Realizing that The A.V. Club needed to take a step outside our music-snob bubble, two critics were dispatched to brave the wilds of VH1's Top 20 Video Countdown, and return with a report on the state of mainstream music and the art of video-making at the dawn of 2006. Here's their report on the Friday, February 24th episode:
Noel Murray: First off, I've got to say that as much as I like Aamer Haleem as a host, his little bridging segments at Medieval Times are too PM Magazine, circa 1986. Then again, a lot of this countdown seems like a trip through a time machine. Start with Number 20 on the countdown, "Control Myself," by LL Cool J, featuring J-Lo. Aside from the fact that there are too many "L"s and "J"s in this act, it's a weird pairing because it yokes together two actor/musicians who've been around for over a decade without forging any kind of recognizable sound or style.
I bet this song sounds great at a club, where the sexy grunts and "report to the dance floor" calls get the crowd moving. As a video, though, it's pretty much a tease. It's all about celebrities pretending they're getting ready to get it on, when they probably won't even see each other again until next year's VMAs.
Keith Phipps: I really like Aamer Haleem, too. I don't know when they tape the VH1 Top 20 Video Countdown, but he always seems slightly hungover and yet able to muster up enthusiasm for wherever they're taping the show this week. Medieval Times might be his biggest challenge yet.
I think you're too hard on LL Cool J. If he'd retired or just started acting full time after Mama Said Knock You Out, he'd still be a legend. Radio is one of my all-time favorite albums, but he's entered the Van Morrison phase of his career, where the most respectful thing to do is just ignore whatever he's doing now and remember the past. I don't think he's sounded energized since Canibus prompted him to release "The Ripper Strikes Back" back in the late '90s. He needs another good feud, but really, who would bother?
Let's move on to Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home Again," in which the venerable rockers cavort with Jennifer Neetles of Sugarland while building Habitat For Humanity homes with professional athletes, policemen, and firefighters.
NM: That's Bon Jovi for you. Always giving back. Although I do wonder about the scene toward the end where the medicine cabinet falls off the wall. It makes it seem like if Bon Jovi helps build your house, your house will turn out kind of shitty.
By the way, here we have another artist who could've been on a video countdown 20 years ago, though not with this song, which doesn't sound very Bon Jovi-ish. It's got a melody, for one thing, and it's kind of a country song. It'll probably sound great on American Idol next year, belted out by whichever blond hayseed wanders into the wrong audition room.
Meanwhile, the Number 18 video, Prince's "Black Sweat," sounds exactly like an old Prince song. Specifically, it sounds like "Kiss." The video's even in black-and-white, à la "Kiss." It's not a bad song, but whenever I hear Prince reviving his loverman persona, I can't help but think about Spy magazine's parody of the Tina Brown-edited New Yorker, which featured a poem by Prince called "U R 6 E."
KP: I love Prince and I really want him to be relevant again. And I know I'm not alone: Enough fans wanted him to have a comeback that they pretended his 2004 album Musicology wasn't just another in a long line of mediocrities. (See also, from the same year, Morrissey's You Are The Quarry.) This doesn't quite do it for me, but it's the best thing I've heard from him for a while. It sounds like "Kiss," but with a little G-funk keyboard line to give it a 1993 feel. I'm afraid time has passed Prince by. But he can still vamp like nobody's business.
In the number 17 slot, it's KT Tunstall with the puzzlingly titled "Black Horse And The Cherry Tree." I'd heard good things about Tunstall, who's huge in England, but I don't get it. This song–and I know this sounds contradictory–sounds simultaneously fussed-over and stripped-down. Her smoky Melissa Etheridge-inspired vocals don't do a thing for me either. But then neither does Melissa Etheridge.
NM: I'm hearing more the folk-pop class of the late '80s: Michelle Shocked and Sinéad O'Connor, specifically. The video even reminds me of one of those cheapie early O'Connor videos, like the one for "Jump In The River" that always gave me a headache when it played on 120 Minutes. This song's not so bad, really, but I can do without the way she's being packaged. See, she's playing all the instruments. See, she's a real musician.
