Not enough meat at MTV's VMAs -- Shales on TV Live

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Sept. 14, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today Tom talks about how the lack of entertaining surprises at this year's MTV's Video Music Awards.

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


Tom Shales: Today let's talk about antidepressants and how they are woring. Mine -- not at all. Now it's your turn. Or we can talk about the Vammies as I call them, MTV's Video Music Awards, although I think, judging by the way my column flopped this morning, people are sick of the subject. Every year is pretty much the same unless someone does something so stupid that it becomes newsworthy. Sort of like the House of Representatives, ha ha ha. Please... join us... won't you? All 2 of us.......


Lady Gaga: If you would wear an outfit made of food, what food would it be?

Tom Shales: Thank you, Lady Gaga -- what took you so long to write? Now, if I were to wear an outfit made of food, what food would it be? Well I wore a Coke once but thats because someone threw it at me. Twinkies might be nice. I assume I can eat the suit after I wear it? Something that does NOT attract birds or bees, so to speak. Or any other creatures with more than two legs. I can tell you it would NOT be "meat." Gets very smelly very quickly, unless maybe vaccuum-sealed in plastic. Obviously, though, you have latched onto what should be our question of the day, which should tell everyone what kind of a day it is: If you wore an outfit made of food -- oh I can bear to go on.........


Lady? Gaga: Uh, freak of nature or android? You be the judge.

Tom Shales: The latest gossip - or maybe this is not the latest at all, it gets to me fairly slowly - is that "Lady" Gaga is a man. Yes, Guy GaGa. Or Ga GuyGuy. Whichever. Frankly I don't care if it's Jimmy Hoffa, Judge Crater or the guy who jumped out of the plane with all the cash -- D.B. Sweeney, that's it (is it?). A nod to Emily Yahr, TV Team Managing Director and Resident Gourmet Chef, who spoke the words "I wait for a big surprise but there wasn't any so I went to bed," or SOMETHING LIKE THAT, which I called a very good and pithy review of the MTV Awards -- just about all you need (then I wrote more, big mistake)......Thanks


Manhasset: Now that a few weeks have passed, do you care to update your feelings regarding the performance of Christiane Amanpour on This Week?

Tom Shales: No. She's lousy.


Lady Gaga & Cher = Nighmares: Anybody else have nighmares after that visual? Seriously, which one of them was more frightening?

Tom Shales: Ha! Very good question -- sort of rhetorical, eh? Was Cher supposed to be the Lady Gaga of her time, or is Lady Gaga the Cher of our time. Actually, let's call it Someone's Time but I don't want to be included in the "our." Warning: We may call today's chat on account of sunshine.... PS, Another reason to wish Johnny were still around: To do Lady Gaga jokes.


No Michael Jackson Tribute? What gives?!: His family has been wheeling his corpse out at every other event, where was he this go round?

Tom Shales: Whoa. Kind of blunt there, aren't you?! But we believe in the frank, the candid and uncensored around here. And what doesn't qualify, we censor. Of course! I was thinking about embarrassing moments at the MTV Awards -- wasn't one of them when Michael Jackson THOUGHT he was getting an award for Artist of the Milennium, or did he really receive that? Seems to me he once gave an acceptance speech without winning anything. And how is YOUR antidepressant holding up these days? Mine gives out at 2:30 like in that commercial for Speed-a-way or whatever it's called........


Totally unrelated to VMAs: Just to prove my age, I used to enjoy your acerbic movie reviews on NPR's Morning Edition a zillion years ago. While you are known as a TV guy, is there any chance that you will venture back into film criticism?

Tom Shales: Well who needs antidepressants when I get questions like that? Thank you, that's very nice of you to ask. After 25 years of reviewing movies at NPR -- and yet never being given a pass to get into the building -- let's face it, a bureaucrat is a bureaucat -- NPR and I came to a parting of the ways. We had a basic disagreement: they wanted me to see a movie every week, and I wanted to see about 6 every year. Honestly, movies seemed to get so silly that reviewing them was tedious. Or maybe I just ran out of caring about them. Now I know no one is supposed to pick on Roger Ebert any more, but I had to laugh at his big announcement about returning to his roots, Public Television. Roger and Gene Ebert told me, very explicitly and quotably, that they had a MISERABLE time with producers and meddlers at public TV and found they had much more control over their own work when they went to commercial television. I think it's nice that Roger is keeping busy, but there is an aura of desperation about this thing, and something SO sci-fi about watching him talking with a computer voice. He still writes about 10,000 words a day. Anyway, Elvis Mitchell is an old friend, if not exactly a faithful one, and I wish him well as one of the 2 critics. I hope you've read about this show because I am too tired to iterate all the details....I can't iterate when i'm so irritable.....


