during the channel's maddeningly frequent ad breaks. While it satiated my appetite for vintage MTV footage, it's also something of a cruel tease: it's non-chronological, woefully incomplete and devoid of annotation.2 The DVD age has spoiled me.

What jumps out about the program more than anything is just how edgy MTV was. The spots are like the channel's main programming on fast-forward: a blur of disconnected images and broad cultural references. They weren't even ads so much as disorientingly brief experimental films with a corporate logo tacked on to the end. Do you remember the one where the little animatronic skeleton cuts that dude's high-top fade into an "M"? How 'bout the one where all the little doll-people get sucked out the window? The one where the butler keeps twisting his head into all manner of vague cultural artifacts, eventually settling on a sardine tin that rolls open to reveal the familiar logo?

The biggest disappointment was the paucity of spots I most wanted to see, and the reason I bought the tape in the first place. Do you remember Jimmy McBride, the Boston cabbie who regales his nonplussed fares with rambling descriptions of current videos? Four spots, not too bad. How 'bout the Sinatra impersonator crooning loungy versions of the latest pop hits? Two spots. Randee of the motherfucking Redwoods, people? Two spots. The video box even promises clips of Randee's quixotic (1988?) presidential campaign, but the tape delivers none of these. Could it really have been that much of a struggle to secure the rights to campaign theme song "Just Say Whoa!"?3

Who's gonna move into the White House?
Who's gonna have to mow the big green lawn?
Randee! Randee! He's the man we need!
Come on.

All of this leads me to my main point here: stuff that needs to be compiled on DVD, pronto. What follows is a partial list, stuff I thought of in the last hour or so.

  • A complete collection of MTV promos
    Watching these on VHS is a painful reminder of what a perfect fit stuff like this is for DVD. You could organise it into groups (all the Jimmy the cab driver bits, stand-alone short films, Rock the Vote spots, etc.), include interviews and commentaries with the stars, directors, etc. These promos were an important stage in the evolution of visual branding into an pop-art form of its own, a shift from product awareness to simple brand reinforcement, and deserve to be properly documented.
  • The complete Norm McDonald SNL Weekend Updates
    Due respect to Dennis Miller and Tina Fey, but Norm was the greatest Update anchor of all time, hands down. The fact that he baffled half the audience was part of what made him so great. I can remember countless moments spent in a dorm room full of drunk/stoned kids laughing our asses off while the awkward silence of the studio audience emanated from the television. Who can forget the episode after the OJ verdict was handed down?
    Ladies and gentlemen, the verdict is in. Murder...
    ...is legal in the state of California!
    Lorne Michaels, if you're reading this4, put this set out and I'll personally buy ten copies. I'm sure I can think of nine people for whom this would make a treasured gift.
  • Get a Life
    Inexcusable. There are two four-episode DVDs out now, but the whole show needs, needs, to be reissued. One of the most bizarre shows ever broadcast on "network"5 television, Get a Life was a short-lived showcase for the self-humiliating talents of Letterman-alum/future SNL-other-guy Chris Elliott, one of the great comedy idiot-savants of his era. The second volume of the available DVDs, to its credit, does contain three crucial episodes ("Zoo Animals on Wheels", the one where he goes to the big city, the one with the model submarine), but for God's sake, where the fuck is the one where he hits his head on a disco ball and becomes psychic?
    Besides Elliott's persona, the show was notable for the fact that the main character dies at the end of at least a third of the episodes, possibly more. In the four episodes mentioned in the previous paragraph, he dies at the end of three of them.
  • Shadow Chasers
    This short-lived 80s flop is just the kind of forgotten treasure that tends to find a second life on DVD. Think of it as a kind of proto-Firefly, although in terms of premise it was really a precursor to The X-Files. It's about these two dudes who investigate paranormal occurrences. One of them is the wacky, carefree American guy who always thinks it's the supernatural at work, the other is the uptight British guy who always thinks there's a rational explanation for everything. I think it lasted about a dozen episodes, and I'm pretty sure I watched all of them.
  • A collection of presidential campaign television commercials
    Several years ago I saw a 30-minute-or-so program of these at the Museum of Television and Radio, and it was riveting. They had the Goldwater one where the camera zooms in on that kid's pupil and you see a mushroom cloud.6 They had several Gerald Ford ones, in none of which he was allowed to actually speak to the camera, a telling sign if I've ever seen one. A collection like this would be crucial for so many groups of viewers (political science students, advertising students, journalism students), it just has to come out sometime, right?
    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. It's worth wondering whether today's youth see MTV as anything more than a lifestyle channel. I haven't asked any. I can remember being in college when I heard that Curt Cobain had died. We didn't turn on CNN, we turned on MTV and got the news from Kurdt Loder. I wonder if any analogous cultural event would cause people to turn on MTV today. [Return]
  2. The reason DVDs are so perfect for material like music videos and commercials (redundancy?) is the non-linear possibilty of its format. This is why I get so pissed off when artists release DVDs that are either (a) non-comprehensive or (b) non-chronological, and two of the biggest musical acts of the video age have done it. R.E.M.'s video collection doesn't include "Drive" or "Star*69", and U2's collection is in some random order. If the viewers want to re-order the videos or skip certain ones, they can! It's a DVD! These things shouldn't be artistic statements, they should be first and foremost archival. [Return]
  3. Currently the great void of the YouTube era, by the way. [Return]
  4. And I know you aren't. [Return]
  5. This was Fox in the 80s, after all. [Return]
  6. Memorably parodied on The Simpsons in the episode where Sideshow Bob tries to blackmail the people of Springfield into giving up television. If you've seen the episode I'm talking about, believe me, the campaign ad looks exactly like that. [Return]


Anonymous said...

Hey there.

Do you happen to know anything about the Sinatra, lounge guy promos? I have looked everywhere for anything about them and you seem to be the only one that remembers them. The Snoop Dog one was hilarious. I can't believe it's not on YouTube, or anywhere else for that matter.

If you could post back here, that would be great.


Bjorn Randolph said...

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For further info, try this one: http://www.google.com/

Anonymous said...

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"Hiiiooouuus... It's funny the way he says that."

The journey is over. Thank you. Thank you.