It's "almost" because we no longer have Starz! and therefore have lost our steady stream of crap movies at all hours, and "almost" because all my favorite channels now have different numbers on the dial. However, there are compensations: we now get VH-1 Classic. The fifth-grader I was twenty years ago is squealing with glee, as my most fervent wish in 1983 was to have cable and to be able to watch as many rock videos as I wanted without anyone bossing me around. Now I can.
However, rather than lapsing into a state of Proustean nostalgia fueled by the near-otherworldly experience of seeing Sting perform music before he got all boring and tantric, VH-1 Classic has only made me feel old and creaky. If it's not watching the Stevie Wonder video for "I Just Called To Say I Love You" and thinking about how I have screensavers with better special effects, it's watching a fresh-faced Whitney Houston singing about getting emotional or seeing a day-glo George Michael bopping across stage, then wondering how in the hell these formerly attractive and vibrant young people turned into plasticized C-listers with legal troubles. I see VH-1 Classic, and I see a lot of reminders that I have am not nearly so young and immortal as I would like to believe I am.
What really convinced me that VH-1 Classic was the television equivalent of a golden oldies station was a bumper promo. The caption tells us it's someone's history class in 1986, and as an off-screen voice drones on about manifest destiny, we see someone sketching a picture of Billy Idol, labeled "Rebel Yell." Substitute "geometry class" for "history class" and the transcribed lyrics, "It's death for no reason/And death for no reason is MURDER" for a bad pencil drawing of Billy Idol and you've got ... well, everyone I knew as a freshman in high school. Watching that bumper does not make me feel wistful for the heady days of adolescence; it reminds me that fifteen years ago, MTV cared about me as a viewer, but now I have been shunted to the Viacom franchise that serves willfully nostalgic codgers. VH-1 Classic is what finally made me feel too old for MTV.
There's a piece in the Washington Monthly lamenting the shift in MTV's programming and arguing that it reflects teenagers who are somehow less hip than all of us for whom MTV was synonymous with a wider, cooler world back in the 1980s. You'd think that VH-1 Classic would support that thesis; after all, it is effectively a video archive that captures the evolution of the music video's commericial form over the course of a decade. Was MTV cooler in the 1980s?
Frankly, no, and I'm not just saying that because it's still about five years too early to begin passing off shoulder pads and potato chip-sized earrings as vintage chic. The videos pretty much confirm that MTV's real genius is and was in staying about ten minutes ahead of where pop culture was headed, and blowing by the past without regret.
Despite making me feel old as the hills, VH-1 Classic has done me one favor by pointing out that MTV's mutability is ultimately a much better thing, because it at least recognizes the almost mythical necessity to revitalize a form by blowing it apart. I shudder to imagine a world in which elaborate fantasy sequences, vast banks of synthesizers and saxophone sequences are the norm. Although I am a little disappointed to discover that I can't happily slip into the bliss I was sure awaited me once I could watch all the rock videos I wanted, I'm more relieved. The past is another country -- and it's fun to visit the moment the Big Country videos come on -- but I don't want to live there.
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