[Editor’s Note: I’m physically, intellectually, and emotionally unable to describe the Justin Timberlake FutureSex/LoveShow that aired on HBO last week. In addition, ever since I learned that the show was taped at Madison Square Garden in August, and that my own negligence was the only reason I couldn’t have been there, I’ve been slitting my wrists with the broken shards from my face. So I won’t write about it, but I do encourage everyone to watch it. It’s the closest thing to musical pornography since…well…FutureSex/LoveSounds came out.]
America is not an uncaring nation. Those who classify Americans as a lethargic, apathetic population couldn’t be more heinously misguided. Americans, in fact, care a great deal about a great many things, so our problem isn’t apathy—it’s that we care about MTV.
Contemporary studies show that MTV’s viewing audience has been steadily receding over the past few years. To the untrained eye, this phenomenon indicates that Music Televisions’s hegemony is coming untracked, but the opposite is actually true: the MTV mindset is so ingrained in us that we no longer have to watch it in order to see the world through its lens. Forget Chuck Klosterman’s argument that we process all of our friends as uni-trait automatons because of the Real World character archetypes, and forget how Michael Jackson worked hand-in-hand with MTV to revolutionize how we conceptualize entertainment. Forget, also, about Carson Daly and the ubiquitous MTV logo.
Forget those, and remember this: we exalt singular excellence (Total Request Live) over prolonged performance (Behind the Music). In a narrow way, MTV has propagated the single, the “hit,” as commercially viable. Initially, recording artists had always packaged a bunch of shitty songs around two or three hits and called the whole project an “album,” but the public still bought those albums. So the music world transitioned into the full/concept-album era, wherein musicians utilized the entire album—and not just a couple of tracks—to present quality material. We only have Dark Side of the Moon and Exile on Main St. because the buying public was in album-buying mode. If MTV had been around, however, Pink Floyd and the Stones would have thrown a couple of hits on a shit canvass and sold it for $18.99 plus tax.
MTV devalues wholeness. The single is more important—and far, far sexier—than the record. The part is more valuable than the whole. The MTV era (1981-present) has signalled a large-scale regression back to the days when you could move an entire body of work based on the merit of one or two remarkable selections. That’s become our basic attitude towards pretty much everything, from unstable, superficially pleasing architecture to our obsession with shoes. The single, sexy element is suddenly all that matters, while holistic thinking continues to fight for its survival. We’re obsessed with botox for the same reason that we won’t give organic food a chance: we don’t understand how individual elements comprise a whole. What we put in our lips and our stomachs bears the same gravity as the way we ingest music, and if we over-emphasize quick-fix expediency, we forgo the benefits that nature intended for us to enjoy. To blaspheme for just a second, I'll put it like this: God is organic, and MTV is injected with hormones; God buys albums, and MTV downloads the single.
Last night, MTV paid for its inattention to the larger picture. Their Video Music Awards used an unsuccessful and confusing broadcast strategy, as coverage cut in and out of separate parties (one hosted by Fall Out Boy, one by the Foo Fighters, one by Justin T-Lake and Timbaland) hosted at the Palms Hotel. Furthermore, a succession of artists performed in a blindingly rapid series of oddly staged performances, from Alicia Keys sporting her terrifying thighs to Chris Brown lip-synching and grabbing his crotch like Michael Jackson—all while small afroed dancers mimicked his movements.
For years, MTV has been purifying its toxic brand of single-celebration, and it finally caved in on itself at the VMA’s. It became impossible to discern one party from the next, or one performance from its predecessor, and the only thing that was abundantly apparent was that MTV didn't draw a distinction between them, either. Each single element has been so removed from its whole, so extracted from its context, that each has lost its respective identity. One couldn’t decrypt Akon from 50 Cent or Kanye from Jamie Foxx. The VMA’s—and MTV at large—were an homage to the forced type of success that modern entertainment heaps on disparate, incongruous parts, and the experiment failed.
Stay Single, MTV