VMA DVR: Really, the only way to watch these award shows is by DVR. You can fast-forward through the interminable (10 minutes!) commercial breaks and twaddle to get to the "meat" of the you can watch a 3-hour show in about 30 minutes.

Works for football too--just start watching at the real time that halftime is ending, and you'll catch up right at the end.

Tom Shales: I agree. In fact I calculated there were about 30 worthwhile minutes in the MTV Awards. Frankly I fast-forward thru most but not all of the musical numbers. I am so sick of rappers who are "angry" at The System and spit out their little poems with such vehemence, as if they were speaking such lacerating truths. Eminem, for instance. What IS his problem? What has the system done to him lately? A lot for him, I'd say. If there's anything I hate it's a whiney multi-millionaire. We poverty-stricken are the ones who should do the whining.......


MTV - most videos stink now: Let's see there seems to be 3 formats for music videos today:

1. Complaint rock - bunch of dudes with longish hair that struggle to look like they are cool because they don't shave. They whine and cry and have some story line about rescuing a former girlfriend turned stripper or something like that... boring.

2. Chick rock - "bad girl" chick dressed in skank cloths dances around then runs out and drives a '70s muscle car real fast. Dudes chase her and she sings about how bad she is. They they catch her and she runs away again. Who cares?

3. Gangsta thugs - 4 or 5 guys wearing basketball jersey and big gold chains yell at the camera. Then show bunch of girls in bikinis hanging on them like they are cool. Then an SUV with 30-inch sliver rims cruises by and everybody has cash. Uh?

Our world is now dumber for having watched any of this garbage and nobody knows who the current vice president is...but the chicks in bikinis were cool.

Tom Shales: Of course, we must object to some of your vernacular (or somebody will call me a name) -- oh heck, I think you expressed yourself very well. "Complaint Rock," good term, sort of what I meant about Whine Rap.


re: Amanpour: Funny someone asked if you wanted to rethink your opinion of Christianne. I was going to let you know that you were spot on.

She is unwatchable.

Tom Shales: Bless you! NOT that this is some kind of vendetta, I have nothing personally against Ms. Amanpoor. Pour. Whatever. ABC really went nuts over my criticism, though. They dispatched their tireless old hack Jeffrey Schneider to "attack" me - which is an odd way for a network to deal with criticism. I wish Christiane would at least liberate that poor roundtable-that-is-no-longer-round from their cramped, crowded corner. If I were George Will, who is being treated poorly, I would pack up and go to CBS or NBC.


You meant D.B. COOPER, right?: D.B. Sweeney was an actor. Check IMDb, Tom!

Tom Shales: Thanks. I can't really check IMDb while doing this or there'd be a long long gap between questions. I appreciate the correction. At least I had the D.B. right! D.B. Sweeney was that sort of sappy guy, right? Usually played Bland Boyish young-male parts. And good for him. Good for D.B. Cooper, too, if he's still out there, not that I am endorsing theft. Or was he found? Or has he gone on to his even greater reward? Where's my IMDb???


VMA's: We only watched for a few minutes, but during Usher's performance (and it's a shame, because he can actually sing) the strobe lights and lasers on the big HDTV seemed like they were trying to induce a stroke. Turned it off and read a book, which was the best entertainment of the night.

Tom Shales: Good point. I think these sfx people forget about the way their creations are received out there in television land. Or out HERE in television land, I guess. Some of that flash-bang editing used in ads for violent movies forces me to look away from the screen or get dizzy or even kind of logy. I worry about a culture always staring at a screen, whether TV or computer...... When enough years pass, they will find that many years of this is very bad for all of us... unless we are confined to a chair and a desk in the first place...


Fairfax,VA: Why does MTV even bother to show the VMA's? Dont you have to actually play videos during the day, and this network already has a Movie Awards show?

