Lately, I've had a real hard time watching MTV. It's not for the usual reasons, either. Yeah, I miss the videos and hate the insipid game shows and bitchfests. Hell, I even miss Kennedy's sour visage. But something else entirely has been bugging me lately.
Like many of my generation, I grew up on a steady diet of MTV. I remember the cheesy flag-on-the-moon logo and the theme song, repeated endlessly throughout the day. I remember being introduced to the Eurythmics with the jarring sight of Annie Lennox's shocking red hair, Howard Jones' twee keyboard/annoying mime clips and all those Duran Duran skits that always seemed to involve women with body paint and poorly-dyed hair tucked under fedoras.
Among other outlets, MTV was where I went to hear new music, but more specifically, to see new music. There were precious few Jimi Hendrix, Doors or John Lennon videos.
But a weird thing has happened lately. It seems like every time I turn on the station, if a video is playing, more than half the time the artist is not a young, vibrant chart-climber flexing for the cameras with youthful exuberance and braggadocio, but a young, vibrant chart-climber who's dead.
I thought VH1 was for dead guys.
The list grows longer every day. Sublime, whose lead singer, Brad Nowell, 28, died of a heroin overdose in May of 1996, have several videos in heavy rotation, all of them using stock footage of the energetic singer interspersed with new footage of his two living band mates and his beloved dog.
Multi-platinum rapper Tupac Shakur, 25, murdered last September in Las Vegas, momentarily faded from heavy rotation on MTV, only to re-surface in a recent video from Geto Boys rapper Scarface. In the oft-played clip of the song "Smile," a Shakur look-alike hangs on a cross much in the same position as a cartoon Shakur did on his first posthumous album, The Don Killuminati -- The 7-Day Theory", credited to his alter ego, Makaveli.
Similarly, Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace), 24, himself murdered in a drive-by this March in Los Angeles, Calif., can be seen not only in the last video he made before his death, for the hit song "Hypnotize," from his posthumous album, Life Or Death, but also in two new videos. His image pops up in the tribute recorded by his mentor, Bad Boy Records head Sean "Puffy" Combs' "I'll Be Missing You," as well as in the second video from B.I.G.'s last album, for the track "Mo Money Mo Problems," in which Combs can be seen mugging along with rapper Mase while B.I.G.'s ghostly specter flickers by in now-historical footage.
And of course there's the still-strong presence of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, 27.
The result is a channel that is not only introducing a new generation to contemporary artists, but immortalizing a number of young, dead singers whose images have now had a longer life than most of their careers.
You could blame MTV for exploiting the deaths by endlessly repeating these morbid post-mortems, or you could ask yourself if rock has become more dangerous, more life-threatening? Between the morbid wraiths in Marilyn Manson videos to the death pall that hangs over countless hip-hop clips, MTV has gone from a station that celebrates life to one that institutionalizes death on a regular basis. Those same 12-year-olds who are being exposed to videos like I was at the dawn of MTV's reign, are getting the daily message that's it's not out of the question to expect your favorite video artist to have a closed set of dates after his name.
There have been dead rock stars ever since there've been rock stars and I'm
too young for this to be an "oh, remember the good old days" type of trip. I
mean, does anyone really get wistful about Haircut 100 videos?
Sure, death sells, it always has, but this creepy coincidence (and perhaps it
is nothing more than that), especially when these videos occasionally run
back-to-back, is enough to make you stop and do a double- take. More so than,
say, two videos in-a-row by baggy-pants wearin' white guys from southern
California singing ska-tinged summer hits.
I don't know the answer. But I do know I'd rather watch one of those dopey A Flock of Seagulls videos with the tin foil sets and lazy susan stages any day than sit though another clip that ends with an old photo of a dead artist and a dedication.