120 Minutes returns to guide us through the alternative/indie/hip-hop/whatever-else universe. But what's a show to do when nothing's as hard to find as it used to be?
So the alt music television show, 120 Minutes, seems to be back, this time on MTV2. I’m glad to see its return, if for no other reason than good old-fashioned nostalgia. Back in the day, those two hours of late-night MTV were the only way to find out about a lot bands that existed outside of the mainstream. Of course, many of those bands ultimately became the mainstream, but if you’re living in a town with little more than a classic rock station, that pretty much guarantees you’re not going to hear the Cure, Sisters of Mercy, or even Nirvana on the radio no matter how many records they’re selling.
I often wonder how a show like 120 Minutes was perceived in more metropolitan areas like Seattle or Washington, DC, which had their own music scenes. For this small-town kid, it was manna from Heaven.
If you’ll allow me an old-fogey moment to reiterate what we old has-beens are always prattling on about between naps... it really was hard in those pre-Internet days to find out about new music. You might read about a new band in a magazine, but how were you ever going to actually hear the band, to find out if you liked them? To a large extent, 120 Minutes stepped in to fill that much-needed role.
I can still remember sitting with my college roommates – one a deadhead, one a headbanger, and the other a fan of whatever kept the party going – as we saw and heard so many new and intriguing songs. I’d start each week off blurry-eyed because I’d stayed up watching videos into the wee hours of Sunday morning. When I was later working in a record store, it was crucial to watch the show just so that I'd get a jump on what I might need to be ordering that week.
Now, though, that kind of thing is no longer necessary. MP3 blogs offer up a seemingly limitless array of new songs every day, streaming services like Pandora attempt to zero in on your preferences to create a radio station tailored just for you, while turntable.fm lets you play the role of a DJ in any number of themed rooms and share what you like with others. Even the commercial sites like Amazon and iTunes often let you sample a little bit of a song before buying it.
So what role does a show like 120 Minutes have in this day and age when I can hear about a band and look them up on my phone, for God’s sake? Well, even the show’s host, Matt Pinfield, seems to realize the show can’t live on the cutting edge anymore; he introduced the revived show’s maiden episode by offering to play classic videos and “just enough new material to keep us current”. It’s probably a little tongue-in-cheek, but Pinfield seesm to acknowledge that any band they play will have already endured the hero’s journey of excited discovery/widespread sharing/inevitable backlash in the cutthroat world of music blogging.
As of this writing, an unsigned blues/soul band from Alabama called The Shakes was featured on the Aquarium Drunkard blog six days ago. I and some of my friends have been going nuts about this band ever since, even though they don’t have an album out yet, much less a video. How can 120 Minutes, despite its “Top Three MP3s from the Fader” segment, keep pace with that kind of organic groundswell?
The flip side of the Internet's ubiquity and fast pace is that it’s impossible to keep up with everything. And it’s easy to get a jaded preemptive backlash attitude along the lines of “Oh, well if these blogs are breathless about it, then it must be some more generic hipster stuff” that keeps you from checking things out. So as a gathering place for the stuff that’s currently bubbling, 120 Minutes can serve a very helpful purpose.
I’d heard about Jeff the Brotherhood, Cults, the Joy Formidable, Das Racist, and Sleigh Bells, but hadn’t heard their music. 120 Minutes very quickly took care of that. Granted, I thought some of what 120 Minutes played on its most recent episode sucked about as much as anything has ever sucked before, but that’s not the point. 120 Minutes at least gave me some initial exposure from which I can decide whether to track down any more.
I’m fond of referencing an intro David Foster Wallace wrote for The Best American Essays, 2007, in which he examined the need for us to find our own trusted sources and aggregators for the modern world’s constant flow of noise and information. Whether it’s news channels, Internet sites, literary journals, friends, or whatever, we basically need to abdicate the responsibility of sifting through everything to other people whose opinions and judgment we trust. So maybe that’s where 120 Minutes fits into the new landscape.
For all the availability that the Internet offers, it’s still easy to settle into your own little niche where you can spend days in the comfort of things you already know. Some of those turntable.fm rooms are frighteningly specific. A two-hour show that sorts through the new stuff and lays a little bit of it out for you? That’s actually kind of comforting. Besides, not everyone has the Internet access to scour the blogs, so something more readily available like 120 Minutes gains even more value.
So even if 120 Minutes can no longer be the gatekeeper it once was, that’s OK. Very little in the music business is like it used to be – and much of that change is for the better. Plus, now I can watch 120 Minutes on the web anytime I want. That's a nice bit of retro refitting, wouldn't you say?