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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.

The Rembrandts. This combo was the perfect choice to provide the soundtrack to the TV series Friends; like the show, the Rembrandts please by offering up minor, pleasantly innocuous variations on formulas that were hackneyed before Milton Berle bought his first frock. The band's Everly Brothers-cum-Romantics ditties are perfect for VH1. They give the illusion of freshness with no unexpected aftertaste.

Seal. Seal recalls Eighties, rather than pre-Eighties, inspirations--in his case, the more commercial offerings of latter-day Peter Gabriel and Roxy Music. But he renders these sounds even more palatable by ensuring that no rough edges remain to jar listeners from a state of complacency. The result is something akin to the least intriguing ambient music--it's so smooth that it practically ceases to exist.

The list certainly doesn't end there. For instance, there's the previously mentioned Hootie, the top seller in the nation prior to the latest release by Selena, whose People-magazine-friendly murder has given her the usual career boost. Clearly, the band has hit home with all those people who really miss Huey Lewis and the News. Melissa Etheridge has gotten a boost, too, even though her music--she sounds like a cross between Janis Joplin and Bryan Adams--is about as distinctive as your average Wal-Mart.

These artists and their contemporaries are presented to the public by pacifying personalities like VH1's Robin Dorian, who seems to be operating under direct orders to hide any vestiges of vibrancy behind an immobile smile and a wardrobe straight off the shelves at Eddie Bauer (the entire VH1 staff resembles cast members from a yuppified remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Key VH1 program blocks are equally trite. The Big 80's plays many of the videos that MTV pounded into the ground ten years ago (e.g., anything by Duran Duran). 8-Track Flashback retreats even further, to the years between 1970 to 1982; acts in the spotlight range from Fleetwood Mac to Donna Summer. Morning Music Wire, meanwhile, is a Today show surrogate in which soft news and horoscope readings are interspersed with your favorite Dire Straits video, while Four on the Floor allows four music critics to pontificate ad nauseam on issues of the day. And artist features, in which a single band or performer is made the focus of prime-time coverage for an entire week, are cropping up with ever-increasing regularity. This programming is the perfect sop to record companies such as Epic, which saw a week's worth of VH1 puff pieces on Michael Jackson power History: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, his new CD set, to the top of the charts. More so than Diane Sawyer's chat with Jackson and his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, the VH1 nostalgia-fest (a treasure trove of videos made before the Gloved One transformed himself into a ringer for Audrey Hepburn) helped America temporarily forget all those sleep-overs he had with prepubescent boys at the Neverland Ranch.

That VH1's brand of entertainment is proving so persuasive suggests that the music scene is in a very dreary period. Fortunately, the appearance of a new and compelling style will likely sweep aside the stultifying fodder that VH1 has flogged into the latest big thing. But until then, you'll have to live with all those Blowfishes. Unless, that is, you change the channel.

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