Meanwhile, Madonna makes no pretense of being a real anything on the 16th song on the countdown, "Sorry." This song's like "Music" redux and the video is too, with lots of '70s signifiers to go with Madonna's Farrah-hair. She may be the only Farrah-haired diva today who actually wore her hair that way the first time it was popular.
This video is really hard to take your eyes off of, probably because throughout, Madonna keeps moving her hands closer and closer to her soft bits, high and low. Will she ever reach paydirt? Does she have to fight in a cage match first? And where can I flag down one of those traveling lap-dance vans?
KP: I'm guessing they're all over London, ferrying the cool kids to back alleys where aging pop stars engage in yoga-based martial arts in cages. I like this better than "Music." It's appealing in the same way as "Hung Up," the first single from Confessions On A Dance Floor: She's pretty much given up pretense of art and social commentary and turned out some high-end Euro-disco. But is that Elvish she's speaking at the beginning and end?
I can barely bring myself to type this, but I kind of like the next song too, Jack Johnson's "Upside Down" from the Curious George soundtrack. Johnson has never stood out for me from the current pack of wuss-rockers, but this isn't bad. Maybe it's that it sounds not-at-all-overproduced, just a nice little gently strummed song for the kids. Or maybe it's just that Johnson seems genuinely sweet when he interacts with the cartoon monkey. I wouldn't seek this out, but if I had kids, I wouldn't feel bad about buying it for them.
NM: This video would be banned in China by the way, under the new rules that prohibit animated characters from interacting with live actors. I'm not kidding.
This song's fine for what it is, though it reminds me a little of Josh Rouse's "Sad Eyes," and seeing Johnson on VH1 makes me wish that Rouse could catch this kind of break. Maybe if he gets the gig scoring the Sammy The Seal movie…
Next up is Goo Goo Dolls' "Better Days," occupying one of several "we're sick of showing this video, so we're just going to show a 20-second clip" spots on the show. Which gives a chance to talk about the videos that Haleem assures us are hovering "just below the countdown," using whatever arcane procedures VH1 uses to figure these things out. This week the standouts are O.A.R., doing their level best not to sound like O.A.R., and Kanye West, pretending to be Evel Knievel. The less said about Sia, the better.
KP: That Kanye West video looks beyond awesome. Why must it hover below while Goo Goo Dolls video still hovers above? I have nothing to say about the Goo Goo Dolls, so I won't even try. That Santana video just hurts, though. Everyone accuses of Santana of coasting on the same riffs for 35 years… and they're right. There are worse things, but the addition of Steven Tyler just makes this toxic. Clearly they brought in whoever conceives Aerosmith's videos to do this one, because it's got a bunch of trademarks: A girl goes wild and attempts to put a troubled past behind her. Her dad leaves, her teacher sexually harasses her, her boyfriend dies in a car accident, but in the end, her mom gives her some attention and she returns to her studies. Maybe the message is, "Kids, stay in school or you might end up like the other woman in this video: Pouring drinks and making out with Steven Tyler."
NM: This song and video remind me of one of those Natalie Cole-style posthumous duets. It's like Santana took an old Aerosmith track and noodled all over it, then had himself digitally inserted into the video. Or maybe Santana is supposed to be the Greek Chorus, stoically insisting that whether touching is appropriate or inappropriate, we should all keep rocking on.
Not much to say about the next "also receiving votes" entry, Pussycat Dolls' "Stickwitu," except that video Number 11, Pink's "Stupid Girls," could be a comment on its list-mate. This is the best video of the countdown so far, even if the song's not all that exciting in and of itself. It's not just that Pink is sending out a positive message–that young girls should strive to be smart and athletic instead of pre-cancerous, artificially busty, and anorexic. It's that Pink calls out Paris Hilton specifically, parodying Hilton's Carl's Jr. ad, recreating Hilton's sex tape, and shopping for one of those little yappy dogs. I know Hilton's an easy target, but maybe if people hit her enough, she'll finally skulk away.
KP: I like Pink too, and I appreciated the directness of her attack, although I can't help but feel she has it both ways here: She gets to make fun of the "stupid girls" who rely on their sex appeal by skanking it up in her own video. I always feel like she's as daring and edgy as her label feels will be profitable. But whatever, it's still a cut above a lot of stuff.
