Gotta Get Back in Time
The Peculiar Draw of VH1 Classic
by Stephanie R. Myers
illustration by Jon Shroeder
I REMEMBER the very month VH1 Classic went on the air in 2000. On my first day home from college for the summer, I stumbled upon this eighth wonder of the world, very clearly not geared toward my 19-year-old demographic. I wasn’t concerned. “It’s like watching VH1’s The Big ’80s, but all of the time!” I rhapsodized to friends who pretended to care. Moreover, I realized, this wasn’t just what MTV was like back in the day before it stopped playing videos; it was what VH1 was before it became the Behind the Music/”Celebreality” channel.
On that first day, I inadvertently ended upwatching an endless loop of Procol Harum and Steve Winwood videos, slack-jawed, for 12 or 13 hours. Yes. Until the videos started repeating. Because that’s how it was back in the early days; VH1 Classic, with its limitless music-video library, ironically didn’t have that much airable material—or at the very least, material that it cared to share with us.
But oh, how things have changed in seven years. For example, having realized that it isn’t exactly premium cable like HBO, VH1 now has actual commercials. And metal-themed blocks! And really old veejays! You can now tune in to watch veejay Eddie Trunk, a veritable fanboy train wreck, drool all over himself while interviewing VH1’s own Supergroup (Supergroup: a maddeningly addictive reality show featuring five musicians from all musical corners coming together to form a band—and we’re talking Ted Nugent to Sebastian Bach here) or Ric Ocasek (the latter Q&A turning out to be a totally discomfiting leg-humping spectacle).
VH1 Classic’s All-Request Hour (despite never having granted any of my requests) is a pleasant, albeit puzzling grab bag; someone was hankering to see an Icehouse video to the point where they wrote in, begging to see it? No matter. I’ll watch anyway. For the Hurricane Katrina Pay-to-Play benefit version of the program, people who donated $25 got to see whatever video they fancied. Those who donated $35,000 got to program an entire hour (the math seems a little dubious, doesn’t it?). One anonymous donor (and who can blame that person for the secrecy, really?) famously requested an entire hour of “99 Luftballons.” Veejay Lynn Hoffman handled the explanation with aplomb and a shrug, announced that VH1 Classic would be alternating the English and German versions for an hour. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t have it on in the background for no reason at all.
In its infancy, VH1 Classic was mostly an endless parade of clips of days gone by in Day-Glo “Choose Life” shirts and deliciously overwrought lip-synced melodramatics with the occasional Top of the Pops T. Rex clip thrown in. I didn’t care much for most modern music back then, so it didn’t matter to me in the least that I had basically hitched a ride on some kind of wholesale bundled video archival safari. It’s entirely possible to watch enough music videos that you get to the point where you finally think it’s about to mean something. Maybe I’m a music-video anthropologist, I thought at one point. Maybe I’m somehow learning things, like important pieces of history! No doubt others with the same inability to tear their eyes from the screen had the same high-minded ambitions (judging from the average veejay age, maybe even reliving the time in their lives when all the footage was new).
But I judged too soon. I flipped the channel on one day a few years ago to find Kurt Cobain cavorting in a gym. I froze. “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” VH1 Classic had decided that the “classics” now included the ’90s. Maybe my love of the channel had actually been an ironic “you’re-old-I’m-not-and-it’s-funny” kind of love, not… well, a groovy kind of love. Maybe, just maybe, the whole time I was just smirking at, not laughing with, all those girls on film.
And now I was one of them. Now I—and my generation’s music—was firmly in the classic category.
But it didn’t stop me. Even after I realized I could find pretty much any song on YouTube that I would ever hope to see on VH1 Classic, old habits die hard. I still come home every day and turn it on before I even know what I’m doing. Maybe I’m under the impression that the Classicteam (a designation that apparently refers to anyone employed by VH1 Classic) is piecing all the music videos into some kind of coherent narrative for me. Sort of like when Lou Reed said that if you listen to all of his albums back-to-back, you’ll eventually realize that it’s the Great American Novel.
More than my own form of musical crack, the channel has evolved into my own personal Mütter Museum, clips perfectly preserved in celluloid formaldehyde, where Pat Benatar’s plan to foil her pimp via a dance gang makes just as much sense as any hairdo found in a Flock of Seagulls video. And if nothing else, we now have evidence as a society to pinpoint the exact moment footless tights came into fashion the first time around.
Recently my roommate, looking to cut some household costs, asked me if I preferred getting rid of our phone land line or downgrading to a cable package that happened to not include VH1 Classic. You can probably guess my choice—from now on you can reach me on my cell.
Stephanie R. Myers is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has written about music for NY Arts magazine, Texas Monthly, and is staff writer for The Deli, a New York-based indie-music magazine.