M2, MTV's new satellite network, is putting the music back into music television

Beyond Jenny McCarthy and a few flavor-of-the-week alt-rock and rap acts, it’s hard to imagine anyone — least of all music fans — benefiting from MTV in the past few years. The culprit is one that has been known to derail even the greatest pop stars: respectability. Much like soul mate Madonna — who seems to feel that show tunes are more dignified than lusty pop — MTV has continued to downplay videos in order to become a so-called real network. In place of clips, it’s coughed up an endless string of moronic game shows and Real World-inspired babble-athons.

Acknowledging that the ”music” is conspicuously absent from ”music television,” MTV launched M2, a sister channel, in August. The concept behind M2, which is available via satellite only, is so simple it’s almost high-concept: Imagine a channel where you can spend hours watching nothing but music videos — just like the early days of MTV! The very idea is as quaintly nostalgic as all those Dick Cavett reruns on VH1.

Judging from a week’s worth of viewing in late December, M2 is more than living up to its slogan of ”24 more hours of music television.” Other than promotional spots that incorporate kitschy ’60s footage like biker-movie clips, there are no commercials and only fleeting appearances by VJs. The music itself is mind-bendingly eclectic. A typical M2 hour features current alt-rock and hip-hop clips (Tool, Luscious Jackson, Outkast), various strains of mainstream country (BR5-49, LeAnn Rimes), between-the-cracks acts (k.d. lang; Branford Marsalis’ funk-pop combo, Buckshot LeFonque), and ’80s oldies (one-haircut wonders Sigue Sigue Sputnik!) that haven’t been overexposed on VH1’s The Big 80‘s. Out of nowhere came Ted Nugent’s horny 1980 anthem ”Wango Tango.” In MTV-speak, M2 is Alternative Nation, Jams, and The Big 80‘s rolled into one amorphous glob.

M2 can be refreshing and plain fun, especially when it dusts off old, rarely seen videos by major names like the B-52’s and Guns N’ Roses. M2 also reminds viewers that music videos can still be innovative. Keep an eye out for two current hip-hop clips: the Roots’ ”What They Do,” a hilarious send-up of rap-video cliches, and Ghostface Killah’s subtly perverse ”Daytona 500,” which dubs the rapper’s song onto footage from Speed Racer. Living up to its title, Unsane’s ”Scrape” is set to clips of painful-looking skateboarding accidents — it could be subtitled America’s Funniest Extreme Sports Home Videos. MTV occasionally broadcasts some of these videos, but if you have a satellite dish, you’ll have an easier time tracking them down on M2. (Now’s the time, too: M2 has threatened to air ads once it persuades enough cable operators to make room for it on their already crowded systems.)

That said, M2 isn’t as free-form as it looks: Repeated airings of current clips by Jewel, DC Talk, Tool, and Outkast suggest a playlist at work. M2 wants it both ways: to play the role of MTV’s feisty, noncorporate younger sibling while playing a fair share of vintage Blues Traveler videos. At its most irritating, the network is the definition of faux rebellion. Even the occasional VJ — like kinder, gentler skinhead Matt Pinfield — tries to look and act as neophyte as possible, and succeeds. Yet just when M2 starts to resemble MTV’s cutout bin, on comes a clip by ska rompers Stubborn All-Stars or the sad-core band Spain, both indie-label acts. One segment featured videos in which the song or the artist had a number in its title or name: Surely M2 is the only place to see Rosanne Cash’s ”Seven Year Ache” followed by 2Pac’s ”2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.”

The jumble that is M2 reflects the uncertainty rattling the record business. To paraphrase Yeats, the center is no longer holding, or rocking. Major ’90s acts aren’t selling as well as they did a year or two ago, alternative and rap are established mainstream commodities, and too many newcomers turn into one-hit novelties. Pop feels wide open, ready for a takeover. (MTV itself is promising a substantial overhaul this year, with more videos and new programs devoted to independent-label releases and to genres like electronic music.) If it shakes up the music business (and, with any luck, its older sibling channel), M2 may accomplish the almost unthinkable: It will kill the radio star all over again.