|In the Demo: The Power at
From The New Yorker
October 10, 1994
The hiphop impresario Fab Five Freddy appeared
out of the gloom of Radio City Music Hall, folded himself into a
seat behind Judy McGrath, and pitched her an idea for an MTV special
about life in prison. McGrath, who is the creative head of MTV,
listened with an expression of sympathy on her face. Sitting around
her in the huge, dim hall was a small circle of young MTV people.
Production assistants were talking on walkie-talkies to other P.A.s
who were somewhere in the bowels of Radio City. Everyone was bathed
in the glow of TV monitors and laptop computers that were set up
on a board in the middle of one of the rows of empty seats, about
twelve rows back from the stage.
McGrath let her bangs hang down over her eyes and looked out from under them, which she sometimes does when she's thinking. She rubbed her small, cute face dreamily. She was very calm, which is her characteristic business mode.
"Is it a morality tale?" she asked Freddy.
"Well, you know, the black man has had a hard life--" Freddy began, but he was interrupted by the crushing funk of Snoop Doggy Dogg,
another rapper who is one of MTV's biggest stars, and would be performing at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, two days later. McGrath turned her attention to Snoop's rehearsal. Onstage, a huge crucifix hung over an open coffin. Dancers dressed as mourners were filing past it in misery and despair.
"You know how much shit I'm going to get for those crucifixes," McGrath said to no one in particular.
Snoop was offstage, and his voice was heard as though he were rapping from inside the coffin. He sang the first verse of "Murder Was the Case," from his album "Doggystyle," which has sold four million copies. In the song, Snoop is nearly killed in a drive-by shooting, but just before he goes to Hell he manages to make a deal with the Devil for eternal life, and proceeds to "smoke weed, never have a want, never have a need." It isn't clear whether the song is about Snoop's remorse over bad things he has done in his life or whether he is laughing at people who think he should be remorseful.
Freddy leaned forward and whispered to McGrath, "Guy charged with murder singing about getting murdered--very interesting." In Los Angeles in 1993, a twenty-year-old man Snoop knew was shot and killed from a car driven by Snoop, and Snoop, who has pleaded not guilty as an accessory to murder, will go on trial later this year.
Then Snoop himself appeared on the stage, in a wheelchair, with a mike in his hand. His eyes flashed, and he turned his head coyly and drawled his rap out of the side of his mouth. He got up from the wheelchair, and different parts of his slim body shifted cleanly in the little eddies in the music. As he walked offstage at the end of the song, he ad-libbed, scat-style, "I'm innocent, I'm innocent, or maybe I'm guilty."
"Well, you can't argue with the music," McGrath said. Her boss, Tom Freston, who is the head of MTV Networks, had questioned having Snoop on the Video Music Awards. Even if Snoop is innocent of the charges against him, there may be reason to suspect that he is not a very good dog, and not the sort of person, Freston had suggested, with whom MTV should be so prominently associated. The philosophy of the world Snoop raps about, which is, basically, "Fuck it"--that is, smoke chronic (a hip-hop word for good pot), keep on sipping that gin and juice, fuck bitches and hos, and, if some nigga disses you, shoot their ass--is not one that's easy to endorse. But McGrath had argued in favor of Snoop, because, as she told me, "Musically, Snoop is happening now, and we have a responsibility to our viewers to show that. It is sort of scary that this is the direction the music is taking us, but we're not really in control of that, and if we try to control it MTV is going to lose its edge, which is the thing that makes us great. Plus, it's a lot more meaningful to show this stuff--it's real. I'm sure if this were 1968 and I had put Hendrix on, people would have given me a lot of shit, too. You know, this is the world we live in. . . . I don't want to hold Snoop to a higher standard." She thought for a while, then added, "But if Snoop gets convicted I think we'll have to take him off the air."
I asked McGrath what she thought of Snoop.
"I'm a forty-one-year-old white lady," she said, smiling. "What do you expect me to think?"
She leaned forward and asked Doug Herzog, a senior MTV programming executive, "Are we concerned that we are smooshing our image together with Snoop's image?"
"Image is everything," Herzog said in a jokey voice. "Hey, we're the museum. We just hang the pictures."
"Come on--don't just give him a sound bite."
"O.K., he's innocent until proved guilty--how
McGrath leaned back. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe I'm not religious enough about the image."
The director of Snoop's performance appeared on the edge of the MTV circle. He was intercepted by Traci Jordon, a producer who is McGrath's liaison to the rap-music industry. Traci said, "Now, Snoop's not going to say 'chronic' or 'nigger' or 'weed' in this song, like I just heard him say, right?"
"No, he's not going to say it," the director said. "Don't worry about that. It's just that it's hard for Snoop not to say it, know what I'm sayin', but Snoop knows that it's not in his interest to say it."
"For this I went to Catholic school," McGrath said.
After the last run-through was over, McGrath asked Traci whether it would be cool for us to go and meet Snoop, whose opinion of MTV was unknown to her. We assumed the languid attitude of people being taken to meet the talent, strolled down the aisle, and found Snoop hanging out backstage with members of his Dogg Pound. The cool inside the Snoop circle made an interesting contrast with the cool inside the MTV circle. The MTV cool was the feeling of just hanging out--of watching and reacting to things that happened around you, taking the energy that was offered and not giving it back. The cool of Snoop's circle was generated from within, and is a gift from Snoop to his listeners.
Traci said, "Snoop, I'd like you to meet Judy McGrath, the president of MTV."
One of the Dogg Pound said, "Yo, check it out, the president of MTV. That all right."
Snoop stood up to a full six feet four, put on his most debonair smile, took McGrath's hand, and said, "Yo, I just want to thank you for playing my videos and supporting me and having me here at this show, and I want to thank you for your support of hip-hop, you know what I'm sayin'." He made a little settling motion with his hand. "And that's all," he said. "Boom."
As we were leaving the stage, McGrath spotted Carole Robinson, who is the head of MTV press relations, and said, "Hey, we met Snoop."
"What happened?" Robinson asked, somewhat breathlessly.
"He thanked me!" McGrath said wondrously. She turned to Traci. "You didn't tell me how cute he is."
Virtually all the people who work for MTV can see
MTV from their desks during the day. It is difficult to find a sight
line at MTV that doesn't include a monitor showing MTV. The youngest
employees often work with the sound on, partly because their bosses
want them to absorb as much of the language and the sensibility
of MTV as possible. (A writer who was interviewed for a job on one
of MTV's game shows told me that he was asked, "O.K., do you know
what 'phat' means?" "Yes, 'phat' means cool." "Do you know what
'fly' means?" "Yes, 'fly' means cool." And so on. And if you don't
know something, he explained, then the interviewer says, "O.K.,
go home and watch a lot of MTV.") The older executives watch MTV
with the sound off, which is the purest way to watch it, in the
sense that you've stripped away the music, which MTV does not own,
and are left with the images, or, rather, the process of blending
the images into precisely the right cocktail of programming, which
is the thing that does belong to MTV.
