What Happened to VH1?
ulture should be experienced on the fringe. The outskirts, the badlands, those bastions of weirdness and marginality: this is where mainstream homogeneity breaks down to make way for the birth of What Is To Come. In television, that corporately controlled cultural hegemon, "fringe" frequently corresponds to the gutter of cable TV, where the race for tinier and tinier niche markets twists and distorts the very fabric of the media panoply. Dating shows, celebrity gossip, police chase footage (with the requisite moralizing narrator), Paris Hilton gossip, Fox News screeds: it's television without the pretense of being anything more than vapid filler between commercial breaks, television in essence. Leading the pack in cable's race to the bottom is VH1, the once-humble sister station to the garish pop collage of MTV. No longer a haven for Desiree and Sheryl Crow videos, VH1 has seemingly discovered its rightful place – poised over the yawning abyss.
What happened to VH1? It used to be a nice, boring little place where you could catch your breath from TRL's candy cereal with some plain yogurt: MTV for people a little older and more settled – Counting Crows anyone? But as the music video format proved itself to be too frenetic to assure profitable continued viewing, VH1 changed (although more slowly than MTV's move to almost total abandonment of videos). It's clearly a totally different beast now: a brassy pink and yellow buffet of endless commentary about celebrities, celebrity lifestyles, entertainment news, and decades of our youth, proving that older generations are just as interested in shallow narcissistic dreck as the youngins. As blandly beautiful no-names introduce the latest paparazzi footage of Winona Ryder, I find myself pondering the nature of this devolution.
VH1: C-list celebrities have opinions so you don't have to! VH1 isn't TV so much as TV about TV, a horribly beautiful display of media eating itself. Marginal comedians clumsily stab at wit, remarking on cross-color fashions, "Who's The Boss," and Angelina Jolie's love life. I'd all but forgotten about what opinion to have on Bananarama, but thankfully former cast members of Mad TV are there to supply me with just enough information that I can pretend to care enough to be ironically fashionable. In an information society we need experts to collate data for us: there's simply too much stuff out there to know. VH1 crunches the vast world of entertainment into easily digestible nuggets – a nice quick fix for anyone feeling out of the loop. And with vague, barely debatable editorials from a host of almost-somebodies, everyone can feel the nostalgic warmth of a shared viewpoint. "How about the films that stole our hearts like Richard Gere and Debra Winger’s Oscar award winning Officer and A Gentlemen as well as Albert Finney, Aileen Quinn and Carol Burnett’s music classic Annie." Our hearts were stolen; we’re all in this together. And such with broad opinions on such trivial topics, is there any point in dissenting?
The birth of this canonizing monster started with a wonderful show called "Behind the Music." Classic bands were historicized and capsulated, rounded out with a good amount of interesting biographical detail and amusing anecdotes. But as worthy topics dwindled – Hootie and the Blowfish: Behind the Music? – the show rested too much on the crutch of its narrative template of nascence-success-excess-failure-redemption. Attempting to flesh out Dennis DeYoung's egomania into a 15-minute segment served only to prove how stupid it was to care about Styx, and the show dissolved. From its ashes sprung legions of simplified, likeminded spawn – I Love the 80s, VH1 Goes Inside, The Fabulous Life Of Whomever. These shows free your time by revisiting and revising all the world of entertainment: the device creates its own footnotes.
Is such meta-television a byproduct of an industry so based on spectacle that it has become increasingly fascinated with itself? Television throws itself an endless ticker-tape parade, and the takeover of cultural capital continues. I'd prefer Shania Twain videos to this.
By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2004-02-04