What with our differing tastes in television, the battle over the remote control has traditionally been a bit of a big deal in our household. Unlike me, my housemate Terry adores Discovery Channel shows and – most particularly – science fiction series, with the result I have sat through Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Star Trek (apparently this one’s actually called Deep Space 9) more times than I care to remember. Equally, on my watch, Terry has been reluctantly forced to adapt to my steady and unwholesome diet of music television. Sometimes, when it’s all got a
bit much – he hates MTV; I loathe Star Trek – telly rage has struck and we’ve had a good, old-fashioned remote control tussle.
But lately, I have to admit, I haven’t been myself. Not only have I been letting Terry watch his science fiction programmes without emitting so much as a squeak of protest, the other day, we even watched an entire segment of a terrible Discovery Show programme about how toilet rolls were created before I could rouse myself to complain. In truth, a sort of listlessness seems to take hold of me every time I sit down on the sofa. Recently, I’ve been feeling like my relationship with music television — once loving and constant — is over. Maybe, at 28, I’m too old, I’ve thought. Yes, it’s true MTV don’t often play music videos anymore, but surely they still feature enough in the way of entertainment-related coverage to be interesting to someone like me? Yep, I must be too old. It was only last Monday night, watching the MTV Video Music Awards, an in-your-face Las Vegas bash featuring a dramatically reformatted award ceremony, that the Eureka moment struck: it’s not me, MTV, it’s you.
It’s hard to say when exactly this moment took place. It could have been during the long, long minutes when Britney Spears – in bra, knickers and with the dazed eyes of one not quite cognisant of her surroundings – was allowed to perform despite clearly needing to be some place that didn’t involve her gyrating before a large audience. Or it could have happened when MTV declined to allow the Foo Fighters perform the whole of their excellent new track The Pretender. (Hey, who needs to hear a strong band perform one song when you could have three bands perform just choruses, right? If it’s good enough for Jive Bunny, it’s good enough for MTV, eh?) Or perhaps it was – a final insult, this – when Shia LaBeouf emerged on the stage, supposedly to present an award, but really to attempt to persuade us to watch his new Indiana Jones flick, and prolong his status as Hollywood golden boy for another five minutes. Yes, it could have been that.
But honestly there was so much about the MTV Video Music Awards that was plain awful this year that it was hard to figure out which melody, chorus or silly scripted speech most sounded like a death knell. It wasn’t just the Foos who got short-changed in the songs department. Bands were wheeled on and off the stage before anyone had even had a chance to figure out who they were. ‘Look! There’s Maroon 5!’ I thought. Blink. Gone. ‘Look! There’s Rihanna!’ Blink. Gone. Then self-professed MTV elder statesman Justin Timberlake arrived to tell the station to “play more music videos.” He said it standing next to three grinning actresses from The Hills, an MTV reality show. As Alanis might have opined, if they’d have allowed her and her slumping sales record back into the auditorium, “Isn’t it ironic?”.
Although it was just Britney who made the newspapers this time around, what is clear is that MTV is also in crisis mode. For a long time, like Mr Timberlake, I believed that there was nothing wrong with MTV that putting lots of music videos back on the station wouldn’t fix. But with the development of sites like Youtube and MySpace, it’s too late for that now. With their reformatted awards, and other recent developments like their selection of a poet laureate for the station, MTV behemoths might be just shining the shoes on a corpse. As with record label executives, MTV is trying to turn an ocean liner around; the problem is, they haven’t the faintest idea how to do it. The panicky-looking Jive Bunny stylings of the new awards and the deeply uneasy atmosphere seemed to suggest they knew it too. MTV has become just a brand amongst brands – and a poor one at that. It’s a sad development for a channel that revolutionised the industry. And it’s
sad news for music fans too.
So: the only good news, then, if there is any good news, is for non-music television fans, like my housemate Terry, who’d rather check out other channels anyway. Watching the awards this year, I did something I never do for the MTV awards, no matter how bad they’ve been in the past. Midway through, I stood up, abandoned the remote control and left to do something more worthwhile, like watching the walls for a few hours. Video may not actually have killed the radio star. But MTV, at 26 years old, seems to be intent on destroying itself.