To get work done at MTV, you somehow have to trick your eyes-which are naturally drawn to the lollipop colors and frantic movement on MTV--into not staring at the monitors all the time. You want your eyes to receive the images in the way that the ear experiences sound--as ambience. This is the way the creators of MTV want you to consume it. MTV is visual radio; it's something you just have on. This is a fairly easy environment for kids who
grew up in the seventies and eighties to adapt to, since the television was on pretty much all day while they were growing up, and the Bradys, the Fonz, and Mr. Kotter were like people they hung out with. But MTV ambience is surprisingly disorienting to people who grew up in the fifties and sixties, maybe because when Dick Van Dyke and Ed Sullivan were on the tube you sat down to watch them as though you were sitting in the audience. I am thirty-five, in between the two generations, and I adapted to the environment at MTV with mixed results. When I started going over to MTV, I found that although I was supposed to be observing MTV as a place that exists in the physical world, I often got distracted by MTV as it appears on TV. And while I was walking back along Forty-third Street to my office after spending the morning there I would find myself remembering things I had seen on MTV--the half gestures the rappers make with their arms, Janet Jackson's belly button, the Icelandic singer Björk dancing on a flatbed truck--more clearly than things I had seen at MTV. Sometimes, on leaving the building and walking into Times Square in the middle of a hot summer afternoon, after I had been inside MTV for
three or four hours, I would experience a two- or three-second synapse breakdown, when I wasn't sure whether I was passing young bodies on the sidewalk or watching them on TV.
MTV's head office is on the twenty-fourth floor of the Viacom Building, a green glass skyscraper at Forty-fourth and Broadway, in Times Square. On the floors below MTV are VH-1 and Nickelodeon, MTV's sister channels, and on twenty-five is MTV Networks, the parent company, which is run by Tom Freston, and above that, on twenty-eight, is the office of the grandfather of MTV, Sumner Redstone, who controls Viacom, which owns MTV Networks. White-birch tree trunks line the corridor that leads from the elevator on twenty-four to the reception desk, and the desk is an enormous plaster-of-Paris rock, symbolizing rock and roll, on which the corporate ideology of MTV is founded. "Take a right at the rock," McGrath told me, "and my office is right down the hall."
When you are in your early twenties and are working for MTV, you carry in your brain, muscles, and gonads a kind of mystical authority that your bosses don't possess. Doug Herzog, who is in charge of all long-form programming, told me that when someone comes to him with an idea "I may say, O.K., I like it, but I'm not in the demo." The "demo" refers to the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old demographic sweet spot that all MTV programming tries to hit. "If I'm in love with something," he continued, "then an alarm bell should go off." Geoffrey Whelan, a twenty-nine-year-old staff writer, says, "Interns carry a ton of authority around here. When an intern says, 'Well, my friends think so-and-so,' everyone listens up." When I
asked Tom Freston about this, he said, "I used to call up the programming guys and say, 'Why don't we play more of the Chieftains?' or whatever, and they would just laugh at me. So now I stay out of it." Later, he said, somewhat ruefully, "They come in here and yell at me sometimes." Brightening, he added that at least he got to behave in a similarly unconventional manner with his boss--the president of Viacom, Frank Biondi. "The only orders I get from Frank are 'Don't get arrested.' "
Employees who are in the demo at MTV are, for the most part, college interns and production assistants, who make little or no money (all the interns are unpaid, and Freston once described the assistants' working conditions as "a couple of cuts above the
Industrial Revolution") and are crowded together in warrens and windowless offices in the middle of the twenty-fourth floor. A lot of these young people have recently moved to New York, and have in MTV an instant source of roommates, dates, cool friends, parties, and free concert tickets which is the envy of everyone else they know. Although they are mostly gofers--they pull videotapes from the wackily colored file cabinets in the central hallway, and may even be called upon to set up producers' lunches or take out the garbage--you often see the demo kids performing their chores with a joyous and ironic enthusiasm that recalls Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road." ("Absolutely, man, I definitely am going to letter those cue cards right now, that's an excellent idea," I once heard someone say.) The video jockeys, or v.j.s--the on-camera personalities who introduce the videos--whom you might
expect to be the stars of the demo scene, are in fact regarded as mildly uncool by the demo kids in production, and rarely show up on twenty-four.
The spirit of rock and roll is most palpable in the warrens where the demo kids work. The walls of the cubicles are covered with rock-and-roll posters. There is usually music playing somewhere, and employees who think that a particular song "rules" are encouraged to crank it. It is a breach of office etiquette to ask your co-workers to turn their music down. "First, you close your door," Whelan explained to me. "Then you ask them to close their door. But you never ask them to turn the music down." Sometimes, when two demo kids, each carrying an armload of tapes, approach each other, you'll see one of them break out of normal walking stride and slide into dance mode--head bobbing, shoulders twisting to the beat, lips pressing together-and the other person will respond by grooving to the tune a little, too. As the two cross paths, one of them will say, "I love this song," and they'll rock out together for a moment before continuing along the hall.
Earlier this summer, Tim Healy, a twenty-two-year-old P.A. in his second summer at MTV, was gofering on the set of "Top Twenty Video Countdown," which on this particular week was being hosted by Ted Danson. Danson showed up, and it quickly became clear that he was going to have trouble on camera. Anastasia Pappas, who is the producer of the show, explained, "He said, 'I don't know the music, I don't know the attitude, you got to help me.' " Tim, who knew the MTV attitude instinctively, in a way that Danson, for all his acting experience, could never know it, said, "No problem, dude, I'll help you out," or words to that effect, and, without rehearsal, stepped in, became Danson's co-host, and got Danson through the show.
As an employee emerges from the demo, he or she can become an associate producer, or A.P., and then, while the feeling of being in the demo is still fresh, a full-fledged producer. This period, when you're in your middle twenties, is a heady time to be at MTV. Ted Demme is a thirty-year-old director who had the classic MTV experience. He started as an intern, got a job as a P.A. after college, and was a producer by the time he was twenty-four. "As a producer, you do a little of everything," he told me. "Comedy, 'Top Twenty Video Countdown,' promos, the Video Music Awards. I
got the idea for 'Yo! MTV Raps,' made a pilot, they put it on the air, the overnights were excellent, and in a couple weeks it went to an hour every day. It was like--left hand, right hand, left hand. MTV really opened up the whole world for me. Where else can you be on top of the world at twenty-five-have 'producer' on your business cards, talk to the head honchos at record companies, talk to talent, and do whatever you want?" Demme left MTV at age twenty-eight to make movies, and his credits include "The Ref," starring Denis Leary, and "Who's the Man," with Dr. Dre and Ed Lover. He recently worked on an episode of "Homicide." But he misses MTV, and, like a star high-school quarterback who keeps coming back after he's graduated to sit in the stands and watch the games, he often returns to the twenty-fourth floor. "The thing I really miss is coming up with an idea on Monday, pitching it on Tuesday, writing the script on Wednesday, shooting on Thursday, cutting it Friday, and seeing it on the air on Saturday-that was the greatest high."
When you hit your late twenties at MTV, a weird career anxiety begins to set in, which is the reverse of what happens in most businesses. Just at the age when people in other companies are starting to get loaded down with real responsibilities, people at MTV feel the pressure to leave, so that others who are closer to the demo can be brought up to take their places. Tom Freston told me that the average age of MTV employees was now twenty-nine-four years older than the average age in 1981, when MTV started-and that the average was rising at a rate of six months a year. A producer said, "It's like 'Logan's Run' around here--you know, everybody over thirty disappears." For people at MTV who have bungee-jumped from intern to P.A. and on to A.P. and producer--people "who don't know that this isn't what the real world is like," as one writer put
it to me--the prospect of taking a job at a television network or an advertising agency is not pleasant. Glenn Ribble, a senior producer who started as a P.A. and left MTV at twenty-five to work as a freelance director of commercials and music videos, said to me, "There I was just handed the storyboards--the
idea had been worked out by other people--and told, 'O.K., here's the way we want it, go shoot it.' Whereas at MTV I could do the whole thing myself." Now he is back at MTV.
