MTV's recent show about "one-hit wonders"

Written: 1 November, 2000

I think the only good thing about this special was that they showed clips of many old videos (actually most of them weren't all that old...I don't really consider early 1990s music to be "old" but I guess by the standards of today's teenaged MTV watchers it must be ancient history). But the special bugged me in a few ways.

For example, the clips were interspersed with comments from VJs and SPIN magazine-type reviewers who treated the "one-hit wonders" with a condescending attitude. A clip was played of the song that was the theme song for the TV show "Friends" -- "I'll Be There for You" -- and the VJs reacted negatively to the song, saying things like "Did anyone actually like that song? I think even the stars of "Friends" hated it," and so on.

The hypocracy involved also bugged me. The VJs would complain about how the songs were played over & over & over again when they were first released, to the point where listeners couldn't stand listening to the song anymore. Well, maybe if outlets like MTV didn't overplay the same "hot" songs over & over & over again, that would solve the problem? I think any song that was played constantly every hour would soon wear out its welcome, no matter how good it is.

Also the superior attitude demonstrated by the critics was unappealing. I've noticed a similar thing in the regular media, where the long-time newsanchors and reporters come across like they think they are as important as the events and people they are covering. Thus, in this view, the VJ/critics structure is the constant that is always around, and the new artists are just newcomers that can be looked down upon by them until they become successful enough to have some power structure of their own (like their own record label).

And, as I've always noticed with MTV, there is the hypocracy of MTV dismissing something as stupid after they've already milked it for all its worth. When something is trendy, they play it non-stop. As soon as it's no longer trendy, they ridicule it or ignore it completely. MTV has ALWAYS been this way, which is probably why I've pretty much always distrusted it, even when I was a teenager. I appreciate integrity, not something that mindlessly follows the whims of whatever happens to be trendy.

Another thing I disliked was the corporate mentality that "having a hit record" is important. I guess that some people might consider Ben Folds Five to be a "one hit wonder" because they only had one song ("Brick") which for a brief time got heavy radio and MTV airplay. Never mind that they've put out lots of other good songs that have been mostly ignored. Having a hit is nice, but it's not everything.

Ben Folds Five breaks up

Written: 1 November, 2000

I just mentioned Ben Folds Five in a post a few hours ago, and now I read on MTV News that they are breaking up.

I think it was around 1996 or 1997 that I first heard of Ben Folds Five. I had been listening to the radio (something I did a lot of back then, before I got home access to the internet) and I heard the last half of a song that sounded a bit like Todd Rundgren's Utopia to me. The song was called "Underground" and had a nice Beatlesque pop-ish sound. The DJ said that the artist was Ben Folds Five, and I wrote the name down. I can't remember if the DJ said that was the name of a group or a person. I remember thinking it was an odd name.

I went to the local record stores to get a copy of the album it was on, but nobody had it. I think it was around Christmastime that the group appeared on The Conan O'Brien Show where they performed "Underground" live, and I taped it on my VCR. So, I didn't bother getting the album. (I'm cheap!)

I remember checking the web for info on them, but there wasn't much back then. Then, I saw the video for the single off their 2nd album. I think that it was shown on "120 Minutes" and I also luckily taped it with my VCR. The song was called "Battle of Who Could Care Less" and had the same kind of fun Beatlesque pop sound of "Underground." A local radio station played the whole album one night and I found out about that when they were halfway through it, but I managed to tape the last half. "The Battle of Who Could Care Less" was sandwiched in-between two other songs I liked, "Missing the War" (a kind of slow song that gradually builds up) and a kind of swingish song with horns about a guy's "last night in town" (I forget the title). When Linda McCartney died, I remembered how the latter song had mentioned her in the lyrics ("won us over with stories about Linda McCartney").

Also around this time, Ben Folds Five appeared on an apparently short-lived PBS show that featured live performances by indie type rock artists. Ben Folds Five were on the show as openers for Beck. They played "Battle of Who Could Care Less," which I already knew that I liked, and another song off their new album called "Brick," which sounded too slow to me, although I liked how the guitarist played a cello for this song.

Soon, "Brick" grew on me, and it became a big hit for the group. Suddenly all those people who had heard me mention Ben Folds Five now knew who they were, too. Ironically, I never did get around to taping the video for "Brick," although I often saw it on MTV/VH-1 at the time, and very much enjoyed it. My sister told me that the girl in the video was the girl in "Jurassic Park." We suspected it was about abortion, although I wondered if it could apply to the then-current Lewinsky scandal as well. (Monica being the "brick" that was threatening to bring Clinton down.) I even would hear the song on the overhead speakers at my workplace, which plays light pop mostly.

One day while stopping at a record store in my old hometown, a place that carried a few bootlegs of some artists I had noticed, I looked under the "B's" and saw a Ben Folds Five album I'd not seen before. At first I thought it was a bootleg, but it turned out that it was a brand-new Ben Folds Five that had just come out, perhaps that very day. The album was "Naked Baby Photos," which resembles a bootleg in that it consists of live takes, outtakes, rare cuts, and alternate versions. It contained a live version of "Underground" on it, for example. Some of those live versions of songs they'd put on their first album got me to like the songs more. I had ignored a lot of their non-video songs before, but I came to appreciate the talent and ambitiousness involved in a song like "Boxing" (which is about Muhammed Ali) and "My Philosophy," both piano-heavy songs.

It also had a short live cut called "Satan is My Master" which was a kind of parody of heavy metal posturing: "Satan is my master/he buys my Metallica records for me..." The moderator of the Superboy board at the time, Albert Ching, put the words "Satan is my Master" in the hidden text space on the board, which caused some objection. But I think Albert was just quoting the Ben Folds Five song title.

Another group I'd liked circa 1997 was the swing group Squirrel Nut Zippers, so it was neat to see that Ben Folds made a cameo at the end of one of SNZ's videos. He has since appeared in two recent commercials, providing musical support to the vocal stylings of Mr. William Shatner. I believe that Ben Folds and Bill Shatner also collaborated on a solo project called Fear of Pop, or something like that.

Ben Folds Five's fourth album was the Unauthorized Biography of ...somebody, I forget his name. I saw the group perform a song off it on The Tonight Show, but it didn't grab me. I also disliked how one of their post-"Brick" songs had a swear word that had to be bleeped out on TV, and I thought that was really unappealing. I liked Ben Folds Five because it reminded me of the old stuff I like, such as The Beatles and Utopia, and I'm not interested in that kind of adolescent posturing. I guess I should have seen that coming, from the subtle drug references in some of the songs (such as a reference to scoring some "weed" in "Battle of Who Could Care Less"). Or maybe I was just getting older, I dunno. I wished their lyrical content had been a little more innocent, to match the freshness of their sound.

Recently the group appeared on Dave Lettermen's Late Show. Ben Folds seemed a little older, more well-dressed than the old days, like he was positioning himself to be the next Burt Bacharach. Their guitarist again demonstrated his willingness to try something different on stage, playing a sitar or something that made some weird sounds at the end of the song.

And now they've broken up. Ben Folds will obviously have a somewhat visible solo career after this. Too bad about the other two guys, since I liked them, too. Maybe they didn't want to go in the direction Ben wants to go in. It will be interesting to see where Ben's musical talent takes him. I'd compare this situation to Natalie Merchant leaving 10,000 Maniacs, where a stable solo career for the lead singer seems assured.

So, in a way, I guess we'll still get Ben Folds Five music -- it will just be by Ben Folds, minus the contributions of the other two members.