Tom Shales: You'd think. You may not have been able to find my column today -- so successfully was it hidden (at least on dot-com, where any mention of it was hard to come by) -- but I ventured the guess that the show makes a lot of money so it's become a combination cash-cow and Frankenstein. So they MUST keep doing it for the $$$$. Did you notice that Taco-Bell ads were super-imposed on the screen DURING the performances? This is a harbinger of horrible terrible things to come, the logical extension of desecrating the screen (mostly at the bottom) with all those stupid network promos, including for shows that don't air for two or three weeks. One reader points out that some of the CBS super-imposed promos for Hawaii 5-0 take up HALF the screen and block about program plot points. Why not show all-commercials all-the-time occasionally interrupted for a snippet of a program? They'll ALL be home shopping networks eventually......


Boston, MA: Cure for your irritability (maybe): Just finished the latest Larry McMurtry non-fiction about adventures in Hollywood, where early on his names you as, in his opinion, the best critic. Just thought I'd see if that cheered you up!

Tom Shales: Yes, and it did two weeks ago when I first heard about. Hey I am teasing -- I am very grateful to you for pointing that out-- and even more grateful to Larry McMurtry whom I have always admired. I did love Lonesome Dove but that was so long ago - plus EVERYBODY loved it, justifiably (except our film critic at the time, who declared it "unwatchable," but he is long gone) -- so I don't think this was just "pay back" for a favorable review. Thank you Larry McMurtry, I will execute a proper thank-you asap.....


Rockville: Stupid shows aside, for many people, MTV, "music videos" and this stupid "awards show" haven't been relevant or noteworthy for about 20 years. When MTV abandoned its original format of actual, real videos containing music, it lost its relevance, its originality, its novelty and its cache. Now, it's just another stupid, worthless cable television channel.

Tom Shales: "worthless" may be going a notch too far. Just because I have seen some solid, relevant documentaries that do NOT glamorize frivolous, materialistic life styles but instead look seriously at social problems -- kids addicted to drugs or painkillers, kids having babies too young, the many problems young people have that seem to be dealt with in a non-preachy way ... And frankly, I like some of their trash programming, like the show where parents try to get their daughter or son to break up with a boy or girl friend; what can I say, it makes me laugh......


Anonymous: Thanks to your Post colleague Emily Yahr for solving one of the great mysteries of the new TV season. The Hallmark Channel has been endlessly promoting a new show called "Whatever With Alexis & Jennifer" where these two unknown young things promise to talk about .... whatever. I couldn't decide if this was a new low for TV, or a brilliant parody on what TV has become. Turns out that Alexis is Martha Stewart's daughter, and Martha has some big deal with Hallmark for several shows with her, her daughter, and her food editor. Whatever, indeed!

My question: how did you survive all those wonderful years of TV show criticism? Did you have to remove all sharp implements from your house, just in case?

Tom Shales: Thanks -- for the "thank you" which Emily richly deserves, I am sure -- and for the question about how I survived. I am not sure I did. I am 70 per cent artificial now, you know. By artificial I don't mean superficial. I mean bionic. No, not really. I'm just like the Scarecrow; if I only had a brain. I think I did at one time. I gave it to my craft. I willingly let television eat it away as a sacrifice to my fellow human beings: Look, see what too much TV can do to you! No really - I honestly truly think, not just in my case but generally perhaps, that TV has eased more cases of depression than it has caused. It can come in awfully handy at awful moments.......


getting old: One of the ways I realized I was getting old was that I no longer cared, or knew, any of the new pop music. So didn't watch the MTV thing, I don't even know what channel MTV is on my FiOS. I think Lady Gaga is just so nuts and don't even know any of her songs or even if she can sing. Just give me my classic rock n roll. Yeah, I'm too old.

Tom Shales: Me too. But I want to stay in touch a little bit. I mean, I want to know who Lady Gaga and Justin Bibble are (I know, Bieber) just to know what other people -- those tastemakers (!) -- are consuming. I heard a song several years ago called "This Love" by Maroon 5, one of the best pop songs I have EVER heard, very beautifully performed and cleverly created - and I thought, there is still hope for me AND for pop culture. Every now and then, there still are sensational hit records. I think.


Music Videos: I can't help but agree that most of them nowadays do fall into those three categories. Where is the new Thriller? Or the new Hungry Like the Wolf? I know Duran Duran did some dumb videos, but the Russell Mulcahy-directed videos were fantastic (also see Rio and Save a Prayer).