At the age when most people start dressing and behaving more conservatively, people at MTV adopt even more radical attire or fill their offices with even more rock-and-roll memorabilia or start talking even more like the moronic characters in "Beavis and Butt-head," one of MTV's most popular shows. Nevertheless, I was told by one twenty-eight-year-old writer, "On some days, you'll see some kid coming down the hall and start rocking to the tune that's playing, and you realize you just don't feel like it. You know, you're busy, you're tired, you've got stuff to do--whatever.
And the kid says, 'Come on!,' like it's uncool of you not to do it. That's when you know you're too old for MTV."
Judy McGrath grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania,
and her voice still has traces of her home town in it, although
it seems to have slowed down and become more aware of itself, in
a way that gives it a distinct Manhattan flavor. When McGrath was
very young, she used to stand on a chair and pretend she was Leonard
Bernstein conducting an orchestra. She spent most of her demo years
getting a B.A. in English from Cedar Crest, a women's college in
Allentown, where her youthful ambition was to be a writer for Rolling
Stone. She worked briefly as a copy chief for Mademoiselle
and as a senior writer for Glamour, and joined MTV shortly
after it went on the air, starting as a copywriter in the promotions
department. (She was then twenty-eight.) The "Devo Goes Hawaii"
and "Win a One-Night Stand with Pat Benatar" spots were two of her
early ideas. She became director of on-air promotions in 1987 and
the creative director of MTV in 1991. Recently, she became president
of MTV, which brings both the financial and the creative sides under
One afternoon as we were sitting in her office, McGrath said, "You know, I sometimes feel that maybe a twenty-year-old person should be doing the creative-director part of my job. Why am I doing it? What do I know about being twenty?" In her office, she had a picture of her with Bono; R.E.M. and Nirvana decals stuck to her door; a Melvins poster propped up in one corner; and in another a large cutout of Elvis holding a rhinestone guitar. From the windows there is an amazing view of lower Manhattan, the Hudson River, and northeastern New Jersey, but the dominant view in McGrath's office is of the television set, and when you go there for a meeting you have to remember to sit so that you, McGrath, and the TV are in the proper relationship to each other. At one of our early meetings, I made the mistake of choosing a seat across from McGrath at the round glass table that she uses as a desk, which gave me the best possible eye contact with her but put the TV behind me. What happened was that McGrath made eye contact with the TV, and I looked over her shoulder and out the window at two of the four faces of the huge clock atop the old Paramount Building, right across Forty-fourth
Street, which stopped years ago (one face says 4:35, and the other says 5:50), and which McGrath says serves her as a convenient symbol of her peculiar state of arrested development. During the meeting, I found my body turning almost instinctively away from McGrath and toward the TV, until by the end of our conversation we were deployed in a triangle familiar to anyone who has sat around watching MTV with friends.
"I guess my job is to keep us focussed on a vision," McGrath continued. "Is the global thing the MTV vision, is it that we're not like other TV networks, is it that we are a TV network for youth? What is the vision? Every now and then, I say we need to start stressing the global thing, or whatever, and the staff throws up all over it, which is the right thing to do. They're very truthful, and it's in my best interests to take their lead. Sometimes I take the lead by reminding them of the hidden principle in what they do, showing them how the music can be used for pro-social stuff--I think that's what I do best. My job is to keep reminding them that their work is worth something-that it's more than just doing promos for 'Top Twenty Video Countdown.' Because of the nature of MTV, there is a certain anarchy to the place, so people tend to push the edge of things, and sometimes I step in and say this is over the line, and they rail. But they know I came up through MTV and I love MTV, so I think they trust me."
We were watching MTV. By this time, I had learned how to include the TV in the conversation. MTV was a relay through which the dialogue was passed, and a little booster for when it lagged. Switching back and forth between talking to each other and talking about the videos was as easy as hitting the "last channel" feature on a remote control. We had watched a block of Snoop and Dre, and now the young slacker known as Beck was singing "Loser." The sound was muted, but Beck's voice--that tired, goofy voice ("I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me")--was playing in my head. I felt good. Time spent in McGrath's presence is almost always pleasurable, and when you are out of her presence it is difficult to remember why. McGrath has survived the MTV winnowing process because she has the ability to create an environment where people feel comfortable creatively misbehaving. She's like the ideal much older sister, who lets you get away with things your parents wouldn't but nevertheless looks out for you. For this, she is loved by her staff. One writer said to me, "Judy would be the heart of MTV, if MTV had a heart."
We talked about Beck, whose first album, "Mellow Gold," includes such anti-baby-boomer anthems as "Nitemare Hippy Girl" ("It's a New Age letdown / In my face / She's so spaced out / Then there ain't no space"). Beck himself seems to be a lightning rod for people McGrath's age, who want to think that today's youth are a bunch of no-good whiners. I said to her that it seemed to me that the poignant thing about people who make MTV their career, as McGrath has done, is that the older they get, and the more knowledge and expertise they accumulate, and the higher in the organization
they climb, the further they get from the feeling of youth, which is the thing that the whole institution is built on.
McGrath thought about this. Beck was cavorting around a fire with an animal mask on his head. "People who work at MTV will tell you that this place is like 'The Little Prince'--you never want to grow up--and that's true," she said. "I still care about who the next Nirvana is. And I don't know why. I am still trying to understand what the feeling I get from this stuff means. What are young people saying? What are they thinking about? I just want to know. You know, I listen to the band Live and I hear a spiritual element in their music and I think, Hmm, is this coming back?"
I asked McGrath what she thought about all the kids out there at home right now who were watching Beck and feeling like losers themselves.
"My hope is that they would get some release out of the music, that the music speaks to them in some way," she said. "I think part of MTV is escape and fantasy, and those are good qualities. It can be pro-life in the best sense of the word--it shows you this world out there. You know, those people at home are part of the reason we do pieces about teen-age suicide and all the other public-service things we do. I hope that this stuff gives kids some hope. I also hope that kids aren't just lying around al day and watching MTV."
Aerosmith's video "Crazy" came on, featuring the lead singer Steven Tyler's daughter, Liv, who is seventeen.
McGrath said, "I find myself thinking (I guess I am middle-aged now), What should I do with the next part of my life? Is it possible to be fifty and be doing what I'm doing now? And I want to say no, but then I don't want to make the mistake Mick Jagger made--saying he wouldn't be performing at fifty, and he just turned fifty-one. And what else would I do? There's a feeling among us who work at MTV that we are ruined for any other job--for society--because at no other company would we find what we have here."
"Which is what?" I asked. I was checking out Steven Tyler's daughter's butt while she pumped gas in black leather pants that were as tight as her father's.
"The chance to be forever young, I guess. I think MTV keeps you stuck in that place. You know, I still pay bills, make mortgage payments, go out to adult dinner parties, but here I just get to be the person I was in college. Wait." She unmuted the TV. "Have you heard this song?"
Chrissie Hynde's new video, "I'll Stand by You," was on. "I love this song," McGrath said.