Which is more than you can say for Jamie Foxx's "Unpredictable." Foxx is a great actor, but he still has a lot to prove as a singer. This is just, ugh, terrible, except when Ludacris shows up and it turns into a totally different song. When Foxx's album came out, Slate compared it to The Onion's Smoove B. I think this is too cheesy for Smoove. Also, assuming that the Beyoncé track didn't drop like a brick, there are three Hype Williams-directed videos on this countdown that all use the same trick, putting a widescreen image sandwiched between a split image where the letterboxing black bars would normally be. It's pretty lame.
NM: What's funny is that I didn't even note that it was Hype Williams the first time I saw that effect, way back at Number 20. But you better believe I noticed it the next two times. And not in a "hey, that's neat!" way.
"Unpredictable" is in a close race with Staind's "Right Here" for my least-favorite video in the countdown. Weren't we done with Staind? Didn't the "rock is back" bands at the start of the '00s knock nü-metal off the charts for good? As a song, "Right Here" features pretty much everything I hated about that movement in the first place, from the sober self-obsession of the lyrics to the dully virtuosic guitar-playing. As a video, it's even more excruciating. A band as homely as Staind should not be shot in close-up. And aren't they performing in the same stately old house that was in Train's "Drops Of Jupiter" video?
KP: I second everything you just said. And to skip ahead two slots, weren't we done with Train, too? The song's bad, but the video's the just about the most dully literal interpretation of a song I've ever seen. It's called "Cab," and the lead singer spends most of the video riding around in a cab. He's lonely and everything's grey. Gak. How do these bands stick around? Does mediocrity have its own kind of weird momentum that allows acts like Train to just keep pooping albums onto the charts? Is it simply brand recognition? Do people listen to Train because they've been listening to Train for a few years and don't want to switch? That's why I buy the same paper towels every time, but those principles shouldn't apply to music. I guess we should back up and talk about All-American Rejects, but let's just not, okay?
Also, I think Aamer's had some coffee. He's perked up quite a bit now that we're in the Top 10.
NM: I do like the thought that this is how the guy from Train spends his days now, stalking women at two bucks a mile.
But here's the thing about the persistence of Train, Staind, and for that matter Rob Thomas, whose "Ever The Same" ducks in at number six: I'm almost willing to believe that VH1 would rather keep programming their videos than admit they were wrong to hype them up in the first place. I guess you could call it loyalty to a bunch of acts that helped VH1 make the transition from boomers to maturing Gen-X-ers, but it's a weird kind of revisionist history they're writing, where Matchbox 20 really was the most important band of their era.
KP: So it's all VH1's fault? Somehow I always suspected… You're right, though: This chart makes it seem like the years between, say, 1987 and 1995 never happened. On the one hand, we've got '80s giants like Bon Jovi, Prince, Madonna, power-ballad-mode Steven Tyler, and LL Cool J (and I've come to think of Jamie Foxx's singing career as just one long echo of Eddie Murphy's "Party All The Time" single.) On the other, we've got late-'90s/early-'00s headaches that are still around, like Staind, Train, Goo Goo Dolls, and Rob Thomas. There's plenty of stuff that doesn't fall into either category, but those two elements dominate, at least this week.
Some decent stuff slips through, though. I'm not nuts about the Mary J. Blige song at number five, "Be Without You," but she's got a great voice. Also, I kind of like the Mary J. Blige-uses-new-technology-to-express-her-heartbreak theme in this video. In one shot, she's tapping out the lyric on a laptop. In another, she's discovering that she hasn't missed any calls on her cell phone.
NM: Got to love the idea of a wired-up Blige. Do you think she's "logging on" to the "Internet?" I hope she has a "firewall" or someone might "hack in" and steal her "identity."
This video also features Terrence Howard, our second Academy Award-nominated actor of the countdown. And it's one of the few videos with any ambition, telling a mini-story fraught with drama. It's nothing that dozens of other slow-jam hip-hop videos haven't done before, but it's nice to know that somebody's still trying to do something with the form beyond renting an old house and telling the band to look away from the camera.