Tom Shales: I loved many of the videos of the 80s, when the medium was new. Rod Stewart's always seemed to be good but especially your friend Russell Mulcahy's "Young Turks," that was full of the love of youth, very captivating visually and musically and it all fit together so well. And many many more - The Cars' video with the early use of digital effects ("You Might Think" - was that it?) and Devo's wacky stuff and too many more to mention. Then it all got kind of sour -- and weighed down with the unquestioning love of materialism, luxuries, bling-bling, and crap-crap.


Off Topic - 3D TVs : When will this fad go away? I went to buy a tv over the weekend and I swear you couldn't find one that wasn't 3D. I tried one and three problems:

1. After about 5 mins you start feeling like you will puke.

2. Other than a few movies, there isn't any programming.

3. You look like a tool wearing those glasses all the time (think buddy holly but heavier and with even thicker frames).

Am I wrong to hope this just goes away?

Tom Shales: Yes you are are wrong to hope it goes away because something worse will be next. I must say, I am utterly underwhelmed by the new 3-D but I loved the old kind -- "Anaglyphic" or whatever the technical term -- of the '50s, the terrific sci-fi movies in 3-D and even the upscale 'smart' movies like "Kiss Me Kate," which is a pip in 3-D, and Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder,"where the effects are more subtle than in that overrated mush "Avatar." Oh and "House of Wax" -- good movie, wonderful sequence with the man with the paddle-ball.


"Every now and then, there still are sensational hit records. I think.": What's a "record," Grandpa?

Kidding, kidding--but I'm almost 50, and I buy all my music by downloading these days. Much better than having to buy a whole CD for one good song.

Tom Shales: Grandpa, huh? I'll have you know -- well, er, maybe I'd better not have you know. Honestly I am a godfather (not the Coppola kind) and that's it. And "record," yeah, I might as well have said "LP." Unlike you, I miss the idea of a nicely-planned and executed CD which was like a show, then again most CD's were not nicely-planned and executed, just thrown together. And then you'd hear about some "artist" spending 19 months in a studioon 12 tracks of music and think, "huh? what ELSE is going on in that studio?" I miss vinyl, I miss 45s, hey, I MISS EVERYTHING!!! That's the trouble with ME!!!


"This Love" by Maroon 5: Just searched it on ITunes - can't say I liked it much (at least not the clip) - guess I am old.

Tom Shales: Really? It's got a great "hook" as they say -- try it one or more times. Something about the melody -- first of all, I am thrilled that there IS a melody.....


Nashville, TN: Tom, you asked "Why not show all-commercials all-the-time occasionally interrupted for a snippet of a program?"

This has already happened. I tried to watch the 5:30 p.m. news recently and discovered that it fits your description perfectly. I channel-surfed among the big networks and NEVER succeeded in finding a news item! I did learn about side effects of many prescription drugs, though. Obviously I rarely watch TV, but when did it become this bad?

Tom Shales: It took years, my friend, it took years.

And unfortunately we WERE watching -- the whole time....


Whatever with Alexis and Jennifer: These two used to have a show called "Whatever, Martha" on the Fine Living Channel. They made fun of Martha's old shows and the two of them are HYSTERICAL.

Tom Shales: I hate to have missed that....


Reality Show Overload: I can honestly say I've never watched "Big Brother," "Survivor" or the "Race" one. I could tell just from the promos that the invented drama would get really old and not to my liking. Unfortunately, it now seems like every cable channel is adopting that format. Something is wrong when I went to DIY to try and watch a house show and they have some "handy man" challenge. Who wants to see idiots mess up hanging a door? What's next "America's Next Brain Surgeon", or "Who Wants to Be a Serial Killer."Hmmm, reading isn't such a bad thing after all.....

Tom Shales: How true. More and more people seem to be doing it - kindle or manual. (is it called Kindle- or Kindling? I can't remember). As for the other part of your comment, yes, and I think America is just competition-crazed, or

at least when it comes to TV "entertainment." Everything has to be a game with a winner, blah blah blah. Couldn't

bore me more -- though check out sometime the game show bloopers on YouTube. Hey folks, the leaves are falling so hard and fast, I can hear them smacking against the windows! Must be fall. Or -- The End of the World???? Oh that's another song & video I liked, "The End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" by -- by -- by -- it will come to me, honest --


Anonymous: Hey, I like that Maroon 5 song too. But I kind of got the sense I wasn't cool for liking that. The same thing happened when I liked Viva la Vida by Coldplay. Hey, we can only like what we like. I can't be bothered to figure out if I'm cool or not.

