Part of the thrill of living in these times is knowing that, no matter how young you may be, relatively speaking, the culture is always working on new and inventive ways to make you feel a thousand years old. That's how I felt when I learned that 120 Minutes, which from 1986 to 2003 was MTV's delivery system for what was called "indie" or "college" or "alternative" rock, was coming back—well, at least "back" to its poor-sister channel, MTV2—with the most beloved of all its hosts, Matt Pinfield. One thing I realized when I heard the news was that I have no idea what the current cliches of music video might be. I still see music videos, sure—maybe two or three a year, whenever someone like Spike Jonze directs one for someone like Arcade Fire, or Lady Gaga perpetrates some outrage that I need to look at if I don't want to be confused when it's deemed worthy of comment by The Daily Show. Then I go online and, by God, I watch that video. But as for what the run of the mill stuff that's providing the bulk of the fodder for MTV2 and the other spinoff channels that MTV created when it basically abandoned the form, I'm out of the loop. I have no idea what they're repeatedly pounding into the ground these days.
Back in the '90s and late '80s, I did know. Dear God, did I know. Of course, like any quiveringly angry young prat who liked to pretend that he was born with an overabundance of sharp, informed taste, I loathed and despised MTV. I must have been afraid that, without constant exposure to it, I would forget why I hated it and start recommending it to people, because, thinking back now, I can scarcely remember a moment when I was alone and had the house or apartment or dorm room to myself and didn't have it on. (At the same time, I would have been about as likely to turn it on when there was someone around to see me do it as I would have been to crack open a porn rag.)
The sheer, sugary buzziness of the programming was hard to resist, though for those of us who resented the network for its hold on us, what made it irresistible may have been the fact that the cheap thrill of it all did not preclude your feeling superior to everyone involved. So many happy memories! Those seemingly endless months in 1985 when Cyndi Lauper, joined at the hip with Captain Lou Albano, seemed to take over the network in order to promote both The Goonies and professional wrestling on TV, and, in the process, strangling her own career to death in its crib. Martha Quinn, reporting on Live Aid, saying that the crowd was "reacting almost as if [the performance] was live," after which one of her co-hosts gently tried to explain to her that the event they were covering was not in fact a hologram. The time, before the collapse of South African apartheid, that Mark Goodman referred to the Peter Gabriel song "Biko", with its refrain of "The man is dead, the man is dead", and then, his voice dropping to the depths of troubled fake sincerity, explained that it was about Stephen Biko, who, he said, "is still…in prison… over there," and viewers' jaws dropped as they realized that, not only didn't he know shit about world events, but he'd never even listened to the lyrics of the damn song!
Of course, in holding up my end of this bizarre, unhealthy, sadomasochistic relationship with a bunch of millionaires I would never meet, it helped that MTV never seemed to have any interest in any music that I liked—and when it did, as if by accident, make a star out of someone in whom I saw possibilities (like the aforementioned Ms. Lauper), its corrupting influence was fact-acting and an awesome thing to see, like one of those science films that, through time-lapse photography, shows you a wolf's carcass rotting away to nothing inside of ten seconds. 120 Minutes (and, later, Yo! MTV Raps) actually changed the dynamics of the relationship a little.
These shows were easy to sneer at and make fun of. I know, because I sneered at them and made fun of them, and doing things that are not easy has never been a part of my playbook. They were compromised and watered-down and what have you. But watching them while collapsed around the living room with my friends, I discovered that it did feel different sneering and making smartass remarks when Tom Verlaine or That Petrol Emotion or the Godfathers or the Go-Betweens were onscreen felt different that doing it to, say, Huey Lewis. At the very least, in those pre-download days, we could get a taste of what their new records sounded like. Above and beyond the very least, we were experiencing the unfamiliar sensation of having some modest connection to the culture at large, And I'm not gonna lie: when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was lifted out of the farm team of 120 Minutes into heavy rotation on the mothership, it was thrilling. As George Costanza once put it, "Yes! My guys can swim!"
So how is the new 120 Minutes from the old dinosaur? In terms of presentation, the biggest change may be that the old 120 Minutes and what it came to represent—especially in the eyes of MTV and Pinfield himself, who seems ready to carve his face onto Mount Rushmore, next to Eddie Vedder's and Thom Yorke's—is now part of recent pop culture history, and has to be acknowledged and dealt with. It might have been exciting to see Pinfield and company try to address this issue by creating a show that would feel dramatically different in a way that would clearly send the message, we used to do the show in a way that was right for then—this is how it's right to do it now. You may not be shocked shitless when I reveal that, rather than try that route, the new show mostly deals with its past identity by including some old videos from the '90s in the mix with the new stuff.
This isn't such a bad idea in itself, but I wish that Pinfield didn't give the oldies such a gaseous buildup, tenderly honoring them as "classics" from the golden age of video rock. It would also be nice to see attention paid to worthy obscurities rather than such chestnuts of alienation and angst as Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" and Radiohead's "Just". (Introducing "Jeremy", Pinfield notes that the video was, originally, mostly shown in a censored version that, ironically, left viewers with the impression that the suicide at the end was actually a classroom mass shooting. Not a little sternly, he congratulates himself on showing the video "the way it was meant to be seen." He doesn't mention that it was MTV that did the censoring in the bad old days, but then, if he was trying to skirt that, I don't know who he could fool. In 1992, who besides MTV could have so badly wanted a Pearl Jam video they could broadcast that they would have bothered to re-edit it?)
