If you were to examine the state of rock music based solely on the dreck that appears on MTV, you could come to the conclusion that rock is not only dead, but that whatever it was before must have sucked. Luckily, that's not entirely true-rock is still vibrant, it's just separated into a multiverse of mini-genres. Every so often something interesting, like the White Stripes or Franz Ferdinand, will reach a broad audience-they'll be on MTV, Alice Cooper will put them on his iTunes Celebrity Playlist, and everyone will kinda sorta like them because they're cool. This lasts until the free-floating cynicism kicks in and suddenly you find yourself hating Franz Ferdinand because (a) you were a little late to the party, (b) they're so commercial now or (c) you were really into them before anyone else and now you're feeling a little freaked out by the whole thing.
When I was a younger rock-dork than I am today, that third option was always the one that gave me the fantods. It's cool to hear one of your favourite songs in places you wouldn't expect (like at Burger King or a sports bar), but the novelty begins to wear off right around the time it's featured in a movie trailer. You know the trailers of which I speak: they're all aimed at teenage boys and are about as clever as their target audience. The camera pans over some hills reminiscent of Waking Ned Devine while the announcer intones, "In a land before time ..." Then the needle tears ass across the vinyl of a Howard Shore composition and this year's version of Smash Mouth oompah-loophahs its way through a montage of horrible things happening to some guy's testicles.
Suffice to say, MTV's programming is now dominated by reality programming. That, and shows about pop stars whose minds are blasting over the alkali flats in jet-powered, monkey-navigated skidoos.
Sometimes, though, it's validating when something memorable slips through the pop-culture window. For a band to come out of the underground and into the mainstream used to mean that they sold out-not so much anymore. Rock Star has remained a consistently good career choice. If you don't believe me, just watch a random episode of MTV's Cribs. Who wouldn't want to live in a fancy pad with a home studio and a fleet of automobiles?
What's sad about Cribs is that it encourages people to believe what's being shown on MTV. In fact, so many people believe that all this "reality" has to be presented in thirty-minute chunks with interminable commercial breaks. Mötley Crüe really did live a lifestyle that can be summed up with booze, pyrotechnics, models and fast cars (I think I can swing the first two if you give me a few weeks to put everything together). Possibly they lived it a little too much and defied the constraints of real life. Or perhaps we're just not interested in that any longer.
Suffice to say, MTV's programming is now dominated by reality programming. That, and shows about pop stars whose minds are blasting over the alkali flats in jet-powered, monkey-navigated skidoos. There's also The Real World, boasting a liberal-arts college worth of script editors and offering its cast the option of competing against the Road Rules weirdoes on the Gauntlet. When was the last time you actually saw an episode of Road Rules? Where do they keep coming from?
What it comes down to is that nobody watches MTV for the music, yet there's something on the channel for everyone. I've had friends who did stupid things like punch each other in the crotch while running through busy intersections, so I can appreciate Viva La Bam and the whole CKY family. I'm also strangely enchanted with Pimp My Ride. I don't own a car-and the two or three times a year that I drive one, I'm terrified to make left turns-but I can appreciate craftsmanship. Often, the programming schedule consists of a time-sensitive batch of reruns that are played in nightly chunks: Some nights it's a Real World night, some nights are Room Raiders nights where kids in the 18-22 age bracket judge each other based on what their bedrooms look like.
I'm at an age now where I've begun to look at teenagers with a mixture of fear and admiration. This whole Napoleon Dynamite thing completely passed me by. I can appreciate that as creepy and weird as Napoleon was, in the end he got to ride a horse. Riding a horse is pretty cool. The message is strangely affirming, I think-just don't make me sit through it again. And that's the way I feel about MTV in general: anything that's amusing or entertaining is played over and over again so many times that it becomes tiresome incredibly quickly. Music is just the stuff they use to fill in the gaps and provide some background noise.
Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he's written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and UGO.com, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.