A long-haired young man appeared to be in despair, and Chrissie was trying to comfort him.
"Is that supposed to be her son?" I asked.
"No!" McGrath said, somewhat indignantly. "Her boyfriend."
"Is he a junkie?"
"I think he's just sick."
"Look," I said. "He's dead right there, isn't he?"
"Yeah, but he comes back to life at the end."
The promotions department is often said
to be the core of MTV. Everything on MTV is a promotion for something,
and the promo department's mission, in a sense, is to promote that.
One of the reasons that MTV is a landmark in the history of media
is that the boundary between entertainment and advertising has completely
disappeared. This is also one of the things that occasionally make
you feel weary in the soul when you are watching it. MTV uses youth,
which is beautiful and pure, to sell music, clothes, skin cream,
and, of course, MTV. The exact nature of the MTV commodity is difficult
to define. Once, I tried to get McGrath to do it. She said, "You're
selling a feeling about what it means to be . . ." She paused for
a few seconds, and then said, "God, I don't know."
It is in the promo department that the magical process of stamping the MTV brand name on the feeling of youth takes place. One of the set pieces in any young producer's or writer's career at MTV is making an MTV promo spot, the basic purpose of which is, as Abby Terkuhle, the head of the department, told me, "to make you feel good about watching MTV." In his office, which is just down the hall from McGrath's, Terkuhle showed me a mission statement that he gives to his staff, which read, in part, "Because it believes in rock and roll, MTV today is television's most powerful source of freedom, liberation, personal creativity, unbridled fun and hope for a radically better future. MTV keeps you plugged in." The fixed elements in the promo spots are time (usually ten seconds) and the presence of the MTV logo, but you are free to change the shape of the logo, and in terms of the history of logo design that freedom is one of the revolutionary things about MTV. When you watch MTV, you see a promo spot every ten minutes or so, and new ones appear all the time: a metal butterfly lands on a book and spreads its wings--there's the MTV logo--and then a green woman flicks out her long tongue and swallows it; a greasy and obnoxious New York cabdriver with the logo hanging like a good-luck charm from his rearview mirror drives his passengers crazy with his monologue about, among other videos, the new one by Boyz II Men. Although some promo spots are expensively produced--at MTV, it's not unheard of for fifty
thousand dollars to be spent on a thirty-second image promo and twenty-five thousand on a half-hour show--most have the feel of art-school projects. Robert Jason, twenty-six, showed me how he had created the runny, distorted quality of the opening shots and graphics for "Top Twenty Video Countdown": by shooting stills of his baby daughter, printing the stills on a color printer, and then filming the stills through his aquarium at home. When I walked into Jason's office, he was crouching on the floor lighting a cigarette. His office was in amazing chaos. There were pillows and books and scripts and strange props piled all over the floor, and on the wall were two pictures--one of an Asian woman and the other of a selection of canned meats. "These are the materials I use in my work," he said solemnly.
One of the challenges that the promo staff at MTV faces which the promo staff at, say, NBC does not face is that time is relatively unimportant on MTV. Almost nothing on MTV is live, although everything feels live. There are no seasons, prime times, or special days. Most of the video programming is prepared a few days to a week in advance. On MTV, spring break is still going on months later, and the MTV New Year's Eve party has been rebroadcast in March. "The networks can say, you know, 'Big laughs on Thursday, tune in,' " Geoffrey Whelan said. "Here we have to promote shows that aren't married to days. They may run at any particular time, so we need to take a more general approach, like 'plug in.' " Whelan also told me about writing episodes for "Beavis and Butt-head"; he has done nine of them. "The main challenge in writing 'Beavis and Butt-head' is to be as dumb as you possibly can be," he said. "Your natural instinct in writing is to be clever, but Beavis and Butt-head are so stupid that if it's anything clever you have to give it to another character. You can't assume Beavis and Butt-head know anything. No cognitive leaps."
From the point of view of the record industry, the purpose of MTV is to promote music. The music videos, which are the foundation of MTV's programming, are paid for by the record companies and the recording artists and are usually provided free to MTV, which, in turn, provides the music with instant, free exposure. Each year, the record companies make hundreds of new videos, some of which cost half a million dollars to produce, and MTV plays only about half of them. It irritates people in the music industry that, as MTV has got older, it has tended to show fewer videos and more of its own programming-news, drama, game shows, comedy, dance shows, cartoons. The most common complaint about MTV that I heard from people my age, who were in the demo when MTV started, is that the "new" MTV doesn't play as many videos as the "old" MTV did. People at MTV are very sensitive about this charge, and are quick to point out that they are showing as much music programming as ever. Now, however, the videos may run on "Beavis and Butt-head," or on "The Grind," which is MTV's version of "American Bandstand" (though the kids are wearing less), or the songs may be heard on the soundtrack of this week's episode of "Dead at 21" or "The Real World." The packaging, they say, has become more elaborate, but the basic promotional commitment is the same.
Ratings are the main reason that MTV started to produce more of its own programming. MTV went on the Nielsen ratings system in the early eighties, and as the pressure to sell ads mounted, the importance of ratings increased. ("I rue the day Nielsen came into our lives," McGrath told me.) The system credits a rating to a program if a household watches it for most of a fifteen-minute interval, and hardly anyone watches fifteen minutes of videos. Video programming is about the worst possible thing for your ratings. "When you run music videos, you run ten programs an hour," Tom Freston has said. People who like to watch Mariah Carey belt her heart out will hit the clicker when Henry Rollins starts screaming. The half-hour and hour-long shows now on MTV were devised to get people to put the clicker down.
Last spring, it was reported that Sony Music, Warner Records, PolyGram, and EMI--which together control eighty per cent of Germany's successful VIVA music-video channel--planned to join forces with BMG and Ticketmaster to start a similar channel in the United States. It would show only music videos, like the old MTV, and would compete with the new MTV. This was widely seen as a sign of the record industry's frustration with MTV. The plan has been put on hold while the Justice Department is investigating whether such a channel would violate antitrust laws, but around MTV the potential challenge is still taken very seriously. At the least, it may mean that the record industry could begin charging MTV for the use of its videos, and that it might restrict access to certain exclusive videos.
"I've got no problem with competition," Viacom's Frank Biondi told me. "If the record companies want to play more of their videos, God bless 'em. Go out, start a channel. They say MTV is no longer a music channel. That's not true--the fact is we're playing more music than ever--but, for whatever reason, the perception is we're no longer a music channel. Fine. Start your own channel. But don't boycott me and don't price-fix me. There are quite serious laws in this country, the Clayton and Sherman Acts among them, that don't allow this kind of thing."
One day around lunchtime, while I was
hanging around in McGrath's office, the phone rang. It was Tom Freston,
and she put him on the speakerphone. Freston was calling to confirm
a meeting with McGrath in his office after lunch. He then asked
me about a trip I was about to take to Southeast Asia, and said,
"I was there during the war. I mean I wasn't in the war--I was on
the fringes of it." He chuckled. McGrath smirked. "Just what exactly
were you selling over there, Tom?" she asked. The logic of MTV is
such that the farther up in the organization you climb the more
insouciant and rebellious you have to appear; therefore, Freston,
as the head of MTV Networks, is the person who has the most to gain
from the in-house joke that he had a previous career as a drug dealer.
