“Reality killed the Video Star”

I take it as a personal principle not to comment on current news affairs if a mature response is too premature. I shall leave that to good journalism. In this case I find a certain kind of irony that is fitting to mark the end of the decade and where we are in it.

At the end of last week, in the UK’s charts. Robbie Williams, of Take That and solo artist fame; had been beaten off the number one place in the album chart desite media attention towards him in the week. Wililams had been beaten off by what seems essentially a younger version of what Take That used to be; a manufactured boy band. I find this particularly a bittersweet phenomenon for the following reasons:

1. Take That and Robbie had entered the ‘old guard’ of popular music

In recent times, the former members of the boy band have gotten a fair bit older and have gained a more mature status. It is almost as if they are seen as rock stars as opposed to pop stars. What is the difference? Well, the superficial difference is that rock normally involves a lot more guitar, and rock music is symbolised by the guitar: the idealised virtues of bravura, masculinity, creativity and perhaps being edgy. Their maturity and hallowed place in the biographies of many of their fans have given them a special place in their memories, ask people questions like: did you go to the big Robbie concert at Knebworth in 03? or where were you when they broke up?; and we may find part of our own biographies within theirs.

It is this kind of hallowed status, being famous for being remembered, or already established, that gives a false sense of authenticity that we may forget their more plastic of origins. In a real sense, however, did Robbie establish his own reputation and worked to earn an independent career. This didn’t seem enough to make the barbarian hordes buy his album.

2. The album title of Robbie’s latest album

The title of Williams’ latest album is ‘Reality killed the Video Star’. This seems to be an obvious nod to the single by The  Buggles called ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. Probably a testament to wanting recognition for making a clever statement by means of a derivative assertion, perhaps Robbie unwittingly foresaw his own downfall. Let’s go back to 1981 for this discussion.

When MTV was first broadcasting in the early 80s, there was a cultural shift in the consumption and creation of music. Now, music had a different character in embracing television and cable/satellite subscription networks. It is well established that technological innovations can change our consumption and appropriation of music. Radio introduced masses to Elvis, Rock ‘N’ Roll and crooning. The introduction of music videos and the emergence of major television networks had shifted music yet again. A new generation had emerged, and the conditions of possibility for other musical and cultural innovation obtained.

I’m not quite sure what the phrase of Williams’ album could mean; insofar as whether Reality refers to some wider apprehension of social affairs insofar as popular music creates its own ‘bubble’ of a world, or is a simple reference to reality television. Probably both. I shall address the latter. The notion of reality television which emerged in the twilight of the 1990s, seems to have dominated the popular consciousness of this decade. I have been hoping for a long time to just ignore it and hope it will die a death, whether quick or elongated. I’ve lately developed a new policy of trying not to pay attention to that which is utterly beneath derision such that even mentioning it would raise the profile of the offending object.

The generation created by MTV and CD sales indeed did change the status of radio. I thought about this as nowadays the main way that I engage with the world is through listening to podcasts, most of which come from public radio stations (particularly the BBC). While I was born and grew up in the generation of music videos. I really quite prefer podcasting. These new technologies have crystallised in such a way that now civility can be maintained. The ‘new’ does not need to be grasped only by the barbarian horde, but the likes of twitter stars like Charlie Brooker or Stephen Fry (whether this is a new philistinism remains an open question).

Where will the next decade take us? Will ‘reality’ television coem to an end? Will competing cliques occupy non-overt but influential positions among the youth through the web? Will there come something even new and more hateful to supercede reality television that will make the latter seem like a moral and cultural vanguard?

Time will tell, but, you can also decide how it will turn out. There are many great podcasts available these days. I should recommend a few.

Sinistre* (based on conversations with Michael)

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