MTV: tone deaf at 25

The network that cut its teeth on the hip and hot of the music industry has turned its back on the times and the tunes.

Published September 7, 2006

There was a symbolic funereal moment during last week's MTV Video Music Awards, a pathetic, overlong debacle that should be dragged to the pop-culture woodshed and shot through its Moonman head.

After another lackluster performance by another forgettable band, the camera panned the star-studded crowd at Radio City Music Hall and found Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Pink, usually the lives of the party, all looking devastatingly bored.

Even worse, they looked totally out of place.

And at that very moment, I realized a cold, sad truth about the cable network that celebrated its 25th anniversary this year:

MTV hates music.

Okay, maybe hates is too strong a word. Resents is probably more accurate - as in, MTV resents the core reason it got into business. MTV resents having to take time away from lusty-teen reality shows. MTV resents having to accept the charges when Billy Squier calls collect.

Like FM radio, MTV is finally and utterly irrelevant as a source of music appreciation.

Everyone knows MTV stopped caring about music videos years ago. On a chilly day in 1992 - that is, when The Real World debuted - MTV commenced ditching their initial art form in favor of cheapo reality television (My Super Sweet 16, Laguna Beach), sloppy game shows (Yo Momma!, Pimp My Ride) and Spring Break boobathons.

But here's the thing: At least during those rare moments when it cranked up the tunes, MTV faked like it still appreciated pop music.

Not anymore.

If the VMAs are a microcosm of MTV's current musical aptitude, consider this: Kelly Clarkson is arguably the hottest pop singer on the planet, but not only was she a no-show at this year's VMAs, but her win for best female pop video was downplayed to the point of disdain. Mariah Carey had the biggest-selling album of last year, but if she was mentioned at the event, I didn't hear it. This year's biggest breakout band, Gnarls Barkley, was all but ignored at the VMAs - although they did play the MTV Movie Awards, which is telling in itself.

You know what the biggest-selling album of this year is? The soundtrack to High School Musical, a cheapo Disney Channel movie-turned-phenomenon. MTV pretends like it doesn't exist.

And it's not like the network is once again throwing bones to people over 25. When they tried to nod to older, wiser music fans at the VMAs, they gave us a doddering Lou Reed and a confused Axl Rose.

These days, when MTV "stops being real" and shows us the stars, it deals almost exclusively in celebrity. The network takes its cues from who's boinking whom on the cover of US Weekly. The biggest story lines at the VMAs and on daily update show TRL usually involve two fractured couples: Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson (still separated, still not talking) and Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie (still separated, still not eating). Calling any of them a "musician" should be a jailable offense.

Twenty five years ago, MTV was your first stop for what's hip, what's hot, what's not in music. MTV was kickstarted on the danger and sex appeal of pop stars. Not just what they sounded like, but what they looked like when they crooned and swooned and battled hungry wolf-women in generic jungles.

I was 11 when the channel debuted, and MTV was teenage America's guiding light. Not knowing Martha Quinn was the equivalent of getting picked last in kickball. Welcome to the Loser's Club, kid. Enjoy Friday Night Videos.

But MTV has lost all of its buzz factor. I watched MTV for hours and hours the other night, desperate for a faint whiff of rock 'n' roll rebellion. But alas, the sole programming was Parental Control, a reality game show in which Mom and Dad try to break up their children's relationships. One after the other, the kids proudly talked about being "goal-oriented." It made me want to buy my 2-year-old a tongue ring.

How sad. MTV grew up to be a clueless 25-year-old with a lame record collection. MTV is a follower, not a leader. MTV is no fun to be around.

And MTV is a buzzkill. Just when the VMAs were winding down and needed something, anything to save them: Ladies and gentlemen . . . Al Gore! The former VP's melting-glacier spiel was sad. But even sadder was how Al looked a lot more comfortable on MTV than Jay-Z, Snoop and Pink.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.

Sean's daily dose

When it comes to staying on top of the pop scene - music, videos and related goodies - MTV isn't even on my radar screen. Instead, my daily ritual involves the following:

* My first stop every morning is iTunes www.apple.com/itunes , Apple's digital-music emporium and the best barometer for what's going on in pop. The site, which also ranks the hottest videos and TV shows, is this generation's MTV. If you can't talk playlists and downloads, you're stuck in Squaresville, dude. I also check out www.rollingstone.com and www.billboard.com .

* If I want to see a music video, I go to YouTube (www.youtube.com ), an online video-sharing service that is quickly replacing MySpace.com as the primary hangout for young kids showing off for other young kids. YouTube shows more than 100-million clips per day, including homemade clips (you can post them yourself), music videos, even TV shows and short films. Another fun stop is www.tmz.com , a gossip-driven news service featuring video clips and photos.

* When I need a quick fix of pop-culture candy, I go to What Would Tyler Durden Do (wwtdd.com ), one of the hottest, funniest Web sites devoted to celebrity badness. For a juicy fix of rock 'n' roll decadence, I tune in VH1 or go to www.vh1.com . Long considered MTV for grownups, VH1 now trumps MTV's cool factor by leaps and bounds. Along with highlighting heavy-metal acts and running constant musical countdowns, VH1's most talked about show is The Flavor of Love, which stars Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav auditioning wanton women to be his bed buddy. Now that's rock 'n' roll.

- SEAN DALY, Times pop music critic