Back in October of 2002, I had a piece in NRODT called “Love Your Country,” comparing CMT and MTV. Here’s an excerpt:
But it isn’t just the war that is missing from MTV; most of real life is missing from its offerings. Turn on CMT and you’ll see a song about how tough it is for a single father to pull in a living and raise his kids; a hilarious song about a guy who’d rather fish than spend time with his girlfriend; a song that says the hardest thing about a breakup is losing the friendship of your lover; a song about giving up the bottle for the deeper and simpler pleasures of just being with your family; a song that tells the story of the tragic death of a lighthouse keeper and his beloved; or a song about a guy who’s determined not to rush the woman he loves until her heart is truly over her last romance.
Turn on MTV, on the other hand, and what you’re likely to hear is a song about . . . well, actually, I don’t think the videos on MTV are about anything at all. What, for example, is “Pass the Courvoisier” about? Comparing your gold chain to Mr. T’s? Getting into a fistfight with a big mama? Beating up a bunch of Asian guys and taking away their women? Clearly, “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” is about oral sex, and “Oops (Oh My)” is about masturbation, but to treat most MTV videos as though they actually had subject matter is to miss the point.
CMT videos are about actual adult lives. MTV videos, in contrast, are primal screams of anger, lust, and alienation. I don’t mean to suggest that MTV’s videos aren’t good. If by “good” we mean ingenious and enthralling, then MTV’s videos are plenty good. MTV’s got creative genius to spare, but creative genius in the service of what?
System of a Down’s “Toxicity” is a helluva good video, primal scream and all. But you don’t need to be a cranky conservative social critic to know that something is wrong here. The rock group itself makes that very clear. While Martina McBride over on CMT is singing about how blessed she feels to have a wonderful family, System of a Down is singing about “the toxicity of our city.” Now, of course, we’ll be told that Martina McBride’s “Blessed” is romantic pap, whereas “Toxicity” is edgy and more “realistic” about life. But I think they’re both realistic: It would be silly to contend that love, faithfulness, hope, and gratitude aren’t real or important elements of life. But the interesting thing is that singing about the very real pleasures and passions of ordinary adult life — especially adult family life — seems impossibly unrealistic to so many today. Even though Married . . . with Children isn’t actually any more “realistic” than Leave It to Beaver, somehow the crew down at MTV is too embarrassed to come anywhere within shouting distance of what country folk like to call “the sunny side of life.”
…I think the difference between CMT’s audience and MTV’s is that between the mixed-generation living of small-town America, on the one hand, and the age-segregated (and, not coincidentally, alienated) world of college and big-city life, on the other. The Sixties separated out a distinctive youth culture from society as a whole, and that mode persists on MTV. By separating out youthfulness from everything else, we get something that is energetic, creative, sexy, aggressive, free of adult supervision, very immature, and very, very unhappy with itself. In other words, we get Pink.