MTV’s Inaugural Ball Tries To Recapture The Spirit Of ’93

mariasci | January 21, 2009 1:00 am

If you’ve turned on MTV at any point in the last few years, you probably saw a show about the social lives of rich teenagers; if you turned up just for the special events, they were generally stripper-themed. But if you happened upon the channel around 10 p.m. last night, you would see people repairing homes in New Orleans and building a computer lab in Kenya, all part of the channel’s coverage of the official Youth Inaugural Ball. What gives? MTV’s bread and butter has been resolutely aspirational, from My Super Sweet 16 to The Hills, but mere hours after a new president was sworn in with a speech about service and responsibility, the channel had footage ready to roll of kids pitching in and helping out. The crash format change hearkens back to an earlier era in the MTV’s history—an era that, coincidentally, included Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball.

Last night, the musical entertainment consisted of Fall Out Boy and Kanye West; in 1993, the entertainment included the Eagles and U2. You can probably spot the difference there. The Henley-Bono booking made sense in ’93 because the Clintons were the ultimate outgrowth of boomer nostalgia, buoyed to office by Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” The Eagles would hardly seem to be MTV’s kinda band, but it was hip in 1993 to be interested in politics, and hitching their star to this particular vintage wagon made it seem legitimate. Still, as eternally lame as the Eagles were, they reflected something fundamental about the Clinton presidency: It seemed kinda past their prime and had a questionable past, but was pleasant enough and we could all agree on it, if for no other reason than familiarity.

In contrast, on The Daily Show‘s live broadcast last night, Wyatt Cenac referred to Fall Out Boy as a band “I’ve never even heard of.”

This is meant as a compliment, but in our present context it seems more like an insult. Nevertheless, it’s fair: Fall Out Boy, for all their good qualities, don’t have much to do with politics. And why should they? Their particular lyrical genius is to engage in a game with the culture that surrounds them, but when that culture doesn’t care very much or very deeply about social justice, well, artists can only work with the tools they are given. They seem to have rejected any political context for Folie A Deux, which was supposed to be released on Election Day (and was even preceded by a mixtape called Welcome to the New Administration) but was subsequently bumped to avoid looking like they were trivializing the election. Kanye, in classic fashion, drew a parallel between the historic inauguration and “Heartless” being No. 1, but even aside from the tacky audacity, it’s not particularly true. For all its focus on youth, the Obama campaign didn’t court the support of popular entertainers the way Clinton’s did in the early ’90s. Sure, you had your entertainers who went out of their way to voice their support for their candidate of choice, but the Obama campaign seemed to try and keep itself above the fray.

In 1993, it might have been cool for a teenager to worry about sexism, but in 2009, those sorts of worries seem to have fallen by the wayside—meanwhile, those people who had their consciousness pricked 15 years ago are now working for Obama and complaining that MTV doesn’t show enough music videos. If the kids watching MTV now have an interest in politics, they’re certainly not getting any information about it from the channel. Until now, to do so would be unhip, an awful incursion of seriousness into a glittery world. Obama’s glamour did an end-run by showing up all that as tacky, embracing understatement and dignity. And now, MTV’s trying to rub up against that in hopes of catching the energy Obama summons, and pop music lacks.

But, MTV being MTV, the channel failed even in this. Obama’s call for collective action was not really a request for more volunteerism. It was, rather, an effort to restore government to its true position: the solution to our collective needs. This doesn’t require conscious effort on the part of citizens so much as a realization that the government is not an entity that steals your money and forces you to do things you don’t want to do, but instead a tool we use to pool our resources and produce results we could not have come up with on our own. What’s required for this is to have everyone—or almost everyone—on board. Pop music, you may recall, was like this in 1993; in 2009, someone admits on national television that he hasn’t even heard of one of the biggest-selling rock bands in the country. With decreased participation comes decreased benefits, and even as MTV tried to recapture an era it had long since abandoned, so did the country move on to an era that didn’t need its efforts anymore.

MTV’s Be The Change [MTV]