Wednesday, September 15, 2010

MTV: Cultural Calorie Counting

The other night I was talked into watching the beginning of the annual World’s Largest Televised Train-Wreck: the MTV Video Music Awards. I tuned in just in time to see a “Pre-Show” collaboration between recording artists Nicki Minaj and Will I. Am.

The performance began with Minaj in a big pink beehive wig (it worked for Lady Gaga, right?!) and a space age Barbie outfit. And yet somehow, she still looked like a man. (Which means if nothing else, she at least succeeded in emulating Lady Gaga.)

Will "Black Eyed Peas" I. Am’s rubberized, plasticized and high-top-sneaker-accessorized outfit wasn't quite a matching Ken-doll. Instead he was the human incarnation of an obscenely priced—sorry, "collectible"—toy you’d find at a Kid Robot store.

It looks like Will has picked up on the Kanye-favored trend of emulating modern-Japanese-pop-culture-emulating-80’s-NYC-graffiti-culture. Which, as trends go, is less unfortunate than, for instance, the Rihanna strain of hip-hop couture, which is to say, jumping on the goth bandwagon 15 years after its apex.

On the other hand, Will's outfit may have been just a sooty homage to one of his personal style icons:

Truth be told, before seeing this I was largely unfamiliar with Minaj. A little research reveals that her real name is Onika Maraj. The more provocative “Minaj” is her stage name, which surely is short for “Minaj ah Twah.” And while on the subject, I assume "Will. I. Am." chose his name as a nod to the actor William Shatner, a.k.a. "Captain. James. T. Kirk." I'm not sure how I missed it before, but it's clear to me now that Mr. Am's getup is an obvious tribute to Shatner.

He's referencing Star Trek episode No. 21, "Patterns of Force," duh!

The funny thing is, after the performance, Mr. Am ended up seated in the audience, still wearing his costume. Showing up to sing in a wild outfit is memorable. Sitting around in your costume afterwards just makes you look like a dork.

Getting back to the catastrophe at hand, whenever I see a few minutes of the VMA’s (or pretty much anything on the "MTV") I’m always startled to see that they’re attempting to appeal to an even younger audience than the year before. This performance had adults dressed as, and acting like, toys. It was supposed to be futuristic, but the whole thing seemed like a hip-hop version of the Teletubbies.

The infantilization of popular culture continues on schedule. Soon there will be just one program, enjoyed equally by people of every age!

Remember when sampling was used to cook up a wildly creative musical gumbo? (Take a look at a list of only some of the sources for M.A.R.R.S.'s "Pump Up The Volume.") But now there's a simple recipe used to pan-fry easily digested hits like the above Minaj/Am tune:

- Loop a couple bars from an easily recognized 10 to 20 year old radio hit by someone whose career has wound down and who is happy to have the exposure.

- Add a "boom-crack" beat and call it a "track."

- Apply a generous drizzle of monotone rapping. (Substitute "monotone" with "tone-deaf" as needed.)

- Auto-Tune to taste and top with a sprinkling of backup dancers doing a "pop 'n' lock" Pinocchio routine.

Compared to the calorically-deficient fare served by the likes of the VMAs, "Pump Up The Volume" suddenly is looking very rich in cultural nutrients. No wonder young people raised on MTV consume so much media—they're the cultural equivalent of koala bears.

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