Reality Television, Reality Music, and the fight for Real Rock and Roll
MTV’s “The Osbournes” has become a flashfire, no-brainer money-maker. Its unlikely success has granted rocker Ozzy Osbourne a second career as a strung out, British Leslie Nielson. And not surprisingly, the show’s runaway popularity has driven some notable exposure whores into development overdrive. But as this scary new twist on reality television escalates, there’s a chance it might bleed all over rock and roll.
By now, millions of watercooler people have recounted with hilarity the antics of Ozzy and his family, as they flounder helplessly in the face of such domestic challenges as extricating a housecat from behind a large mirror. Ever the dumfounded straight man, Osbourne never seems to grasp the finer points of his every precocious whim being broadcast for the bong-loading entertainment of cable audiences everywhere. Indeed, in the rogue cat episode, the only thing funnier than Ozzy in sweatpants was he and his family’s sheer inability to hatch a proper cat-removal scheme. Nevertheless, the bickering bunch will be back for more domestic debauchery next season. And they’ll likely be joined by Sean Combs, Kato, and Courtney F’ing Love. These are only a few examples of the repeat publicity offenders who have rutted their truck tires in the gross mud of the reality television series. In the near future, we will still have “The Osbournes.” But we’ll also be sprayed with the muck of reality shows like “Love Hurts” and “P. Diddy’s Posse Goes to Starbucks…Again.” It seems that real is where it’s at, even if your particular reality is about as unreal as it gets. Rock stars have always wanted to be actors, and thespians have always dreamed of a rock and roll heaven. But all of a sudden everyone just wants to keep it real. And this ugly new strain of celebrity reality – there’s an oxymoron – has a chance of mutating into something even greasier than Courtney Love skinny dipping in the La Brea Tar Pits.
As M2 overtakes its larger sibling as a barometer of cool, rock and roll bands that actually rock are being thrust to the forefront of pop music. The gone-native production, elephant gun riffs and defiant anti-style of The Strokes, The Hives, and The White Stripes (to name only the principals) has begun to dismantle the Nu-Metal golem, and replace much of the bombast with at least a little substance. But how is the deceptively simple music made by bands like these perceived by keepers of the bottom line? The visceral rock and roll that is coming back into fashion might be in danger of being co-opted into “reality music,” sent by the Big Five to save their bottom line, just as reality television has lowered the production headaches of network executives from Belgium to Burbank.
The music made by the aforementioned groups arrives ready to eat. It has been developed and test-marketed on the band’s own dime, in shitty rock clubs and cramped practice spaces over the past few years. Comparatively, the music of many of rock’s largest recent money-makers – Linkin Park, Creed – resounds with the sheen of producers with diamonds on the soles of their shoes. While LP and Creed certainly had talent enough to rock the mic at their local Sizzler, it took big money to convince people that there was more to the music than production winks and a few good-looking cheekbones. Now, don’t misunderstand. There’s a physical element to the Strokes’ success, beyond their furiously simple New York City rock and roll. But their popularity proved to the Stuffed Shirts that rockers can be cool without the guiding hand of Glen Ballard. Rockers that have come to the table without a promotional budget and T-shirt sponsorship are now proving to the industry that the public’s craving for “reality” doesn’t end with watching Ozzy bitch at his children. The “reality” of unwashed hair, touring Austria in a Nissan Sentra and name-checking Nuggets on MTV is created largely without anyone’s help but the band, and its fans.
But who says the music industry can’t make money off of that?
Reality TV is successful because it’s cheap to produce, eminently viewable, and there’s a never-ending supply of talent – i.e., all of us. That’s the same formula that’s been creating Pop music at least since the inception of the blues. But there’s nothing simple anymore in a music industry that circles its wagons around whatever is currently driving revenue streams. And right now, it’s “real” rock and roll that’s doing it. So the DIY ethic, and the punk rock ethos, and the International Pop Underground, and every other independent network that has given life to and supported bands like The Hives or The White Stripes (again, to cite only a few examples) is the new template that will be embraced by the Endemol of the music industry, in an attempt to create more “reality music.” Because the kids want their music, television, and music television real. And in the end, it’s always about what the kids want, right?
The inside joke with reality television is that it’s not actually real at all. The perception is that, yes, this really is where P.Diddy hangs out. But if Sean Combs is the executive producer of the reality show that portrays his life (which, assumingly, he is also the exec producer of), then can’t he simply show you what he wants to show you? There’s a built-in capacity in rock and roll that should be able to counteract this quandary, if in fact the real rock gets co-opted by Evil Brain and His Men of Morda. The thing about much of this first wave of rock and roll that’s currently breaking in American music is that many of these bands didn’t ask for the exposure they’re receiving. It’s too idealistic to suggest that they’ll all shun it; indeed, the signing frenzy that followed Nirvana’s explosion destroyed a lot careers. But there’s no question that this new color of reality in media is going to have its effect on music. Let’s hope rock and roll never forgets.