Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Flashback Time, Part II

It was inevitable.

Last week VH1 aired “I Love the New Millennium,” the most recent entry in their extremely popular and channel-defining “I Love” series. They’ve done three versions of the eighties, two versions of the nineties and two on the seventies (when most of the people involved and a good chunk of the audience weren’t even alive), and specials on toys and the holidays, for the kid inside of us. Obviously there will be an “I Love the New Millennium: Version 2.0” in the future, hopefully in 2010 when they can finish the decade.

VH1 pioneered what is now known as “instant nostalgia”, a term that was thrown around a lot around the time "Best Week Ever" premiered in 2004, with their recaps of the week. Back then it seemed daring, yet kind of glaringly obvious (and for some, a sign of the apocalypse). It was also good (or at least it seemed like it). Now it’s random, low-level actors and comedians jumping in for a quick joke, usually nothing better than what your mom would say. Nowadays, instant nostalgia is a permanent fixation of blogs and a certain type of entertainment media, looking back on what just happened—or what will happen. It’s also a classic oxymoron. Did George Carlin ever do a riff on this?

But VH1 already knows the criticisms of doing a series on looking back on a decade that hasn’t even ended yet, and addresses them in the first line of the first episode: “You think it’s too soon to celebrate the new millennium?” But they know we don’t care. Reliving pop culture is fun—it’s fluffy shared experiences, finding out you share the same opinion as Dee Snider. If you love this stuff (and I do), it dissipates as soon as the clips come in. "Survivor"! Scooters! 2000!

Like the previous version, “I Love the New Millennium” has catchy graphics and a snazzy title sequence, plus the appropriate slang (fo’ shizzle, nice) as interstitials. Interestingly, the format is credited to the BBC. What does that mean? That each “story” is introduced by a video clip and then comedians explaining and joking on it was pioneered by those serious misters of news? Or that they invented the technique of each segment being framed by little one-offs to encapsulate other trivia bits from those years? It’s a very high-minded co-opt.

Despite that, as the series continues it loses some of the fun, because it’s less about nostalgia and more about reliving embarrassing stories that need to stay buried. I don’t recall 2005 being a particularly lame year, pop-culture wise (but who really remembers nowadays?), but that ep’s a clunker. Maybe it was just my excitation taking over, but 2000 was spot-on—though I expected a bit on the “Thong Song”, but it was nicely appropriated as the “hot girls of the decade” segment, although the lists got lamer as the decade got longer. (Jenna Fischer was named in the 2006 edition though, a big surprise).

One of the biggest missteps the show made was in its use of music. It’s beyond obvious that a series like this would only use songs that appeared in that particular year in that segment; at least use songs that were big in the decade, since most people couldn’t pinpoint a song down to its exact timetable. But not only does the show fail in this, but it reuses songs to the point that they become meaningless. Britney Spears’ “(You Drive Me) Crazy”—which charted in 1999—was used in every single episode, to describe something particularly “crazy” that a celebrity or notorious individual did (see: Imus, Mel Gibson). How about a far-better and bigger “Crazy” to illustrate this point: Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 megahit? I guess Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo didn’t want to dilute its potency.

The “Then and Now” segment is a particular waste: In the eighties original, Weird Al compared prices and other contextual clues to show how different things really were. Here, we have Taylor Dayne (who has absolutely no relevance to the current decade—she had a few hits in the eighties and is trying to make a comeback now) saying dumb stuff like “Bobby Brown had a career 20 years ago. Now he just berates Whitney Houston on “Being Bobby Brown”.” Not as cool as hearing how much a Harvard education costs twenty years ago.

I thought the “Liars” segment was particularly novel, pointing out that in this decade we have a serious issue with truth-telling. (Ooh, tying it into the Bush Administration!) Perez Hilton’s inclusion is pointless most years, but the time capsule has its moments. Moby narrates the segment on biggest hits of the year, but he show absolutely no enthusiasm, and I find his confession that he’s never heard of Michelle Branch odd. Again, as the years continue the iPod selections are off-base, whereas 2000 brings me immediately back to high school.

