Back in the days when people actually considered Hootie & the Blowfish saviors of rock, music on TV was easy to grasp. MTV was filled with twentysomething-life reality programming, spring breaks, and the occasional video. VH1, with its performance shows and documentaries, was the place for musicheads. The Box and the hard-to-get M2 aired all the clever, slightly marginal videos the other networks wouldn’t.
Now, the scenario is more varied and complicated. The advent of digital cable, which allows for a glut of channels, has led MTV Networks to slice up its pie. Many of us have access to not only MTV and VH1 but also outlets like VH1 Classic, MTV2 (the merger of M2 and the defunct Box), and Canada’s MuchMusic. The confusing part, as I learned when I was wired for digital cable, is that the content associated with the old channels is as outdated as the first season of ”The Real World.”
Let’s start with VH1. Maybe it was hearing Sheryl Crow bemoan a career-threatening crisis every two minutes on ”Behind the Music,” or the fact that the profoundly unrocking ”Blues Brothers 2000” is part of its ”Movies That Rock” series. But at some point, my VH1 mojo stalled; all the tales of careerism and woe were blending into one big sad-sack saga. Everyone else must have felt the same way too, since the network’s prime-time ratings have nosedived in the past year.
The revamped programming VH1 has instituted to freshen itself up has been dubbed ”The New Face of VH1,” but VH1’s new mug mostly resembles MTV’s old one — less music, more ironic wackiness. ”Late World With Zach” is a self-consciously zany talk/music show hosted by actor/stand-up/”Bubble Boy” costar Zach Galifianakis, who seems to think saying ”penis” over and over is funny; ”Forever Wild” finds increasingly blubbery hair-metal relic Sebastian Bach hanging out with fellow metal once-were’s.
Milking Gen-X nostalgia the way Bravo pursues boomers, ”Ultimate Albums” features hour-long dissections of questionable classics by Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, and the very MTV-like game show ”Never Mind the Buzzcocks” features a pitiable segment in which comeback-trail contestants, like Tiffany and Joey McIntyre, have to pick out a grizzled Reagan-era rocker from a lineup of impersonators. It isn’t always pretty; Loverboy’s Mike Reno and Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall, for example, now resemble a short-order cook and waitress, respectively.
The most educational show on the new and not entirely improved VH1 is ”Being,” in which we follow around a pop star for a day (often from a star’s-eye view, thanks to a minicam that seems to be mounted on the celeb’s forehead). Being a pop star is a grim, full-time job, as we learn from the Shakira episode: She appears to spend 90 percent of the time shaking hands, signing autographs, and smiling for cameras. You’ll grow exhausted just watching it. Best moment: After the show, Shakira gripes to everyone about how she supposedly tripped on stage, but all one of her assistants can say is, ”Shakira, but it was super great.”
MTV proper is still home to too many reality shows for my taste, and its nightly dose of wrestling is no solution; give me Matt Pinfield over The Rock any day. So thank God for MTV2. In its previous incarnation as M2, the little-sibling network was alt-rock central. These days it’s more diverse, with a morning show of light-R&B clips (perfect for easing into the day) and evenings devoted to hip-hop and videos plucked from various eclectic pop charts. ”120 Minutes,” now found here, remains the place to see many of the sharpest alt-videos past and present.
”Control Freak,” a request show in which viewers get to vote for one of three clips, is clever in theory but predictable in execution: Videos by System of a Down, Tool, or similar eggheadbangers always win over the likes of Mary J. Blige or Phantom Planet. Having OD’d on rock & roll career narratives on VH1, I was wary of its new digital-cable-only spinoff, VH1 Classic. But picture this: nonstop videos both renowned and obscure, with no VJs and few ads. One minute you’re watching ’70s clips of Free, Van Morrison, and Three Dog Night; the next, hard-to-find videos by Public Image Ltd. and Peter Wolf from the following decade. (Wonder why Wolf never became a star post?J. Geils Band? Check out his unfunky-chicken moves in ”Come as You Are.”) The experience is nothing short of mesmerizing. Watching VH1 Classic reminds me of the early days of MTV, when I’d find myself glued to the tube for hours, wondering what would air next and realizing that the anticipation was half the fun. It’s also a reminder that sometimes pop stars should be heard singing, not talking.