"Bands start up, each and every day"

Saw yesterday that Brian Graden -- the longtime MTV honcho who oversaw the network's shift from music video to youth lifestyle programming -- is leaving at the end of the year. It's hard to say whether the music industry's decade-long--has it only been a decade?--slump can be attributed to the willful negligence of boosters like MTV (unlikely) or whether Graden simply understood the importance of fast dorm room Internet connections and knew that the music industry alone wasn't going to pay MTV's bills (probably). MTV in its heyday "worked" because it promoted--some would say exploded--subcultural niches and, in a broader way, amplified the spaces of cultural exchange/knowledge. You no longer needed mail order, an older brother or sister, magazines, or proximity to a city to understand that something exciting was going on somewhere else--always somewhere else. This isn't to idealize an older, more thoughtful MTV. Rather, it's to identify these older forms of knowledge that made up MTV's domain.

Of course the Internet complicated the "somewhere else" idea and in that sense the Graden-quarterbacked MTV move toward questions of "lifestyle" and its attendant concerns--tempo, acquisition, mix-and-match cosmopolitanism--made perfect sense, except for the fact that TV, with its built-in sense of audience and simultaneity, can only take that so far. In thinking about the rise of "lifestyle"-speak in advertising and marketing, I came across this old interview with Graden--it almost looks like a relic from an ancient webdesigning civilization. (It's actually part of a highly recommended Frontline special on the "Merchants of Cool.")

"I'm 13. Do I really need to be running around with my Palm Pilot worrying about all of these things I hear about on "Dawson's Creek?"

This gem notwithstanding, the interview is a fascinating referendum on marketing and pop culture in the post-everything age, as well as the effects of all this at the level of cognition. The one response that really caught me was this:

The implicit promise of MTV has always been that we see things honestly from your POV. And we're not trying to necessarily be adults who program to somebody who's 19. But we're trying to be a service that exists as an honest reflection of your world, and that's our covenant. Remembering back to when you were 19, anybody talking to you from the vantage point of a 40-year-old, you just don't hear the same way. So I think that's the main reason, from the business point of view. And then, just from the sociological point of view, I think it's really important that that voice be reflected honestly somewhere on the media spectrum.

It's a noble version of the MTV mandate. But I've never felt that this was what MTV was going for--not in the 1980s or the 1990s, not now as the network traffics exclusively in scripted reality television. Perhaps the problem is that a truly honest portrayal of how a 19-year-old spends his/her time might not include television? The Vice/Virtue credo that "All brands should think of themselves as media companies"--an inversion of conventional thinking about the primacy of media--is starting to make more sense by the day...

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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