The Number Four video is Natasha Bettingfield's "Unwritten," which doesn't have much of a story. Natasha gets in a dingy elevator with some dude, then she dodges lens-flares in a field for a few minutes, and then she gets back in the elevator just in time for the gospel choir to arrive. It's not much, but the color's nice, and the video made more of an impression than the song.
Bettingfield looks like the kind of gal who'd be really fun to hang out with, but if you tried to kiss her, I bet she'd freeze up like Flavor-Ice.
KP: Well, she seems pretty untouchable in this video. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I was thinking she was kind of like one of the angels in Wings Of Desire. No one seems to notice her until that guy at the end. Well, I guess the gospel choir notices her.
I just wish no one would notice the Black Eyed Peas, the act that proved, yes, you can still sell out these days. I honestly can't believe I used to look forward to albums from these guys. "Pump It" doesn't do anything to win back my affection. If anything, the video, in which the Peas do battle with various martial-arts types, seems to suggest that if you don't like the Black Eyed Peas, they will beat you up. I kept rooting for the other guys. At least Dick Dale is getting some money from the extremely unimaginatively employed sample.
NM: There's a real corporate-think aspect to "Pump It": What if Black Eyed Peas, kings of the "jock jam," recorded a song that sampled another "jock jam?" Would arenas across the country explode with pep?
And speaking of corporate-think, here's Beyoncé Knowles in at number two with the Pink Panther-related "Check On It," another Hype Williams-directed widescreen/fullscreen mash-up. It's hard to see what's going on beneath the credits, which mention the name of the song, the album, the movie, the director, the singer, the label, and her two guest rappers, Slim Thug and Bun B. It used to be that if you wanted to package together this much talent, you had to go through Mike Ovitz.
KP: I'm pro-Beyoncé, but this is bad, bad, bad. To me, Slim Thug's urbaned-up Pink Panther T-shirt says it all: No matter how street you try to make it, it's still the Pink Panther, just like this is still an extended commercial for the movie and the Beyoncé brand. The music's an afterthought, if that.
And so we reach the end of the road, numero uno, James Blunt's "You're Beautiful." I don't know exactly why, but I detest this. It's music to lose your virginity in a freshman dorm room to. (See also Dave Matthews Band's "Crash" and John Mayer's "Your Body Is A Wonderland.") It sounds sincere, but I suspect once he's had his way with me, he's going to start hitting on my roommate.
NM: This is embarrassing to admit, but I'd never heard of this guy, let alone heard this song, until I watched the VH1 Top 20 Countdown. I'm not wholly opposed to the tune, though the video strikes me as a calculated attempt at indelibility, swiping from Sinéad O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," Coldplay's "Yellow," etc. It's one of those "smoldering dude looks into the camera" videos. Again though, compared to the indistinct soup of forgettable faces and meaningless images that marked the last two hours, "You're Beautiful" is more likely to stick with me.
So, what have we learned, Charlie Brown? Mainly that it's time for Aamer Haleem to say goodbye to the Society For Creative Anachronism and get back to finding out whatever happened to The Blow Monkeys. Beyond that, I hesitate to use one week's worth of VH1 favorites as a gauge of anything. I don't expect the best of modern music to get a fair airing on VH1, or MTV for that matter. But I do wish the videos were better. I guess the more interesting filmmakers are working with the more interesting musicians, who, like I said, are not popping up on VH1.
Also, if current patterns pertain, we can expect to keep seeing James Blunt in the countdown a decade from now, long after people stop buying his records.
KP: I learned that sometimes it's okay to be a rock snob, and that maybe it's things like Top 40 radio and the VH1 countdown that build rock snobs. There's just enough taste of the good stuff to hook young listeners but not so much that they don't have to look elsewhere to get the real thing. I also learned that Bon Jovi is now a country band, Madonna and the Black Eyed Peas could kick my ass, Jamie Foxx and James Blunt want to have sex with me, Mary J. Blige wishes I'd come home, Beyoncé has a movie out, Staind and Train still inexplicably exist, and you can fit a British singer and an entire gospel choir in an elevator, as long as the British singer looks like she hasn't been fed in a week. Also, I remembered why I love my iPod.