McGrath's lunch that day was with Danny Goldberg, who was formerly the manager of Nirvana and is now the president of Atlantic Records, which handles such acts as Stone Temple Pilots and the Lemonheads. He and McGrath are buddies, so there was a fair amount of
industry gossip at lunch, and, as always, he tried to sell her on some new bands that would look great on MTV. On the way back to her office, McGrath shared an elevator with the senior producer Glenn Ribble, who was carrying a large old clockface that he had bought for a dollar from a guy down on Prince Street, because he thought it might make a good prop in a promo. Also in the elevator were two interns who were completely trashing Lisa Loeb, a
twenty-five-year-old singer-songwriter whom MTV is grooming as a new star. One intern said mockingly that he was going to shoot a video of himself walking around his apartment and earnestly telling the camera about his romantic problems, the way Loeb does in her video "Stay." McGrath listened quietly, with some dismay, and when she got out of the elevator told me she hoped that a theory of hers--that Loeb was part of an emerging genre she was calling "dweeb rock"--wasn't wrong.
Returning to her office, she passed Nancy Clayton, the head of viewer services, who was listening to a few of the hundred-plus messages that MTV's viewers leave each day:
"Hello, MTV! When is your birthday?"
"MTV is part of our family cable service, and the other night we watched five minutes of 'Beavis and Butt-head' and saw them deface a wall mural. 'Beavis and Butt-head' is only encouraging kids to commit these acts of vandalism. I need to spend additional money, get additional equipment to keep MTV off our television."
"I think '120 Minutes' sucks."
"Hi, MTV, I'm sixteen and I have to stay home all summer, and it's really boring and I just wanted say it's not fair that you have to be eighteen to be an intern at MTV, especially since your audience is teen-agers."
At 3 P.M., as McGrath was getting ready to go upstairs to see Freston, the words "MTV Premiere" came up on her muted TV. "MTV Premiere!" she said. It was "Love Is Strong," from "Voodoo Lounge," by the Stones. In the video, Mick and the Stones, giants of rock, stride around Manhattan with giant babes popping up everywhere. "It's not particularly original, but for what it is it works well, I think," McGrath said. Outside in the hallway, the music went up loud, and I walked out to see what was happening. An intern coming out of an office rocked out while passing another intern, and then went up and stood close to the television set, which was bolted to the wall above the warrens outside McGrath's office. "Hey, that chick's fat," he said, snapping into "Beavis and Butt-head" video-commentary mode. A giant babe's giant boobs were practically falling out of her dress. "That's an interesting dress," he said. Charlie Watts appeared, playing a drum set of water towers on a Manhattan rooftop. "Hey, this guy's as old as my grandfather!"
"He really said that?" McGrath asked in the elevator when I repeated what the intern had said about Watts. She was wearing
vintage-clothing-store, Grace Slick-like attire--a shimmery rayon skirt, a blue blouse with big horn buttons, and leather sandals. In front of us in the elevator was a male demo kid wearing a T-shirt with so many holes in it that it was hard to imagine how he had put it on without pulling it apart. We got out at twenty-five and went into Freston's office. Freston was watching Stone Temple Pilots on MTV, muted, while listening to the new Bryan Ferry album.
"Have you heard this album? It's great," Freston said. This was a coincidence, as I had been thinking that Freston would be played by Bryan Ferry in the music-video version of life at MTV. Freston is a handsome guy with a gleam in his eye who, like Bryan Ferry, makes you believe in the lasting possibilities of the rock-and-roll life.
Freston was one of the pioneers of MTV, which was started with fifteen million dollars from Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment when the late Steve Ross was the chairman of Warner Communications. MTV went on the air at 12:01 A.M., August 1, 1981, with a video by the Buggles called "Video Killed the Radio Star." The key visionaries were John Lack, who had the idea, and Bob Pittman, who managed the team they assembled, which included, among others, John Sykes, a.k.a. the Syko, who thought up the early gimmicks and stunts; Fred Seibert, who designed the look of MTV; and Carolyn Baker, who dealt with the talent. Freston was the marketing guy.
On other occasions, I sat with Freston in his office while he meditated on the arc of his career. "For a number of years after college, I worked for an advertising firm, and it was a job I grew to hate," he said. "Finally, it looked like I was going to be assigned to a toiletpaper account, so I said to my girlfriend at the time, 'I can't stand it,' and she said, 'Don't be a jerk. Quit, and meet up with me in Africa.' So we crossed the Sahara, and--well, the girlfriend lasted all of three weeks, but I kept travelling, and ended up in Asia and set about trying to make a living." Freston established a fabric-export business, and lived in Afghanistan and India for eight years. "You know, I never saw a TV while I was in India. Now, ironically, I'm going back to India with MTV. I came back to the States in my early thirties and had a what-do-I-do-now type of crisis. My main hobby and love in life had been music-jazz and rock-so I wanted to get a job in music, and one day I picked up a Billboard and saw that a man named John Lack had an idea to start a music-video channel. He was looking to hire about sixty people, and one prerequisite for the job seemed to be that you had no previous experience in television. So I called him and convinced him that I was an entrepreneur, and I got the job. I worked for Bob Pittman. And I can't believe it's been over fourteen years."
In the early days, almost everything about MTV was revolutionary. "Some of our best ideas came out of jokes," Bob Pittman, now the president and C.E.O. of Time Warner Enterprises, recalled recently. "All my friends were in this with me, and we hung out together--Sykes and I shared a summer house. There was lots of sitting around at dinner, and someone would say, 'Ha-ha-ha, we should do this,' and then someone else would say, 'Hey, maybe we could.' Like, 'Hey, let's give away a house. Let's get John Cougar Mellencamp to paint the house pink!' Every idea was O.K. Steve Ross had a wonderful philosophy--that people get fired for not making mistakes. The other thing was we had no money. Like with our logo spots. At the time, the networks' logo stuff was very George Lucas--these big chrome hunks of metal flying in from outer space with the name of your product on it. Well, you know the original MTV promo, with the astronaut planting the MTV flag on the moon? Cost almost nothing to make. We got the footage from NASA--it was free."
In 1985, Pittman and David Horowitz, who was C.E.O. of MTV, led a leveraged-buyout attempt to take MTV private, supported by a group including Freston, but Ross ended up accepting a higher bid-of which three hundred and thirty-five million dollars went for MTV, VH-1, and Nickelodeon--from Viacom. A year and a half later, the Viacom management people tried their own L.B.O., and Sumner Redstone outbid them, paying $3.4 billion for the company. "That was a bad time," Freston told me. "The Viacom people found some of the stuff that went on at MTV aberrant. Morale was low. Also, there was the feeling that MTV had seen its day. I was ready to leave myself, but then Sumner bought Viacom and called me in, and I met him, and he was the classic eccentric billionaire--you know, with the shaving cream behind his ear--and he said he'd let us do it our own way. And it's been amazing. He brought Frank in, and they've never questioned anything we've done. We got forty million dollars to develop three animated series, including 'The Ren & Stimpy Show' "--named for a couple of degenerate cartoon characters who appear on Nickelodeon. "We've got eighty million to build our Asia network. I remember going to Frank and Sumner with the 'Beavis and Butt-head' idea and saying, 'If we have any luck at all, these guys are going to be culture icons.' They laughed and shook their heads, but they supported us.
