Heyday of the VJ: why real music television should come back

I’ve made my peace with MTV, for the most part. As a preteen and young teen, I enjoyed what I consider to be its finest hour (lots of videos, weird VJs, House of Style, Unplugged, Rock ‘n’ Jock, 120 Minutes). I was stricken when this format began to dissolve in the late 90s and videos were largely replaced with extended screaming teen segments (TRL, Fanatic) and money-grubbing contortions of the Real World/Road Rules franchise (bungee-jumping challenges! Road Rules on a boat!).  Instead of a channel featuring new and interesting music alongside improvised shenanigans, MTV became the channel of the rerun and the retread. Every day was the same. I watch a lot of TV, but it was rare then (as it is still) for me to turn on MTV and see something I’ve never seen. Shows seemed to be rerun over and over on loop, TRL featured the same daily videos, and VJs had largely disappeared. Beginning in the late 90’s, MTV shifted to the same haunting, dystopic trajectory as Clear Channel’s radio takeover: that spontaneous, dorm room hijinks feeling it was once known for is gone. What remains, in my imagination at least, are some unmanned production booths in the depths of the Viacom headquarters, running automatic programming loops of ANTM and The City.

But look, as I said, I’ve made my peace. MTV is not for me anymore; I’m 27, and their demographic, though ostensibly 18-49, is actually more like 12-22. But here we are in the crux of a nineties nostalgia wave, and I’d like to make a suggestion: bring back music video on TV. Now I know there are plenty of places to see music videos nowadays. Youtube, Pitchfork, MySpace, facebook, band websites, dvd, and probably other places I’m not cool enough to know about. And yes, I know Lady Gaga blah blah blah, Beyonce etc. Indeed, some music videos are still getting popular play. And the great thing here is that artists are still making interesting and kick-ass videos because of this Internet audience. But much like the death of radio, the death of music television has largely forced us to sacrifice the art of spontaneity. Despite access to way more music videos, each individual’s musical universe is arguably smaller. This is because now (with the exception of popular sites like Pandora) we are almost always the authors of our own playlists.

Even in the early days of MTV, of course, most VJs were not curators of music video. They were, like most DJs, personalities instructed to play what record company muscle was already pushing. But there were moments, and segments (like those on 120 Minutes, or any celebrity-choice marathon) that featured unexpected and even magical juxtapositions of artists and styles. After MTV started to get a little stale, the 1996 birth of MTV2 (then M2) was a dream for music lovers: a perpetual stream of commercial-free music videos curated by three music-geek VJs (Matt Pinfield, Jancee Dunn, Kris Kosach). Too bad one needed a satellite dish to see it. I still remember one of the few times I was able to catch a glimpse of M2. I was at the house of some random kid my friend was dating, or thinking about dating. They could care less about the magic of M2, but he had a satellite dish and graciously put it on for me. I saw videos I was sure were never shown on MTV, videos I didn’t even know had been made. It’s funny how the pleasure of seeing indie music videos that day has stuck with me. I still associate Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” with They Might Be Giants’ “Ana Ng” after seeing their videos back to back; somehow those shots of Stephen Malkmus frolicking in some shrubbery transition beautifully to the two spastic Johns in an industrial office park.

Music videos had and still have the potential to present us with some of the most joyful, frightening, confusing, and generally batshit imagery ever allowed on TV. As a child and preteen, I was deeply unsettled by the likes of “Closer,” “Paranoid Android,” “More Human Than Human” and “Jeremy” (particularly Eddie Vedder’s demented facial contortions). As they aired more often, some began to seem comedic and others more enthralling. I’ve been moved by music videos for both songs I like and those I could care less about, from the overwrought (Radiohead’s “Just“, R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts“) to the simple/silly (Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” Beck’s “Loser“).

What I miss perhaps the most of all about music television is the juxtaposition of imagery. Hours of music videos create a more complex and interesting montage than most film is capable of. While any unit of television viewing is, if you’re of the Raymond Williams school of thought, montage-like, there was something so satisfyingly smooth about earlier MTV’s (and especially M2’s) programming blocks of videos, whose nonsensical imagery swirls around in a viewer’s head, combining with unconventional promos and VJ non-sequiturs. In my heavy MTV-viewing days, I even remember this format penetrating my dreams: my head was full of blue-toned shadows, neon technicolor, the occasional fish-eye lens. Some might find that alarming, but I thought it was pretty cool.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing a bit. But if we’re always on the Internet anyway, and television is just background noise, music television is the ideal format. Television, especially HDTV, has a lot to gain by returning that most surprising and hypnotic form of cable-approved art.

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