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THE VH1-ING OF AMERICAN MUSIC

HOW THE CABLE CHANNEL IS RETURNING US TO THE BORING DAYS OF YESTERYEAR.

When VH1 went on the air ten years ago, the network was rightly seen as a graying version of its sister channel, MTV. Programmers there attempted to endear the service to upscale baby boomers (as opposed to MTV-targeted upscale youth) by focusing on cautious "adult rock" and relatively sedate video clips from the recent past as introduced by sweater-vest-clad jocks whose forced chumminess was positively noxious. At first this tack was a failure, and as ratings continued to hover near ground zero, the powers-that-were tried to reposition VH1 as a lifestyle barometer; at the dawn of the Nineties, you could hardly surf past its spot on the dial without seeing a fashion showcase or a stage filled with well-groomed stand-up comedians doing tired riffs on Seventies sitcoms and misbehaving pets (such shows are still present, but they're no longer omnipresent). Predictably, these fixups failed to increase viewership, in part because they left the channel resembling a 24-hour Bennigan's commercial. Faced with a corporate embarrassment of biblical proportions, executives made a last-ditch effort to keep the project afloat by upping the music quotient and wooing media figures such as Madonna and David Bowie to star in high-profile advertisements intended to convince TV watchers that VH1 wasn't just for people intimidated by MTV anymore.

In essence, these decision-makers went back to what hadn't worked in the beginning. But this time, strangely enough, it did: VH1 has become the most potent star-maker on the 1995 music scene. Ratings are still tepid--they're less than half of MTV's--but the moneyed types who've been watching are attractive enough to advertisers to compensate for their relatively small numbers. Just as important, the network is now seen throughout the music industry as a legitimate force capable of turning obscurities into celebrities. Witness Hootie and the Blowfish, an act that went from being a nondescript but passable bar band to an entertainment juggernaut (the album Cracked Rear View has gone quadruple platinum) after its videos began appearing on VH1 more frequently than the channel's logo. In tandem with the rise of the Adult Album Alternative--or Triple A--radio format exemplified by Boulder's KBCO-FM/97.3 and, to a lesser extent, KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak), VH1 has proven to marketers and industry observers that grownups will listen to and purchase music by new artists so long as the performers don't do anything radical. Like try something new.

And that's the rub. VH1 is not a progressive force but an essentially conservative one--a broadcaster whose slickly disguised mission is to maintain the status quo. As its influence spreads, it's squeezing the life out of a scene desperately in need of some. VH1's newfound popularity is accelerating the blandification of American music.

Of course, blandness is a difficult quality to get a handle on, since what's dull and prosaic to one person may be quietly reassuring to another. Furthermore, there's no arguing that the station has provided a platform for wrinkled rockers--Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and others--who continue to display a considerable portion of their previous vitality yet are stigmatized by the ageism that's so pervasive in pop culture. And VH1 has also played a role, albeit a small one, in helping African-American artists like Dionne Farris (formerly of Arrested Development) gain acceptance from consumers who tend to reject any sounds within spitting distance of soulfulness.

For the most part, however, the new musicians who've gained the most from VH1 exposure have been those whose approaches recall, and in many cases rehash, the qualities and characteristics of previous rock role models. Five examples:

Sheryl Crow. A willowy looker with a modicum of intelligence and a taste for the old days, Crow is a throwback to the early and mid-Seventies, when Linda Ronstadt's Heart Like a Wheel album spurred record companies to build careers for female singer-songwriters with fresh-scrubbed sex appeal. Crow's music draws equally from the wellsprings of rock and country rock, but she avoids extremes with an alacrity that no doubt pleases her packagers. After all, surprises would only confuse the customers.

Blues Traveler. Led by John Popper, a flashy harmonica player who's able to make his instrument sound utterly unlike a mouth harp (often to the detriment of his playing in general), this act began as a Hot Tuna for the Nineties; its generic songs were used as mere excuses for post-psychedelic blues jamming of the sort that became insufferably redundant around 1972. More recently, though, Popper and company have found a way to synopsize their lightweight sonic fuzziness. The hit single "Run-Around," which began climbing the charts after VH1 adopted it as an anthem, is a case in point. It's late-Sixties FM fodder watered down for the consumption of folks who long ago traded in their marijuana for Grape-Nuts.

The Dave Matthews Band. A man who used Boulder as a base from which to conquer the nation, Matthews is a competent musician who operates in a familiar late-Sixties/early-Seventies mode and never asks too much of his audiences. The songs on the platinum disc Under the Table and Dreaming are about practically nothing, but they move along briskly and use their familiarity to keep fans from asking too many questions (like, "Didn't I hear this one twenty years ago?"). Bubbleheaded and retro in a manner that makes the Spin Doctors seem like Rage Against the Machine by comparison.

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