"Staying with MTV has been a fantastic ride. We have built this into almost a billion-dollar business, which has been satisfying and amusing. And in some ways we're just getting going. Now we're about to come out with 'Joe's Apartment,' our first feature film; we're getting into home video; we're building the Asia network; and we're launching VH-1 in England right now. For me, this is very exciting. Sometimes I think I have the world's most fun job. But I have no idea what I'm going to be doing in five years. When I meet my contemporaries from college, I find I have more in common with their kids. I guess I have arrested-development syndrome, which is a good thing for someone to have here."
For one of our meetings, on a Monday morning, Freston was late. He had come in from Quogue, where he had spent the weekend listening to early Stones albums and hanging out with his two sons, who are ten and five (he and his wife separated last year), and then he had stopped at home--he is moving into the top floor of a newly renovated building in Tribeca--because he needed a suit and tie for a Viacom meeting that afternoon. Coming up in the elevator that morning, someone had called him Mr. Freston. "That scares me," Freston said. "You're talking about my father when you call me that."
For his meeting with McGrath, Freston was not wearing a tie. They were joined by Sara Levinson, a president on the business side, who was about to leave the company to become president of N.F.L. Properties. McGrath, in her new role, was absorbing Levinson's job--a major increase in power.
Freston sat down facing the TV, with a large cutout of Beavis and Butt-head to his left, and a large cutout of Ren and Stimpy to his right. Freston looked like a nutty Walt Disney. McGrath sat on his left, and Levinson sat between the TV and McGrath. Reading from notes, Levinson gave her final report on MTV's projects around the world, for which McGrath would be taking responsibility. Levinson said that a daily two-and-a-half-hour block of music programming made by MTV would start running, in Hindi and English, on DD2 Metro Channel, in India. A similar block, of Mandarin-language programming, would appear in China sometime soon. By the end of the year, MTV Asia, a new network, would deliver local programming to eighteen countries in Asia, on the Abstar I satellite. It will compete with Channel V, which originates in Hong Kong and is owned and distributed by Rupert Murdoch's Star TV network. This new expansion could eventually increase the number of households with MTV from two hundred and fifty million (nearly twice as many as CNN) to more than five hundred million.
"We've started auditioning Hindi and Chinese v.j.s," Levinson said, looking up from her notes. "I hear the Hindi v.j. is hunky."
"He's adorable," McGrath said.
Levinson ran through the state of MTV Japan, MTV Europe, MTV Latino, and MTV Brazil, where there were problems getting satellite space.
"Well, Brazil represents ten million homes, and we want to get in there," Freston said. "You know, cable is going to be forever."
"Can we quote you on that?" McGrath said.
"Hey, there's the Woodstock van," Freston said, pointing at MTV. "I'm going to spend a night in that." Everyone talked about Woodstock for a while. Then Freston turned to Levinson. "So that covers it?"
"Pretty much," Levinson said. "Oh, Australia."
She said that Australia might have to settle for American or European programming--MTV beamed in, and not original programming.
"I don't think we want to do that in Australia," Freston said. "Australia is a very media-savvy country, and we don't want to look ridiculous."
Getting up, Levinson said she had to get back to her office to call to check on her son, who had an ear infection.
"So you're leaving as of one-thirty on Friday," Freston said. "That's it."
"That's it," Levinson said, looking down.
McGrath was fidgety, turning her body from side to side in a girlish way. "I can't believe it," she said.
"Well," Freston said ironically, "change is good."
"Change is good," McGrath repeated glumly.
The three of them stood somewhat awkwardly in the doorway of Freston's office. On Freston's secretary's desk was a small basket of flowers. Freston picked it up and looked at the card. "It's from Coolio," he said. Coolio, a rap singer, is a current MTV star. He held the basket out to Levinson. "Sara, I want you to have these, as a sign of our appreciation."
In Frank Biondi's office, the television
faces away from the sitting area, toward him, and therefore the
Oliver Stonesque rock-and-roll media experience that is part of
conversation up to and including Freston's level at MTV is gone.
Biondi's office is very large and is situated on the western end
of the building, which the Viacom people feel is the power end,
because it has the empire-builder view-west across the Hudson and
toward the Hudson River Valley. Up here on the twenty-eighth floor,
in the fine, thin air of media planning, all the tacky merchandising
stuff has fallen away, and the pictures in the offices are not of
Axl Rose and Madonna but of family and political leaders. Pictures
of Biondi's two teen-age daughters are on a small table next to
his couch. I asked whether they watched much MTV, and Biondi said
that the younger one did, quite a bit. "I have always felt that
if you spend time with your kids, and make an effort to explain
to them what they are seeing, there is no problem," he told me.
"With a few exceptions, I find MTV to be fairly benign. I can understand
some people saying, 'Holy mackerel, this is going to ruin the fabric
of our civilization,' but I don't come from that place. Tom used
to joke that if we're not getting kicked out of at least one cable
controller a month we're not doing our job."
Biondi is a forty-nine-year-old Princeton graduate who got into the cable business in its infancy and eventually became the chairman and C.E.O. of HBO. When Redstone bought Viacom, he brought Biondi in to run it, promising Biondi that he wouldn't interfere. Biondi is one of the few people on the cable side of the information highway whom the people on the computer side respect. In Biondi's long-range view, Viacom will be the natural competitor of Microsoft when the TV and the computer become the same machine. A year ago, the Viacom strategy was to create a shopping channel that would sell MTV merchandise to people in the demo, and to split MTV into genre-specific channels-possibly MTV Rap, MTV Metal, and MTV Soft-in order to cope with the increasing fragmentation of popular music. But the government recently reregulated the cable industry, making it harder for cable companies to pass on to the consumer the cost of building a five-hundred-channel system. Now Biondi thinks the five hundred channels are years away.
"If you look at the long future of MTV, you see a full-service network," Biondi explained to me. "If you want to buy the CD or a seat at the concert, if you want to know more about an artist, or get a printout of the lyrics, or watch a rockumentary, or if you want to see some of the Rolling Stones movies--say you're nine, and you can't figure out how these fifty-year-old guys got here-you'll be able to order 'Gimme Shelter.' There will be MTV movies, MTV products. Why not? You see Disney going into the cruise business. Maybe there will be MTV cruises and MTV special events. MTV's mission is connecting to the audience, to the MTV Generation, which we didn't even name--your side did--but which has become like Kleenex or Xerox. We want to provide a point of view for the MTV Generation. Why do you read the Times when you can get almost all the same information on-line? Because you want a point of view, a sensibility. That is what we are selling."
Just down the hall from Biondi is the
überboss of the youth machine--Sumner Redstone, the seventy-one-year-old
chairman of Viacom, who has said that buying MTV made him feel fifteen
years younger. A favorite fact of people who are cynical about MTV's
claim to being the voice of the revolution is that almost all the
money that MTV Networks earns--about three hundred and forty million
this year--goes toward paying off Sumner Redstone's debts. Redstone
made his fortune--which has been reported as high as $5.6 billion--mostly
in movie theatres. (The multiplex concept is a key Redstone innovation.)
Last winter, he was the winner of an expensive bidding war with
Barry Diller for Paramount Communications, Inc., which he acquired
for just under ten billion dollars--a deal that put more commercial
pressure than ever on MTV.