One of the hallmarks of this series is that it features many of the same commentators: Rich Eisen, Stuart Scott, Scott Ian, Michael Ian Black, Chris Jericho. But at this point in the game they can—and do—talk about earlier installments. It’s unnecessary, pretentious, and only interesting to see Hal Sparks’ hair styles. It wastes precious time—so much has happened that’s not VH1 related, and one day they can do “I Love VH1” and get all those cracks in.

Particularly since the show is discussing recent topics, it’s easy to point out what is missing: “Crazy in Love”, the Wii, "The Colbert Report". Apparently a lot of actors didn’t give their permission to show clips, and many other properties were just too expensive. Where was "Superbad" and "Knocked Up", "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Lost"? Some phenomenons that extended over years—or took time to build, like "24" and "Lord of the Rings"—are encapsulated in a particular year. Sometimes mentions were cursory, as a way to include something on the list, like "Brokeback Mountain". The video blogs (and the extras on the web) are meant to include everything they couldn’t show online, although most of them I’m sure are utterly boring. A sizable portion of what they include is questionable: “Fat Actress”, Enrique Iglesias and “Hero”, Andrew W.K. and The Darkness (neither were as big as Soulja Boy), “Stupid Girls”, Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment lawsuit…YouTube didn’t really hit big until 2006 (that’s when it was featured on Time’s “Person of the Year” cover) and Ok Go’s “Here It Goes Again" wasn’t even released until 2006, not 2005, when both of these were included.

One of the challenges VH1 faces is not only how to make the series work, especially in the later years when popular acts like Amy Winehouse are still in the news largely for the same reasons they’ve always been in, but to point out the enduring social and cultural forces that defined the decade. I think the Liars segment succeeds, but the increasing tabloid focus manages both to point out that in some ways that could be one enduring legacy of this decade—a depressing thought—but also that VH1 just didn’t give themselves enough time or resources to do the show properly.

Everyone will joke that there’s no excuse for this show, as all VH1 needs to do is repackage and reedit "Best Week Ever" (or rather, what becomes of it—"Best Year Ever"). But the point of doing this, the point of real nostalgia, is to give perspective on what’s occurred…which sometimes doesn’t work. But premiering the show now doesn’t need to signal that VH1 is desperate for a hit: With a new president in office next year, a part of this decade is ending. The ‘00s are defined by Bushisms—one appears at the first commercial break in every episode—and many of the things discussed in the show relate back to some Bush-era mistake. Will pop culture be as defined by a new president as it has been with the current one? If “I Have a Crush on Obama” is any indication, there might be change in the air, but only in that politics and pop culture will mingle far more than they used to.


petpluto said...

I don't understand why there is a "I Love The New Milennium". It is a complete waste of air time, mostly for the reasons you mentioned. I love Dee Snyder, I happily watched all three installments of "I Love The '80's" (the original and best of the "I Love" decades), but I feel no need to relive a decade that isn't even over yet; and I truly wonder about the myriad of people who do. Didn't we all just live through 2007? Do we really need to look back so soon?

There comes a time when nostalgia isn't really cool yet, when the pains and humiliations of a decade -or its foibles- aren't really ready to be consumed yet. I mean, if there was an "I Love The 70s" that came out in 1978, would anyone really see the huge flaw with gauchos and those hot pants? Probably not. Would they really want to watch something that highlighted the Son of Sam's killing spree yet? I would think it would still be too raw. That's why we wait a good decade or so before reliving it!

John said...

So when does "I Love 2009" air? I want to see them retrospect on things that haven't happened yet. THAT would actually be funny. Better yet, I'll catch the Best Week Ever for the week it airs, so they can look back at looking back at things that are in the future.

Seriously, each one of these VH1 retrospectives is The Chris Farley Show sketch from early 90's SNL stretched into 10-20 (or even 30) hours of programming. "Hey ... you guys remember Crocs? ... They were awesome." Even another early 90's SNL sketch called "Hey, Remember the 80's?" did a better job of providing fresh, original content. I mean, who didn't love Goat Boy?