Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Merchants of Cool

In doing some “research” for my Britney Spears entry, I came across this Gawker piece, which reviewed “For the Record”. The reviewer mentioned he recently watched Frontline’s documentary on the merchants of cool, and compared the two. I came to Frontline today to watch a documentary on the US Navy I caught the end of several months ago, and when I couldn’t find it, watched “The Merchants of Cool” instead, which aired in 2001. Whoa, nostalgia!!!

One of the first people interviewed is Malcolm Gladwell (with a very short haircut), whose essay in the New Yorker on coolhunters formed the basis of the documentary. (I first discovered this concept when I read The Tipping Point, which lifts a chapter from his article).

The special reminded me very much of my “Media & Persuasion” class in college, and no wonder—one of the experts interviewed wrote a book that was a text in class (which I thought was slightly outdated and also-ran). Obviously many of the statistics are outdated and the documentary is very much a capsule of a specific moment in time, but many of its overarching themes are still present in society today, if in a different context and format.

TRL is the big thing, and there’s a lot of discussion around rap-rock music, Limp Bizkit and the Insane Clown Posse (in fact, it was that clip that made me feel déjà vu, as there’s a chance I’ve seen this documentary at some point in the last seven years.)

Here, the internet is shiny and new! Media fragmentation! AOL and Time Warner are still buddies, and Viacom rules the universe (which might still be true). There’s no talk of how the internet is killing whole industries, no mention of Napster...iPods haven’t been invented yet and the Macs used by some of the marketing companies (using what some consider unethical practices) are the old-time blocky ones. Real children’s and tween’s programming is given lipservice in the form of MTV, but there’s no acknowledgment of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel’s grip on the youngest generation of Americans. Social networks are still years away. TRL is the epitome of cool.

But what I found most fascinating, in this clip (Chapter 3, The MTV Machine--no embed capabilities), was the synergy between advertising, marketing, and real programming, how MTV used a launch party for as content for one of their brand new shows at the time, Direct Effects (which aired after TRL for a few years).

Although the documentary itself cursory mentions Eminem, he’s a focus in a lot of extended interviews, from Jimmy Iovine to Brian Graden to Dave Sirulnick. There’s a lot of discussion focused on music, marketing, and the intersection of the two; a lot on history as well. It’s interesting to look at this piece—while still relevant—as also a unique moment in time, before the internet overtook practically everything, when the economy was good and everything was flush, when even the angry music wasn’t depressing.

As for Eminem—an artist who’s gone largely out of the spotlight the last few years—even MTV was a bit naïve when it came to promoting him:

[D]o you worry about fanning this flame?

Yes. At MTV, we are absolutely in a constant internal discussion about our role in the media. One thing that is true now that wasn't true 10 years ago is that 10 years ago, we might have been the only proprietor of a certain kind of art or a certain kind of product. Now, in this particular age, there are 20 channels playing music videos on television. There are endless channels programming for a young audience. On the computer you can get access to absolutely anything musical and otherwise. I worry less about what we're perpetrating and more about just finding the right line for ourselves. And it's a very fluid discussion; what is true today may not be true six months from now.

And as MTV, I don't feel we can ever stop having the discussion. There's a tendency to say, "Well, we found our line. Let's move on." But you can't do that, because culture is always shifting. It is a non-stop discussion, because we take the responsibility very seriously to not put dangerous things out there. At the same time, the reason the audience trusts us in the first place is because we don't censor. We present their art in the most honest way. . . . We won't cross violence lines. We won't cross certain language lines. But otherwise, we will let the art express itself as purely as possible.

Well, let's take an artist like Eminem. He may be the most popular and most controversial figure at the moment. You not only went with his videos--but you really gave him a platform. Tell me about the internal decision there. Why did you decide to go that way?

Around Eminem, what you have to remember is that his second album had a different tenor than his first album. There is definitely a through line, and you can see the progression. When we decided and planned. . . we had not heard the second album in its entirety. What we had was a very sanitized, friendly, saturated video that was very much targeted right at a young consumer, and that video was perfectly innocent. It passed all of our standards in terms of violence and language. And away we go.

It's only after we had a chance to really listen to the album and we had a chance to sit down with lots of other groups . . . that we began to have second thoughts in pulling back the promotion. And we did, in fact, pull a lot of the promotion back. And we decided we don't want to censor the artist. The video's going to play on the channel if the audience chooses to have it played on "Total Request Live." But we did feel a responsibility to express the other side of the controversy. So we did this half-hour special on hate lyrics. I think it's infinitely better for us as MTV to get out both sides. . . . That's a better role for MTV to have than to simply say, "Let's not show this and let's not talk about it," because that's disingenuous.

Is it fair to say that you may not have done the two-week thing had you known the full album?

Yes. Hindsight is always 20/20. I don't know that. That would sound like a cop-out if I just said we wouldn't of, but certainly the picture became clearer over the ensuing weeks. And like I said, since the discussion is fluid at MTV, we weren't afraid to say, "You know what? Let's pull back on promotion, and let's tell the other side of this story."

You have wonderful documentaries about the issues that are raised by the rest of your programming. You don't see yourselves as moral guardians. You can't act in that role.

I would say that MTV works on two levels. We see ourselves as champion of artists. And whether we like it or not, the themes that artists sometimes choose to embrace reflect sometimes anger, sometimes views that we would never agree with. For the most part, we aren't going to censor the artist, beyond standard television network standards. As MTV, we do believe that we have some broader role in educating consumers, in getting behind social campaigns like our campaign to vote, our campaign to stop violence. So we tried to make both coexist on the channel. Artists can express themselves, but so can we.

And doesn't this sound interesting?

And at about the same time, Roland Joffé came in and pitched the show "Undressed." And his pitch was really interesting, because he is fascinated by these small conversational moments that ultimately really say volumes about a relationship. His pitch was that you don't get honest until you get home at night and you start to get in bed. Once you . . . get undressed--which was his metaphor--that's when you start to get real.

I saw only a few eps, and was kind of squicked out but perversely fascinated--it was very much soft-core porn, just really awkward and not terribly realistic, though it was porporting to be.

Many of the extended interviews are pretty interesting, even just for skimming purposes. I recommend Dave Sirulnick on MTV, TRL, and how they influence the culture; Jimmy Iovine for the historical background with teenagers and music, and how MTV fits into that; Brian Graden for MTV as a business and many of their strategies; Robert McChesney on the state of the media and music landscape in 2001; and Todd Cunningham for how MTV conducts market research.

P.S. A guy named Barack directed “The Merchants of Cool.” Ha!

1 comment:

John said...

aw, I miss Undressed. It really was softcore porn (if it had vampires, Twilight would've been ripping it off!) but it was original, scripted programming without a shred of "reality" on MTV.