Redstone still owns a modest home in Newton, Massachusetts, where he has lived on and off for thirty-six years. Most of the time, he lives at a hotel on the Upper East Side. He spends early mornings in his suite, looking over the previous night's receipts from his eight hundred and fifty movie theatres--an old habit. He sometimes walks through the Park to work, and arrives at the Viacom Building between seven-thirty and nine-thirty. On the morning we met, Redstone looked happy. He pointed out that the movie "Forrest Gump," owned by his newly acquired studio, was No. 1 at the box office. He said he had been watching a good bit of Nickelodeon because of his five grandchildren, all of whom are in the Nick demo now (ages two to fourteen); they will be moving through the MTV demo soon, and then through the VH-1 demo (twenty-five to forty), and into the Showtime demo (up to forty-nine). All these channels are owned by Redstone. I asked him if he watched much MTV, and he said that he did not: "My demo is more like Benny Goodman and Tony Bennett." He did attend the recent 1994 Video Music Awards, and was appalled to see Kennedy, one of the v.j.s, who likes to go on about her devotion to Republicans, tongue her microphone while Mayor Giuliani was talking. The following day, Redstone called Freston in outrage. (When I asked Freston about this, he put on his most mature expression and said, "I think it is highly inappropriate. The Mayor of New York goes out of his way to welcome the Video Music Awards back to New York, and Kennedy fellates the microphone. Being on the leading edge is one thing, but fellating the mike while interviewing the Mayor--I don't see what envelope that is pushing.")
In 1979, there was a fire at the Copley Plaza Hotel, in Boston, where Redstone was staying at the time. Redstone had to hang by one hand from a ledge outside his room for ten minutes until he could be rescued by a ladder. He was badly burned, and his right hand doesn't feel like a hand when you shake it. (He has a special tennis racquet, which he wraps around his right hand, and is considered a fierce competitor.) In the years that followed the fire, people who know him say, Redstone has pursued his business affairs with the single-mindedness and the zest of a man who has been given two chances to live. Freston told me a story about going to a Knicks game with Redstone shortly after his purchase of Paramount--which brought with it the Knicks, the Rangers, and Madison Square Garden. Redstone, who is not a sports fan, had never been inside the Garden before. "Gee, this place is great!" he kept saying. It was a playoff game, and John Starks was having an off night. "Fire that man!" Redstone said. (He has since sold off his sports assets to Cablevision Systems and I.T.T.)
Many people advised Redstone against buying MTV, arguing that its day was over, but MTV's ratings have picked up in the nineties, and now it is making more money than ever. It has nimbly skipped from Culture Club to Van Halen to Michael Jackson to Madonna to Kurt Cobain to Snoop Doggy Dogg. It jumped on rap before any of the mainstream radio stations began to play it (most still don't), and has thrived in a climate in which popular music continues to split up into smaller parts. MTV is like what Top Forty radio used to be. It has a popular live-music series, "MTV Unplugged"; an action-adventure series, "Dead at 21," which is about a young man in the demo who has a computer chip implanted in his head and has to have it deactivated before he turns twenty-one; a drama series, "The Real World," starring real-life demo kids, now in its third season and more popular than ever; a fashion showcase, "House of Style," hosted by Cindy Crawford; and, of course, it has "Beavis and Butt-head."
"People said when I bought MTV that it was a fad," Redstone told me. "Now we're in two hundred and fifty million homes. The only place we aren't is Antarctica, because there aren't enough Eskimos who want to watch us, and South Africa, where we hope to be next year. What we have found, you see, is that kids on the streets in Tokyo have more in common with kids on the streets in London than they do with their parents. We're catching these kids at a stage in life when all kids are essentially the same, when they virtually have to rebel from their parents. By the way, this is also why freedom fighters all over the world associate themselves with MTV. In Eastern European countries during the collapses of the Communist regimes, we were getting calls from governments offering to give us a terrestrial channel, because MTV was such a symbol of freedom, of cool (well, governments don't say cool), of being progressive. You know, I have a picture--Hilary, could you bring that picture over?"
Redstone directed the corporate relations person who was sitting with us toward the window area, where there was a picture of two East German soldiers sitting on the Berlin Wall holding an umbrella that said MTV on it. Hilary brought the picture over and handed it to Redstone, and he handed it to me. "There," he said. I looked at the picture, passed it to Redstone, and he passed it to Hilary to put back. "We began broadcasting over there the day before the Wall fell," he said, "and I used to kid that we were the reason it happened."
"Excuse me, is this a piece of the Wall?" Hilary asked from the window, holding up a chunk of concrete.
Redstone looked over toward her and seemed bewildered for a moment. Then he said, "Yes. Yes, I think it is."
About a year ago, I entered a confusing
period in my life, when I started listening to new bands with an
enthusiasm I had never had before--not even when I myself was in
the demo. I grew a freaky beard, shaved it, and then stopped cutting
my hair. When my hair got down around my eyes, I started listening
to Snoop Doggy Dogg somewhat obsessively, riding the subway to work
with my Discman on, completely into the "dee-oh-double-gee," thinking
to myself, Man, you are cool, you are sitting on the subway and
none of these people are going to fuck with you and if they do fuck
with you you are going to fuck them up. What's my muthafuckin name?
It did occur to me sometimes that I was not a twenty-two-year-old
black man walking around South Central L.A., not a gangsta with
my gat in my pocket and only my homeys to watch my back, but a comfortable
thirty-five-year-old white man on his way to his office in midtown
Manhattan. Most of the time, though, I didn't think about who I
was--I was just digging the murderous styles and poetical techniques
When I was in the demo, I thought that thirty-five was middle-aged--I thought of my father as middle-aged at thirty-five-but now that I was thirty-five I felt young in a relaxed way that I didn't at twenty-four, when I was consumed with worry about how my life was going to turn out. But was this youthful feeling real? Or was it an illusion, created by media in general and MTV in particular? Magazines tell you what it is like to be young, but watching MTV actually makes you feel young, even if you are not; the promise woven into many of MTV's image promos is that you can stay young by watching it. Before MTV, you had to go to clubs or rock concerts to know how hip young people were dressing and thinking and acting. But now, thanks to MTV, you can know the code words the gangsta rappers use for cop killing without ever having been to a rap concert, let alone on the streets of South Central L.A.
Judy McGrath told me about a four-hour compilation of Nirvana footage that she had had made for herself, because she thought Kurt's death was the saddest thing in the world. It contained all of Nirvana's videos, the "Unplugged" concert, an interview with Kurt in a yellow satin ball gown, and Nirvana's acceptance speech at the 1993 MTV Video Music Awards, when Kurt grinningly displayed his unbuttoned fly onstage. When she offered me a copy of this videotape, I shamelessly accepted it and even reminded her about it when she seemed to forget, and then sat at home watching it over and over again.
During this period, I was also watching lots of MTV--more even than McGrath would approve of. MTV is probably best watched as a mood modulator. If you're up, it brings you down, and if you're way down it brings you up. Because MTV's programming is designed with the technology of the remote control in mind, there is a great deal of repetition. To me the images seemed to flow in concentric circles. There was a tight loop of attractive body parts, which worked out to something like a breast, a biceps, or a buttcheek every fifteen seconds; then a fifteen-minute loop of black guys moving through dark, forbidding-looking urban dwellings, long-haired white guys soaring across cornfields, hot-looking black girl singers, troubled-looking white girl singers, and heavy-metal guys in amazing displays of manliness, all jumbled together with a speed made famous by MTV; and, finally, a three-hour loop during which the videos currently in heavy rotation were played and then started coming around again. After a day or so of watching, the repetition became monumental, and I felt the boredom sink into my skull until it was difficult to tell my consciousness and the television apart. Maybe this is where the secret path to nirvana lies--the nirvana that people who watch a lot of MTV say is possible to achieve, but I never really found it. I did manage to flatten my perceptions in a way that left me feeling cool, but not cool in the sense of hip--more like cool in the way you might feel with saline solution dripping into your arm.