Pinfield himself is the same old amiable cue ball who used to turn up in commercials for a local New York record store, boasting that he knew what he was talking about with his music recommendations—his "personal picks"—because "I know the artists, I interview them, and I hang with them." He's a douche, but as douches go, he's intelligent and wears well. He's not a critic or a crank or a geek, with strong tastes and accompanying passionate loves and even more passionate hatreds. He's a booster through and through, as thrilled to be introducing a performance clip from Mumford & Sons, Britain's latest answer to sleeping sickness, as he is to be standing a foot away from Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells and watching her twist her lower extremities into alluring pretzel shapes. (He even sounds thrilled delivering the trivia filler bits that lead into and out of the commercial breaks: Anthony Kiedis has grown a mustache! The first album ever purchased by the lead singer for Kings of Leon was by Boyz II Men!)
As if we didn't get it that his cup runneth over, Pinfield promises, heading into the second half hour, that there will be "interviews with Lupe Fiasco, P J Harvey, Kings of Leon, Dangermouse, Das Racist, Zach Braff, the Black Angels, Dave Grohl, and, up next, Sleigh Bells." Wait a minute, Zach Braff? One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong. (Braff seems to be there to plug a play he's written, though to justify his presence here, he and Pinfield take turns mentioning the Garden State soundtrack every two minutes. If Zach Braff thinks that his greatest accomplishment was to put some songs by the Shins in a hard-to-sit-through movie he made seven years ago, I'm not going to argue with him.)
The sit-down with Grohl goes a long way towards clarifying what's frustrating about Pinfield, because many of the qualities in question mirror what's frustrating about Grohl. Like Pinfield, Grohl identifies himself as, first and foremost, a "fan", someone who got a few lucky breaks and now gets to be on equal terms, and even sometimes play with, his rock heroes. "You've got to love a humble rock star," says Pinfield in summation, "and Dave is as down-to-earth as they come." I don't want to bash Dave Grohl, who's certainly earned the right to lie back in the sand and drink wine from a conch shell. But the fact is, I don't hang with musicians, I listen to their music, and humble rock stars aren't something I have a pressing need for. I'd just as soon they were unhinged and ego-driven and bent out of shape from being driven to create new sounds so exciting and untoppable that they make everyone else who sings into a mike for a living want to pull a Jeremy.
Those qualities are on tap in many of Pinfield's other guests, and there are traces of it in some of the new videos, but Pinfield can't really draw it out of them, because he isn't a probing interviewer. He's, well, a fan, a fan and a booster, who must assume that the folks at home will be as over the moon from seeing him sitting next to P J Harvey as he is from sitting next to her. So he isn't going to risk breaking the spell by asking her any questions that might make her furrow her brow in thought, let alone in irritation: there will be no Marc Maron/Gallagher moments here, for sure. The uncontested high point of the premiere episode is a brief, in-studio visit with Das Racist, who are loose and rude (in a very friendly, affable way) and as hilarious as their video for "Rainbow in the Dark." They run rings around Pinfield, and for a minute there's a real anarchic spirit—you know, the stuff that is supposed at the heart of rock—on display. Then it's over, much too quickly, and the most dispiriting thing is that you're not sure that the producers even know what they had.
Beyond presentation, the big question about reviving 120 Minutes now is, what, and who, is the show for? Back in the day, the show existed to help break artists, to maybe introduce performers to people who might like them, who could learn of their existence just by turning on the TV. Now, less than ten years after the original 120 Minutes ran its course, artists break via the Internet, and it's easier and cheaper to investigate a new artist than in the days when seeing a video by someone you'd never heard of before might necessitate a trip to the record store. At the same time, the pop scene has become so vast and compartmentalized that you need boundless energy and curiosity to keep up with everything interesting that's going on. (And if you're not careful, you still might get trapped in a car with somebody who wants to listen to Mumford & Sons.) The new 120 Minutes could best justify its existence not by celebrating its own glorious history or by adding pages to Matt Pinfield's autograph book but by using its two hours a month to distill what's going on for people who still like to get some of their music news from TV.
What's promising about the first episode is that it actually makes a pretty decent stab at calling the viewers' attentions to the right "up-and-comers", to use one of Pinfield's pet phrases. It just doesn't seem to know how to make the best use of some of them. The show will be broadcast on the final weekend of every month; the next installment promises appearances by Liam Gallagher, Death Cab for Cutie, Big Boi, and, yes, sweet Jesus, Mumford & Sons. As those names indicate, doing a show like this on a monthly basis kind of precludes any chance that it'll be right out there on the cutting edge, but it also means that the producers should have time enough to get things right, if that's something they have an interest in doing. For now, I'm rooting for them. I know I devoted a lot of this space to sneering and making fun. But old habits die hard, you know?