PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Beavis & Butt-head Revisited

Beavis & Butt-head have returned to television after a nearly 15 year respite. Highland High’s favorite students haven’t changed all that much, which is fairly comforting. Yet, as welcome a presence as MTV’s witless and unwitting arbiters of taste may be, these two idiots have yet to repeat the sound and fury that accompanied their original run in the mid-‘90s.

With so much “reality”-based drivel having set a not-so-lofty standard, perhaps we’ve all grown a little too accustomed to shock factor television. Furthermore, Beavis and Butt-head paved the way for even more outrageous prime-time and cable network cartoons that tackle hot button topics of the day. Since Beavis & Butt-head dropped out of sight, shows like South Park and Family Guy have more than picked up the slack with off-color hilarity and social commentary.

This time around, MTV’s animated series has slightly revamped its formula. Beavis & Butt-head, Version 1.0 poked fun at the music and pop culture of the ’90s through the eyes of two miscreant metalheads. Storylines on the original show were geared towards random acts of stupidity and cartoon violence interspersed with the duo’s running commentary on music videos. Its present incarnation is more deliberate in its examination of cultural touchstones and current issues such as the Twilight phenomenon, teen obesity, and worker’s rights, to name a few. Considering creator Mike Judge’s work and impact on the pop cultural landscape with films like Office Space and Idiocracy to his credit, it isn’t much of a stretch.

The most noticeable change to the show, however, is that instead of just serving as a couple talking heads debating the cool factor of current music videos, Beavis and Butt-head have added poking fun at MTV reality show staples like “Jersey Shore” and “16 & Pregnant” to their repertoire. Not only is this a nod to how few music videos currently air on MTV today compared to Beavis & Butt-head’s mid ‘90s heyday, but it also showcases MTV’s willingness to cannibalize its own programming.

These reality shows are ripe for the picking and it’s poetic justice to have Beavis and Butt-head openly mock them. Even better, since MTV owns these reality shows being mocked, no rights need to be secured from artists for future licensing and inclusion in DVD releases of the show — a problem which plagued a DVD release of ’90s Beavis & Butt-head episodes as rights to many of the music videos featured were unable to be obtained.

As an added bonus, MTV gets to air free “commercials” for their homegrown programming and attract a new audience for their reality shows: those who will tune in for the train-wreck factor and who will want to emulate Beavis and Butt-head by mocking these shows from the confines of their own couch.

The cable network seems to have a knack for creating and capitalizing upon a zeitgeist. Mike Judge, astute cultural observer that he is, demonstrates equal savvy in revisiting what made him a household name nearly 20 years ago.

The tweak to Beavis & Butt-head‘s formula has worked to the show’s advantage. As Judge noted in a recent interview on MTV.com, “I think it is easier taking shots at the reality shows than music videos.” (27 October 11)

That said, the cultural analysis on this go-round seems a lot more obvious than it did back in the ‘90s. Then again, perhaps Beavis & Butthead did such a good job back in 1994 of conditioning viewers to thinking about what they were watching that today’s audience has become more aware of what they’re doing – mainly because many people are doing the same things themselves.

Beavis & Butt-head (and on a lesser, cult-following level, Mystery Science Theater 3000 ) kicked off the idea of “average viewers” taking less of a passive role and more of an active one as amateur critics of pop culture. To a degree, every person with a cable subscription and a remote control is aware that there is a lot of crap on television – but we still watch it anyway. We may just owe a debt of gratitude to Beavis & Butt-head — then and now — for paving the way not just for cartoon-based shock TV, but for ingraining the philosophy of cultural criticism in many of us who grew up watching them. These two chowderheads may lack the eloquence of Greil Marcus, but they know what “sucks” and what “rocks.”

Interestingly, Beavis & Butt-head still sport the same AC/DC & Metallica t-shirts that they wore in the ’90s. Perhaps we should listen to what they have to say as arbiters of taste considering their bands of choice have stood the test of time. Although, I’m assuming Beavis may not have heard Lulu yet, otherwise, he may want to rethink wearing that Metallica shirt.