[2 December 2005]
PopMatters Events Editor
I first heard the “legend of the hippo” during an informational tour of DC’s George Washington University. I listened closely as a petite, energetic brunette—a “real” college student—walked backwards through the street, gesturing at buildings as she gave my group of starry-eyed high school seniors the hard sell.
“The unofficial mascot of GW, this Potomac water-horse’s origin is unknown, but that doesn’t stop students from rubbing its nose for good luck during finals.”
The truth, I later learned, is that the statue was an impulse buy made just a few years earlier by our spend-crazy, obsessively building-building President. Of course, the story does hold a speck of truth: students do drunkenly hump the hippo year-round (possibly for good luck).
Ah yes, college. The kids love their humping and, MTVU is hoping they love their Woodies just as much. Wait that came out wrong. The name Woodie (created by MTV’s college-oriented offshoot MTVU) is an allusion to the hand-whittled (tee-hee) wooden award plaques given out during the fledgling ceremony’s live taping. Any other interpretation would be decidedly un-collegiate, crass, and out of sync with the award’s prestigious history.
Well, ok, so the show was actually founded last year and this was the first time it was taped - presenters Coheed and Cambria mentioned this fact, saying that the award they received last year was handed to them in the basement of New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Still, artists like Death Cab for Cutie and Matisyahu began bragging about their nominations months ago on their websites. So it must have meant something, right? My mission was to discover what happens, and what it means, when the decidedly corporate MTV sets its sights on the staunchly independent arena of college rock.
And so, I braved the show’s Roseland Ballroom taping alone, entering a strange land of neon lights, large screens, and crane-cameras. The awards stage, set in the front of the cavernous ballroom, was lit in heavy reds, beams falling across iron walls covered in torn music posters. The set was designed to convey a sort of urban alley chic, though it was more reminiscent of a West Side Story stage set than the walls outside CBGBs. In front of the presenters’ stage - adorned with a twisted metallic podium whose mic appeared taped on—there was a sectioned-off area with tall, round, candlelit tables. There weren’t as many as I expected, certainly not enough for all of the nominees.
To the left sat the performance stage, which would host one-offs by The Go! Team, Matisyahu, and Death Cab for Cutie. And looming over everything stood a tall, bright screen displaying the words: MTVU WOODIE AWARDS.
The word MTV seemed to stand out from the rest, and as I stared across the empty room (waiting for the audience to come in) the whole thing had a stale, synthetic taste. I don’t know what college rock IS, or what it means to be indie, but candlelit receptions and booming speakers sporting MTV logos just aren’t IT.
Then the audience arrived. Filtering in slowly, college kids began to fill the areas around the barricades and in front of the performance stage. They spoke excitedly of those to perform (albeit one song each). Having entered contests, called in connections, and waited in line for the chance to see the show, these kids offered what I remembered as the real “college” ambiance:
Despite the show’s attempts to capture the college aesthetic - it opened with a step group, the awards were co-presented by college fans, and the “Woodie of the Year” nominees all got the a capella treatment from Fordham University’s Satin Dolls - these students were what lent the evening some measure of credibility.
And so it was that a large corporate conglomerate managed unwitting authenticity. The kids had voted; they had shown up in droves. All MTV had to do was sit back and try not to mess up the evening with cheesy glitz and glamour or by trying to be to hip
Of course, that’s not easy when everything is scripted. In a surprise opening monologue, rock pioneer Lou Reed appeared, disjointedly stumbling when directed to say, “People say to me ‘Hey Lou is there any good rock anymore?’ And I tell them…” Lou who? These kids could be Reed’s grandchildren.
Wu-Tang’s RZA tried to avoid this trapping during his presentation. I watched the prompter opposite the stage as he nimbly danced around the pseudo-slang the producers had written for him. What he said sounded cool. What they had written sounded like something I’d write for a “ghetto character” in a farscial musical stage production of Boyz n the Hood. Of course, like the name of the awards ceremony itself, there was no escaping the show’s sense that college kids desire cheesy perv-iness. After a largely respectable speech RZA finished with the phrase: “It’s all good to go wood in the hood.” Ouch.
Equally off-putting was the appearance of actor Philip Seymore Hoffman, who introduced the Go! Team’s performance. No other celebs of such caliber were in attendance, on stage or off (fire your argent, Phil!).
Of course, for all the decorations and painfully created “moments” you can’t slag off the performers who played throughout the evening. “Your new favorite band,” the Go! Team crowded the stage for a pep rally of massive proportions. Or so it seemed. For all their cheerleading prowess and soulful sass, the group failed to stir the audience quite the way the producers had hoped (when the awards were actually shown on TV this fact was white-washed by a set of masterful close-cuts of the band, and none of the unmoving crowd).
On the other hand, Hasidic toaster Matisyahu got the crowd pumping their fists as he moved swiftly across the stage while unleashing smooth, soulful reggae wails. He was joined for a second song by witty hip-hop wordsmith Saul Williams. Standing next to one another, Williams hammered out smooth rhymes as Matisyahu beat-boxed, his notes resounding heavily across the room.
Oh, yeah. There were awards too, about five of them. Nominated bands pulled double-duty, handing out “woodies” - hand sculpted pieces of wood with an anvil through them—after receiving their own. As time went on the sparse table arrangement began to make sense. For all its reach MTV had only corralled the exact number of musicians necessary to put on the show. Big-name winners Green Day and My Chemical Romance beamed in prerecorded acceptance speeches. Other bands, ones that didn’t win, simply didn’t show.
Awards were handed out to the artists that YOU (meaning the viewers of MTVU) voted for. Despite nominations for indie darlings like the Bloc Party, the Decemberists, and the Arcade Fire, the night belonged almost completely to post-emo acts of the pop-punk variety. In the award for best non-US act UK big name acts Bloc Party, M.I.A., and the Arcade Fire all fell flat in front of UK mopers Muse. Acts like mewithoutyou and Motion City Soundtrack made similar upsets.
Of course, it’s hard to call these upsets when it was the college kids that voted, right? I guess, but who voted? As the night wore on, the supposed scope of the event washed away and it became clear that this was actually a niche ceremony for a type of niche performer: the pre-MTV darlings championed by MTVU. These darlings appeal to watchers of MTVU and therefore win MTV Woodies. Thus, the awards don’t succeed in their goal - awarding the best in indie music and college rock - but they do fulfill the wishes of a certain type of music listener - the channel’s.
The show closed with “best live-action” Woodie winner Death Cab offering a subdued mini-set. As they plucked two tunes from their recent major-label debut Plans, Ben Gibbard hammered away at an electronic drum pad and Chris Walla tickled electronic ivories. Neither seemed too pumped to take the stage, looking more like they were fulfilling an obligation.
And they sort of were. By creating an awards ceremony so fueled by the band’s demographic, MTVU had sort of trapped them and the others in the room. In the past months the station had promoted the bands tirelessly (which is a good thing) but now it was time for them to pay the piper by lending some cred to the cause. And they couldn’t say no. To snub the show would be to also deny the audience behind it. Sneaky, very sneaky. And smart.
Towards the end of the evening Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, tongue firmly poking through his cheek, asked the audience: “Did everyone have a Woodieriffic experience tonight?”
Cheers upon cheers.
You know Ben, I’d say I did, but I’m not sure what that means, if it means anything at all.