Playing the "Air Guitar"

Dave Hickey's essays on art and democracy hit a major chord

Published October 3, 1997 11:09AM (EDT)

in 20th-century art, crime always pays. And who's the ringleader? The
godfather? The boss? He's a chess-playing joker named Marcel Duchamp, who grabbed a
postcard of the Mona Lisa, uncapped his pen and, with a wink, defaced the
smiling lady with a mustache, scrawling under her the letters "L.H.O.O.Q.,"
which, roughly translated, means "She's hot in the ass." The Mona Lisa! Dirty
Duchamp stole from da Vinci, stole his dignity, his masterpiece, his
aura, made him into the butt of a joke. But hey, Renaissance man, this is the
modern age, which means only one thing -- jungle rules. And if you can rob
one of the smartest artists of the millennium of his honor, then Gloria
Estefan is pretty much fair game.

VH-1's "Pop-Up Video" isn't so much a TV show as an art project. Creators Tad Low and Woody Thompson should receive honorary MFAs for the program, because grad students worldwide are getting diplomas for just this sort of thing -- stealing (or as they say in art school, "appropriating") hackneyed pop images and scribbling on top of them ` la granddaddy Marcel.
The show, which would not be out of place on a monitor in a darkened gallery
at CalArts, takes existing music videos and messes with them, making little
word-balloons pop up periodically on the screen. The balloons illuminate
everything from the performer's biography to behind-the-scenes dish, announcing
that Joan Osborne's nose ring in her "One of Us" video is a clip-on (and
therefore as fake as her singing), and that Duran Duran's "Rio" yacht shoot
was postponed for a day because the cast and crew were seasick. Who knew?

"Pop-Up Video" is a show for people who hate videos, and, since there have
only been about three good ones (R.E.M.'s "Man in the Moon," the Beastie
Boys' "Sabotage" and ... I forget the other one), there are a lot of us. I'll
admit that Cyndi Lauper was always fab and that I've gotten caught up in the
Madonna thing and the Michael Jackson thing and the Nirvana thing and many, many other MTV
phenomena. I'll even 'fess up to watching "The Real World," a show which has
as much to do with real life as music videos have to do with music. Sure, we
all know those people who get that huffy tone in their voices and say, "MTV
doesn't play videos anymore." Hoo-ray. Wouldn't you much rather watch all
those "Real World" goofballs fighting over who left a mess in the kitchen
than watch Mariah Carey dork around in a swimsuit anyway?

it wasn't until "Beavis
and Butt-head" came along that I clued into the way all that tripe could be
used, that the snide remarks my friends and I made while watching passive
product were anything but passive. The act of talking back to bad videos was
always a pastime, but now, for a few TV smart alecs, it's a career. Consider the fact that the "Pop-Up" staff were paid actual American dollars to give the treatment to Miami Sound Machine's "Bad Boy" -- a video of such quality, such perfection, that improving it was previously considered
impossible. You got Gloria Estefan! You got guys dressed up like cats! You
got dance moves! A dark alley! And synthesizers! Gold, right? On "Pop-Up,"
they ID the video, per usual, naming the title, the artist, the name of the
album, record company and director. At turns trivial, smart and trivial
again, the low-key pleasure of watching the show lies in its randomness.
We're given informational tidbits, including that it was "filmed over two
nights in an alley in downtown Los Angeles." But the more compelling moments
are when the bubbles make sly critique of the action: When Gloria sings
suggestively to a cat, "You get me so excited," the bubble deadpans,
"Bestiality is a felony in 17 states." A few seconds later, as Gloria drives
down the alley with a cat in a convertible, the bubble simply points out that
it's "the director's car."

If "Beavis and Butt-head" (not to mention its cousin "Mystery Science
Theater") ape the social interactions between friends as they face bad videos
and bad films, "Pop-Up" comes closer to the lone TV watcher's discourse with
herself. Since its asides are of the silent, stream-of-consciousness variety,
the show approximates a wandering mind. Since videos are staffed by
non-actors acting, since they often impose a contrived story onto a
non-narrative song, since they frequently feature wardrobe not encountered in
daily life, it is impossible to fully concentrate on them in a linear,
beginning-to-end manner. How can you possibly pay attention to Cher in a
focused fashion for four whole minutes? You're going to wonder about her
poor kid, or why she does that to her hair, or what her real face would look
like, what she was thinking when she picked out that outfit, tattoo, etc.

"Pop-Up Video" isn't as savage or as funny or as subversive as "Beavis and
Butt-head." In those cartoon doofs' world, lots of stuff sucks, but some
stuff's cool, and all that carping made room for intermittent head-banging
joy. Because when AC/DC or Metallica or whoever moved them, they'd dance.
During those moments, the show looked like pure happiness, even if
someone using the word happiness was met with a crack like, "Heh heh, he
said, 'Penis.'" "Beavis and Butt-head" never feels like art school; it feels
like life.

If the tone of "Beavis and Butt-head" has the rough edges of rock,
"Pop-Up" lives up to its name. Its vibe is more Warholian, cooler and flatter, its commentary almost always linguistic. Whereas Beavis' critiques are often delivered in an unsure mess of grunts and wheezes and screams, "Pop-Up's" annotations are roped off in clean little bubbles of neat, legible graphics. On the other hand, like a lot of people with a clear moral vision,
Beavis and Butt-head were predictable: Metalheads were always going to catch
their fancy and P.J. Harvey was always going to weird them out. Maybe because
it's produced by VH-1, a network that, unlike MTV, seems to know that pop
music existed prior to 1982, "Pop-Up's" tastes are more catholic. And more
democratic: They make fun of everybody, from pipsqueaks Hanson to old farts
the Grateful Dead.

The point of art in this century (what's left of it) is to sneak up and
blow spit wads in the direction of the deified, the powerful and the
pretentious. I don't know if the Mona Lisa necessarily looks better with a
mustache, but I'm pretty sure that those pompous Police are more palatable
popped-up. Who wouldn't enjoy their video of "Every Breath You Take" more
after learning that drummer Stewart Copeland "often positioned his cymbals so
he wouldn't have to look at Sting on stage"?

Is the "Pop-Up" version of a creepy Police song better than the untampered
video? Sure. Is watching "Pop-Up Video" better than just hearing a really
great song on the radio? Call me old-fashioned, but no. I don't think about
recycling or being out of cereal or the light in my eyes when a song I
love is on the radio. And I don't think about the singer's shoes or the
song's chart position in 1983 or what year the band broke up. I don't think
about anything but the music. Being in a song is like kissing: You
always close your eyes. And when your eyes are closed, who needs TV?

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

MORE FROM Sarah Vowell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Mtv Music