Hey guys, I wrote an essay about an important music video trend of the 2000’s, and I’m demanding it resurface.
Total Detest Live
A Look Back at Band Lampooning in Music Videos
by Brady O’Callahan
In the early 2000’s the music video was still an incredibly vital medium for launching young artists’s careers and bolstering the reach of those already established. Total Request Live (or TRL for the savvy) was a staple of post-school entertainment. Every day of the week, kids would go home and help count down the most popular music videos in the world. It seemed almost necessary to produce a video to have any modicum of success.
Not so much these days.
TRL folded in 2008 and, in some ways, so did the music video. Reality killed the video star, as MTV and VH1 delved into the succubus that became reality television. Real World, Road Rules, The Surreal Life. There were no more teens standing out in Times Square in the middle of October clamoring for the new Britney Spears video, giving a “shout out” to friends back home, and then screaming into the microphone. Channels like Fuse (formerly MuchMusic USA) tried to pick up where MTV left off, but it didn’t carry the momentum the Viacom beast once had.
Only recently have music videos seen a bit of a resurgence in cultural relevance, thanks entirely to YouTube. Once again, music videos have a platform. But now they can be put on display for the entire universe rather than just those with access to cable TV.
But, with the death of the popular music video in the mid 2000’s, there died an important aspect of the music video that has yet to truly resurface: band lampooning.
I’m not necessarily talking about straight up parody. Weird Al has been making fun of music, in the most loving way possible, forever. And even then, he’s not really making fun of the music. He’s having fun with the music. The Lonely Island today, too, embellishes the most ridiculous aspects of the music they all obviously adore.
But at one point in time, artists weren’t afraid to call each other out on bullshit.
As far as I can tell, it started with a group of three dudes from SoCal: Blink-182. They were the biggest bellwether in pop punk, bringing rock music back to the masses. In a sea of bubblegum pop and boy bands, these guys were refreshingly care free, crude, and fun. And they knew it. They knew they were different from everything else that was popular. But rather than caving to the standard, these guys used their reach to distance themselves further from their contemporaries.
Their first big hit, “What’s My Age Again?”, established them immediately as an odd man out. The video took on pop culture at large, mocking recent Gap ads and bringing in Jim Rome and Talk Soup in cameo appearances, to illustrate the “we don’t care who we offend” attitude. The band members ran around completely nude, disrupting any sort of order that was standard. In a way, the video was just testing the waters.
Blink-182 really amped up the intensity when they took on their own industry with the video for “All the Small Things.” If you had achieved popularity by buying into what pop music was selling, you were up for ridicule. And all the biggest bands of the time received the biggest blows: Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, 98 degrees, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera. For the first time, music videos were being mocked directly. This was a shot for shot recreation of everything on TRL, but instead of the earnestness of the originals, the guys of blink were pointing out explicitly the stupidity of it all. And guess what? It went over really well!
MTV got into the game themselves in 1999 with 2gether, a fictional, made for TV group (a la the Monkees) that parodied the boy bands of the era. But the lines were blurred, as 2gether actually saw a bit of commercial success from sounding almost exactly like the bands they set out to mock. They released 2 studio albums. The joke went too far, and they became the thing they ridiculed.
Blink-182 took a shot at replicating their success with 2001’s “First Date,” where they put the Bee Gee’s on task. If you’ve already taken down your peers, why not kill your idols? And they held onto the charm somehow. You couldn’t touch these guys.
But in the punk rock realm, the only other band that seemed to maintain the same sort of playful disregard for society at large (and on such a popular level) was Sum 41, but they only hinted at their disdain for pop culture in their video for “Fat Lip,” in a moment where the band members attempt some synchronized dance moves, typical of the boy band era.
On a lesser scale, the punk pop outfit Home Grown carried the torch of band lampooning in their 2002 video for “You’re Not Alone.” Here, the band directly comments on themselves, as well as bands and trends of the era: The Hives, Limp Bizkit, Emo, Ska, Goth, and others. The end result is a little less polished, a little less endearingly juvenile, and obviously not nearly as successful. Ironically, too, the entire message of the video is “Don’t follow trends. Be an individual.” But these guys were just hoping to recreate the success of the only reason they found an audience: Blink-182.
In order to really carry the torch forward, an individual would need to be immensely popular yet counterculture enough to not care about being hated. And who more represented this ideal in the 2000’s than Eminem?
Em came in real strong in 2000 with “The Real Slim Shady.” He comes right out and states his agenda: “I’m sick of all you little girl and boy groups. All you do is annoy me. So I have been sent here to destroy you.” In the video he directly calls out folks like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Fred Durst, and the king of pop music video culture himself: Carson Daly. Each of these folks is put on display as over the top caricatures, except Fred Durst (he actually appears in the video, but Eminem returns the favor in Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”).
The main difference, though, between Eminem and Blink-182 is that Eminem directly calls out those he wishes to ridicule in his music. He does the exact same thing in the video for “Without Me,” where he takes on Moby, a very vocal critic of Eminem.
Em tried to replicate the success of his critiques later on in his career with “Just Lose It” and “We Made You,” but he seems to be tackling icons that don’t need to be taken down a notch: Michael Jackson, Bret Michaels, Ellen DeGeneres. None of these folks were really crying out for mockery. Their faults were either too grand or too petty. Eminem’s efforts seemed too far reaching. And no one really took up the flag when he abandoned it in 2009.
But the phenomenon of band lampooning was undoubtedly important! When TRL aired its final episode, they counted down the 10 most iconic videos of its era. And among the Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync chart toppers there was both Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again” and Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.” Earnestness and a genuine spirit will always win out. But 2 out of 10 is a significant enough figure to merit discussion. Every accepted fact needs a grain of salt, and we used to have that in pop music.
With the resurgence of the cultural relevance of music videos, I wonder if we’ll see this trend pop up again. Oddly enough, boy band sensations (a virtual Backstreet Boys reincarnate) One Direction take a stab at their pop forefathers in the video for “Best Song Ever.” They try to make it clear: “We’re not that type of boy band.” In the early 2000’s this would be considered “shots fired.” But who is there today to respond? Justin Timberlake certainly isn’t going to lose sleep at night over this.
Band lampooning was important to kids transitioning from an age where they swallowed any form of culture given to them to a point where they could decide something wasn’t good enough. It’s important to question what you’re given. It’s important to demand higher standards. It’s important to call out bullshit at large.
I wish more than anything for a voice to emerge in the music industry to call out the insanity of the current state of affairs. Will no one put Bieber in his place? Are we going to let One Direction get away with downplaying their similarities to (and really just shitting all over the legacy of) ‘N Sync? Are we honestly going to let Pitbull do anything?
Someone needs to do something. And finally, the video matters again. All the puzzle pieces are in place. We may just need a group of SoCal teenagers to get tired of all the bullshit they’ve been handed.