I am old enough to remember when exposure to popular music meant watching “Total Request Live.”
If you wanted to see the newest, hottest music videos, you tuned in to MTV at three in the afternoon and followed along with Carson Daly as he counted down the day’s top ten, which were determined by the number of votes each video received in a 24-hour period on MTV.com.
Following its premiere, a given video would be allowed to air for up to 65 days, regardless of its popularity, after which it would be “retired” as the world eagerly awaited its artist’s next move.
For the pop music stars of the day, this was the way of the world for a solid decade, from the late 1990s until the onset of YouTube, iTunes and the like. If you wanted to matter, you were expected to churn out a new song and a new video according to the TRL schedule. While one could resist adhering to the MTV model and still find success, those who played ball tended to ascend the Billboard charts with a greater velocity than those who did not.
That was then.
Fast-forward to this past Monday, when Lady Gaga released “Applause,” the first single from her forthcoming album, Artpop, due out in November. The track is the music superstar’s first new single in nearly two years, so one can imagine the high levels of anticipation within her fan base, whose numbers remain considerable.
“Applause” was intended to drop next Monday, but suddenly appeared on the artist’s YouTube page a week earlier than planned. Why? Because unauthorized copies of the song had already leaked onto the interwebs, and Gaga figured she might as well produce the genuine article before the cat strayed any farther from the bag.
I offer two observations on this, one from each side of the transaction that is the release of any new piece of popular music.
From the production side, it is plain enough that, compared to the rigid structure of TRL and TV-based entertainment in general in the late 1990s and early 2000s, music artists today can do what they damn well please with regard to the timetables of their creative works.
Any singer or group with a loyal fan base need not worry about rushing ahead with any new material for fear of becoming irrelevant or forgotten. With the occasional reminder that a new album or tour is somewhere on the horizon, one is assured of keeping his or her career afloat.
This is notable because it seems to contradict the prevailing view that Americans have such profoundly short attention spans that no celebrity can afford an extended absence from the cultural bloodstream, lest they become incapable of rejoining it when they return.
And from the consumer end of the equation, we might notice the remarkable decentralization of the ways we can now access the music we desire.
Far from huddling around the TV or radio at the specified time of day to hear the latest hits, we need exert no greater effort than plugging the name of a song or artist into a YouTube search engine—that is, if said tracks are not already floating across our customized home page, waiting to be clicked.
In effect, music is no longer “requested” so much as demanded, and we prefer not to wait. If the artist herself will not deliver fast enough, we will gladly turn to an inferior bootleg to tide us over in the meanwhile.
In this way, the artist’s obligation to the suits at MTV has not disappeared after all: It has merely shifted to the listeners themselves, who are ever more rabid for fresh material and have grown up in a culture that promises whatever they want, whenever they want it.
As a thought experiment for the day, then, let us imagine retrofitting today’s mentalities with yesterday’s formats.
Without a leaky Internet from which one can play just about any piece of music ever produced, could today’s young folks possibly cope with an America where one’s life’s soundtrack is hostage to the whims of TV executives and radio DJs? Where one does not have on-demand access to the tunes of one’s choosing without—I shudder at the thought—paying for them?
Millennials are famously adept at adapting to ever-changing modes of technology, but could they adapt backwards? If YouTube suddenly vanished without a trace, plunging us into the dark ages when listening to the radio was not a last resort, could we stand it? And if not, what does that say about us?