Besides, what is so cool about teenagers? Most aren't old enough to drive. They can't buy alcohol, smoke or get into any cool clubs. Losers.

Tom Shales: Right on. When did they take control though? Did

they seize it (seems unlikely since they all go

around moaning "whatever") or was it handed to them?


Commercials and Children: Watching "Pet Star" on Animal Planet the other day with my 6 & 9-year-olds. Figure that's a safe one right? Well I'm getting coffee and come back to see an ED commercial wrapping up. My 9-year-old asks "Daddy why is it bad if it last more than 4 hours"?

Come on people, help a dad out!

Tom Shales: Inexcusable. There's a good reason: THEY JUST DON'T CARE.


Brooklyn: I've been seeing these new promos for NBC saying it's "more colorful." I noticed that it came right after a promo for a series featuring a black man and woman as the lead. Isn't this rather patronizing? They might as well have a promo that says "hey, we've got black people now!"

It's also kind of embarrassing that they only now seem to be consciously hiring more people of color to be on TV. Talk about slow to follow Norman Lear's lead.

Tom Shales: Actually, I think that was an unfortunate sort of coincidence -- because they have been using that meaningless "more colorful" slogan for more than a year now and it's network-wide, not just on shows with

minority cast members. Though it IS a stupid kind of slogan unless NBC thinks it's owned by RCA again and this is the '50s and theyre in the business of pushing color TV sets. Hey, NBC! We got 3-D now! Color is kind of old news! Even to me!


Chantilly: Lady Gaga set the precedent. I now want to wear a Roast Beef Tshirt

Tom Shales: And what if somebody says you look like a cow in it?

Stick to Chantilly Lace and a pony tail and a white

sport coat and a pink carnation and a pair of blue

suede shoes -- whoa, I think I am getting blurry........


RE: VMA DVR: Hey, that's cheating! You either have to suffer through all the commercials and nonsense or channel surf like the rest of us. I think I can watch up to 4 shows at the same time.

Tom Shales: You know, I've had that same feeling at times. Though in my many (too many?) years as a TV critic, I saw most shows without commercials, 'cause that's how they come to critics from the networks and producers -- well before the commercials have been put in. Sometimes they also arrive without sound effects or background music and I used to roar laughing at scenes in a nightclub or ballroom or party where people were dancing in the background - because the poor extras had to PRETEND to be hearing music where there was only blank silence. Dancing is pretty funny-looking without accompaniment.. No, dancing minus music is NOT sex. Something different entirely.


Baltimore MD: Re "all commercials all the time": Saw an item in Ad Age that said Spike TV has had commercial blocks during Entourage reruns that have lasted, no kidding, ten minutes. Advertisers are starting to get angry about this, because they believe, rightly, that it just makes people not like their product. Spike seems to be the worst offender, but other basic cable channels are running a close second.

Tom Shales: We have GOT to turn them off -- but that only counts if you are a "Nielsen family" with a black box (or don't they still have those, either?). TV only responds to appeals that affect the balance sheets. Years ago I watched a "Sgt. Bilko" rerun on Channel 9 (WOR) out of New York, when it was a so-called SuperStation, and I swear to you the half hour was 15 minutes Bilko, 15 minutes ads. And i thought "some kind of hideous ultimate has been reached."


Reston: Tom

Have you seen the Real Housewives of DC yet? Thoughts?

Tom Shales: Saw ten minutes. That awful gate-crashing couple was on -- Mr. and Mrs. Rupert Pupkin (a movie reference -- got your IMDb???) or at least half of it -- and I was just sort of sickened. It seemed to be half-and-half boring chit-chat and embarrassing arguments......

THANK YOU, everyone, for chiming in today. You don't know how much you are appreciated. And to show you, I am taking THREE HUNDRED OF YOU with me on an all-expense paid trip to SILVER SPRING -- watch this space (Runners-up get Upper Marlboro). God bless, drive safely, good night!


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