29 December 2007

Seeing music on the small screen

There is something that has bothered me for a good while, a puzzle that I will probably never be able to solve completely. How did I hear so much Motown when I was growing up? And, even more so, how did I hear so much of the Stax and Volt catalogs?

I never thought about it until a few years ago when I was talking to someone about Booker T and the MGs and got off on a sidetrack about Otis Redding. He wanted to know how I had gotten onto that music, since I am thoroughly from the Wonder Bread people. I couldn't answer him. I realized at that moment that I had no idea.

Thinking about it more hasn't gotten me far. Until I was grown up, I never had access to a radio station that played much of that material beyond the biggest Motown hits. I didn't go to concerts outside of the gruesome kind they have on holidays at school. I did hear a lot of Mexican music growing up (because of where I lived), but Stax?

Over the last month or two, I have been thinking more generally about how the ways I find and get music are different now than they were before my enforced hiatus from my usual immersion.

(Side comment: if you are ever in a relationship with someone who will reach across in front of you to turn off your music, even though you listen patiently to his oompah-disco album (and I'm not kidding on that--check out the Dolomiten Sextet if you are brave), that is a BIG RED FLAG that you should run away, because it only goes downhill from that.)

To get a handle on what changed, I have been thinking again about how I did before. I know I have mentioned having a radio all the time, but for a long time, that was a cheap AM radio that didn't pick up much beyond the hit-du-jour pop stations. My parents didn't believe in pocket money, so I wasn't buying a lot of albums. So how did I soak up music before I moved into FM and record stores?

I find myself thinking I must have been MTV generation before MTV. I remember watching every single show with or about music that I could on television: variety shows, award shows, tributes, New Year's Eve shows, specials, everything. I snuck down at night to watch all sorts of late-night small-local-station television (which is where I got my taste for old movies).

I also listened to a lot of movies and figured out who did the music that they played, but I that would have been more of a factor after I hit the age of FM. I also went through the albums of anyone we visited, but that would have been other Wonder Bread people and more reading the album covers than listening to the albums.

And this brings me to the same place I usually finish: how could I have found the music that I know I listened to? Was there really so much cool stuff scattered around on television before MTV brought it together?

This time around, I started doing some aggressive Googling and started to remind myself about things like Otis Redding on American Bandstand, Simon and Garfunkel on Dick Cavett, The Who on The Smothers Brothers. Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. Flip Wilson. Even Shindig, for crying out loud. And then I started to wonder if MTV (and its kin) really made the availability of music on television worse, killing off competing forms and then getting bored with actual, you know, music.

People talk a lot about variety television coming back, but that doesn't seem ever to go much past the obligatory musical guests on late-night TV.

I have noticed over the last few years that there is music coming back all over television again, but in a different way: turning scenes in programs like extreme sports shows, The OC, CSI:Wherever into de facto music videos. It's good exposure for the music and there are web sites dedicated to listing the songs used in the various episodes. Hear it, like it, talk about it with your friends, buy it. Helps the shows establish their coolness and style, packages the style for the audience.

It almost makes modern episodic television into a low-density version of the old heyday of FM radio, come to think of it. One particularly interesting change from earlier televised music (variety or video) is that the artist is invisible, just like on radio. (The visual style is from the palette of the show, not from the artist.) It is very significant, I think, that this musical programming is appearing on over the air broadcast television. Those channels are available to more people than cable, and since there are fewer such channels, the audience much more heterogeneous than for a cable program. There isn't much music available that way, and the gatekeepers are national corporate functionaries, so there is a lot less chance for diversity and serendipity, but it is an interesting new step in an old direction.

Track-downloading services are also a new step in an old direction (even though I bet no one reading this ever had any old real albums, with individual singles collected into paper sleeves in notebooks), and I have been messing around with those for a while now so I could write about them. I think first I will need to write about what gatekeepers are good for, though. So, more to come.

Now, I'm feeling like some urban grit house music. Time to spin some CSI:NY. (Oh, that reminds me that you should hear what they did to extend "Baba O'Riley" for the opening credits this year--a latin-urban-percussion remix. I'm not sure it works, but it fails in an interesting way.)

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