"What is haaappening?" my wife, Lisa, asked nervously when she came home late one evening and found me sitting in the dark watching "Beavis and Butt-head." I explained that "Beavis and Butt-head" was like "The Simpsons" but darker, and that the really compelling thing about the show was the relationship between the two boys: Beavis is so strange that only Butt-head--who is even more of a loser than Beavis is--will hang out with him, and treating Beavis like shit is the price that Butt-head extracts for taking care of him.
"And it's funny," I said.
"Uhhhh, I got to take a dump," Butt-head said.
"That's funny?" Lisa asked.
"Well, it is sort of funny."
One day, I rode out to the MTV Beach House
with Andy Schuon, who is the head of music and programming. Insofar
as any one person is responsible for the video-to-video flow of
images on MTV, it is Schuon, and this is interesting, because Schuon
was originally a radio guy. He was a boy-wonder d.j., who started
working in Reno when he was fifteen, and moved quickly to different
radio stations around the country. He skipped college and ended
up as the program director of KROQ, a big L.A. rock station, when
he was twenty-five. MTV recruited Schuon two and a half years ago
to help rejuvenate its image, and Schuon has moved MTV strongly
into alternative music, which is now its mainstay.
Schuon is a fast-food junkie-for his thirtieth-birthday party in the office recently, his colleagues fêted him with Quarter Pounders, cold French fries, chocolate shakes, and pizza--and from time to time while we were sitting in traffic on the Long Island Expressway he would say he couldn't wait to stop at the 7-Eleven at Exit 70 for a Super Big Gulp, which is 7-Eleven's massive (forty-four-ounce) container of soda. "You got to love it-a Big Gulp," he said. I sensed that somewhere in Andy Schuon's exact relationship to a Big Gulp lay an important insight into MTV and its role in American culture, but I never quite grasped it.
The Beach House was one of Schuon's ideas. It is a good example of what MTV does very well, which is inexpensively packaging the music videos in a way that gives them a theme and a flow, and brands them with the MTV image. The Beach House was, Schuon explained, a way of "making MTV feel like summer." He described it as "a destination resort for the mind." The Beach House is in fact a real house, and most of the v.j. segments that string together the videos in the summer are shot there. To the MTV viewer, the Beach House is a gingerbread house made out of eye candy-a non-stop party with the coolest people on the planet.
Riding in Schuon's Infiniti, I was reflecting on the theme that seemed to run through all my MTV experience--the ironic confusion of real life and television life, and wondering to what extent I was a victim of it myself. In MTV's popular series "The Real World," recent college graduates are selected by the producers, moved into a cool house or loft in a cool city (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and, next season,London), manipulated by the producers to various degrees, and then their "lives" are filmed and edited into drama. The MTV Beach House is "The Real World" in reverse: a television set is made to appear like a real house, and the v.j.s who hang out there engage sarcastically in real-life activities--eating dinner, sleeping, falling in love, sitting on the toilet. Sometimes the v.j.s pretend to be people on "The Real World." No one actually lives in the Beach House; the crew was living for the summer in a motel down the road.
I asked Schuon whether he worried about getting older.
"No way," he said. "Hang around MTV all day, go to concerts, listen to new music, go to Roseland--you'll never grow old. You won't."
The sun was going down when we arrived at the Beach House, a nice shingled house on the beach in eastern Long Island which MTV had rented for the season. A crew of about fifteen demo kids was busy setting up for an evening performance by Babyface, an R. & B. singer-songwriter. They were supervised by Lauren Levine, the head producer of the Beach House, who is British, and who told me that they were all completely "fagged" because they had been up until three in the morning the night before, "just raging" with two of the New York Rangers, who had dropped by the house--with the Stanley Cup--for the weekend. Earlier that afternoon, as on most afternoons, there had been a group of real-life demo kids hanging out around the pool, serving as extras in the v.j. segments. Lauren said, "Some of these kids we had this afternoon were so beautiful it took your breath away." She put her hand over her heart and looked at me wide-eyed.
A young woman was sitting in the lifeguard chair at the MTV Beach House pool, lettering cue cards for Bill Bellamy, a v.j., who was shooting segments with Babyface. A large off-duty cameraman went down the Action Park MTV Beach House water slide, head first, and made a tremendous splash. Kennedy was upstairs, dressed in pajamas and lying in bed with the model Veronica Webb, shooting spots for "Alternative Nation," MTV's midnight-to-one block of video programming. Three young women were on phones upstairs recruiting a group of kids for that evening's Babyface performance. They were working with annotated lists ("cute guy," "sexy," etc.) of the names and numbers of kids who had been at the Beach House before. I asked one of the women, Lisi Gottleib, how they had found the kids in the first place, and she said, "Well, we found a bunch of them right out here on Montauk Highway. There was a car accident, and a bunch of kids were standing around, so we went out and said, 'Hey, do you want to come to the Beach House?' "
From the upstairs terrace, I could see the demo kids massing out on the road. Security personnel led them, in batches, past the Beach House and down the steps to the beach. Two girls slipped out of the line and got into the Beach House itself. Lauren intercepted them.
"Bill told me it would be cool if we just came over and hung out," one of the girls said.
"This is a television set," said Lauren. "You can't just hang out."
Once all the kids were seated on the beach, the producers began walking back and forth, looking them over. The most attractive-looking kids were chosen for the prime seats, around Babyface, where the camera would most often take them in, and the less attractive kids were placed farther back. Now Lisi Gottleib had a bullhorn, and she was saying, "O.K., we're sorry if you get separated from your friends." She explained that MTV was making a video out of Babyface's performance, and that, to save money, they were shooting with only one camera. Therefore, they were going to film Babyface singing the same song five or six times, and, for the sake of continuity, the kids had to stay put. "Once you're in your seats, please don't move," Gottleib said. "You cannot go to the bathroom." The kids sat in a tight circle on the beach, obediently submitting to this directive, in the service of MTV's youthful ideals.
Kennedy came down the stairs and took a pratfall into the sand, then stood with her back to the kids. Whispers of "Kennedy!" were heard. Two teen-age girls got up and came over to where Kennedy was talking to a crew member, and one took a lock of Kennedy's long dark hair and held it. Kennedy noticed the girls but didn't acknowledge them. Suddenly, she whipped around and gave them a big, fake-ironic smile, said "Hi!" sarcastically, and turned her back on them again.
I retreated up the steps and found Lauren, who was looking back at the Beach House, which would be in the background of some of the shots. "Isn't it lovely?" she said, pointing to the way the pool lights were playing off the side of the house. "I see that and I think, 'Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy.' "
Andy Schuon came up the steps from the beach.
I said, "Hey, I'm ready to go if you are."
"You're not going to stay for the performance?" Lauren asked, sounding hurt.
I apologized. The culling of the cute kids from the non-cute had brought back bad memories of what it is really like to be in the demo, and I was depressed.
"I'll watch it on MTV," I said.
Copyright (c) John Seabrook 2003. All rights
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