120 Minutes and the value of curatorship

I was delighted to find on Metafilter a link to The 120 Minutes Archive, a site dedicated to preserving the history of MTV’s long-defunct underground music show 120 Minutes, which was, back in the early 1990s, my gateway to the world of alternative music. (For example, I recorded this show from the summer of 1992 and dubbed it onto a C90 cassette tape by holding my little boombox with the built-in microphone up to the TV’s speaker. I’d walk around listening to the Soup Dragons and Daisy Chainsaw and thinking I was the coolest kid in the world. In point of fact, I still do that, actually.)

A lot of people who bitch about how MTV doesn’t play videos anymore seem to have conveniently forgotten what MTV was actually like in the days before The Real World and Road Rules. It was completely full of horrible, shitty, disposable shlock back then too; it’s just that the shlock was musical rather than reality-televisual in nature.

The first time I saw the video for Nirvana’s”Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it was buried in a block of videos from acts like Poison, Guns ‘n’ Roses, MC Hammer, The New Kids On The Block, Extreme, Mr. Big and C+C Music Factory. Despite the fact that bands like The Pixies, Public Enemy, The Smiths, De La Soul, Nirvana, Mudhoney, and The Happy Mondays were all putting out records and videos at the time, you were far more likely to see the video for Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” or Extreme’s execrable slow jam “More Than Words” every half-hour than “Here Comes Your Man” or “Bigmouth Strikes Again” or “Me, Myself And I”.

(I particularly remember that grating month or so when MTV played Guns ‘n’ Roses’ incredibly pompous, idiotic, tedious, endless video for “November Rain” quite literally every hour and a half. I think they only stopped when the UN issued some sort of proclamation on the use of media as torture.)

For the first few years of its existence, 120 Minutes was produced and hosted by a fellow named Dave Kendall, and it’s hard not to see the show as uniquely a product of Kendall’s taste and choices; why else the constant playing of videos by relatively obscure British acts like The Wonder Stuff and World Party and XTC, as well as industrial groups like Severed Heads and Skinny Puppy who couldn’t get within a light year of MTV’s constant rotation?

But this is precisely what gave the show its value; a great part of the charm of 120 Minutes was that it didn’t focus on a specific genre or style of music; rather, the playlists seemed to be based on Whatever Dave Kendall Thought Was Cool At The Moment. For example, check out this playlist from January 1991:

  • Happy Mondays “Step On”
  • Iggy Pop “Candy”
  • The House of Love “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”
  • The Stone Roses “Fool’s Gold”
  • The Pixies “Dig For Fire/Allison”
  • Cocteau Twins “Iceblink Luck”
  • The Jesus and Mary Chain “Head On”
  • Nine Inch Nails “Head Like A Hole”
  • World Party “Way Down Now”
  • The Soup Dragons “I’m Free”
  • Concrete Blonde “Joey”
  • The Cure “Never Enough”
  • Midnight Oil “Blue Sky Mine”
  • The Charlatans UK “The Only One I Know”
  • The Sundays “Here’s Where The Story Ends”
  • Sonic Youth “Cool Thing”
  • Sinead O’Connor “Nothing Compares 2 U”
  • Peter Murphy “Cuts You Up”
  • Jane’s Addiction “Been Caught Stealing”
  • Depeche Mode “Enjoy The Silence”

That’s a fairly genre-busting little romp through the world of alternative pop circa 1991: you’ve got Madchester, light industrial, wall o’ noise, gloom pop, East Coast alternarock, psychedelia, and, er, Iggy Pop.

Pandora and Last.fm would never generate this playlist: the bands and songs contained within it have very little in common, except that they’re not mainstream music. But it’s still obviously an intentional set of items; anybody who knows the history of pop music would look at this and nod their heads and recognize it as a reasonable and coherent collection.

You can say the same of any random playlist of Santa Monica public radio station KCRW’s legendary Morning Becomes Eclectic show, which is a sort of Apollonian audio-only version of 120 Minutes geared at Angelenos with refined musical sensibilities. These days, those playlists are designed by MBE host Jason Bentley, who used to be the soundtrack supervisor for Six Feet Under.

Bentley and Kendall (who’s still working, so far as I know) are subjective curators of music; they provide unique, individualized filters for music. You either like what they like, or you don’t; but if you do, they serve as nodal points for finding new stuff you wouldn’t find otherwise.

Algorithms can’t, as of yet, find cool; there’s no objective connection between The House Of Love and Nine Inch Nails. It takes a Dave Kendall to find it. And that was why 120 Minutes was so amazing…and the fact that MTV ditched it years ago says pretty much everything you need to know about the state of that particular cable channel.

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