2x03 Max Headroom and the Culture Killers
Fair warning for regular readers: Some of this issue was available in a brief email sent to limited subscribers after our Max Headroom podcast episode. I apologize for the repeat of some material, but wanted to work it into a longer analysis.
Some of you signed up for this newsletter after our Facebook deep dive. Now you have to sit through me analyzing an 80's sci-fi character. Sorry. But stick with me, we get into economic trials towards the end.
Re-reading the title of this issue, I realize that Max Headroom and the Culture Killers sounds like a band name. That's actually fitting since the focus of this issue in part centers on how financial extraction has killed innovative, quality art, especially in the music (and entertainment) industry. But what does that actually have to do with Max Headroom, and why I am insisting on bringing up a spokesperson from a terrible Coca-Cola marketing era?
If you didn't grow up in the 80's or very early 90's and only live off of memes, YouTube video clips, and recycled collage advertisements that feign nostalgia, you might recognize Max Headroom as a goofy head in a television box with an annoying stutter and bad fashion sense.
I'm here to tell you that you're wrong... and not job your taste is fashion either.
Now stop reading this email, and go listen to our Max Headroom podcast episode real quick.
Bill was itching to do a Max Headroom episode, and was curious about the lack of a reboot, or even the hint of a revival considering our current obsession with 80's nostalgia. Max himself (itself?) was a highly experimental creation that blended music, artificial intelligence, and cyberpunk, and the end result was much more subversive than any of us remember thanks to New Coke commercials perverting our perceptions. But let's make a note of a few things:
- The original Max Headroom pilot was less than an hour of grainy made-for-TV goodness meant to launch Max as a video DJ for a UK music video show
- The network on the show is Network 23, and we all known the counterculture significance of that number.
- The apartment they raid at the very beginning is apartment 42—the meaning of life according to Douglas Adams, and if you read around the rest of that Wikipedia link, so can see the significance it had with Lewis Carroll and others as well.
From the beginning, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future had its geek credentials in order, and gave us a glimpse of a dystopian future where people are treated as nothing more than data, media dominates the landscape, and society is manipulated for corporate gain.
But this is a television movie we're talking about, and it was meant to introduce and spin-off a video disc jockey, so Max Headroom eventually escapes into the datastream with a couple of cyberpunk music heads running a pirate radio station: The implication being that even though the free love of the hippie era left us short of truly being free, the cyberpunks now controlled cyberia, and the new subversive music that your parents hated would be shots of Jaeger for the soul (chicken soup need not apply).
I'm old enough to remember when MTV had music. Scratch that. I'm old enough to remember when MTV began. Okay, I'm not that old. (I think I was 2 when they launched). But I am old enough to remember MTV as a pioneer of the counterculture, spinning audio-visual pleasures that put pictures to the subversive music you only heard on vinyl.
When MTV began it started with images of the Apollo moon landing—ideas of the future of humanity—playing to rock music. The first music video was Video Killed the Radio Star—humanity transitioning through technology. MTV drove sales of albums that weren't getting radio play, altering the landscape of music and culture. As rock music transitioned in the 80's, MTV was there. MTV allowed for the 80's pop/experimental to rise as a paradigm of futuristic philosophy, one-hit wonders, and commentary on the very consumerism it was pushing. During the 90's, it was a place to find alternative music that wasn't widely popular in car radios. Would Nirvana and the grunge movement of teenage angst even have been a thing without the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit?
MTV VJs weren't television personalities like Carson Daly. Kurt Loder was a Rolling Stones journalist before joining the company. Kennedy went on to become a host of several Fox Broadcasting shows. Both Loder and Kennedy describe themselves as libertarian, but much more in the left-libertarian tradition of the original computer underground. Kennedy—a Nixon evangelist—leaned a little more conservative until eventually giving up on social conservatism, even officiating the gay wedding of friends. Kennedy's politics might be most famous for chanting "Nixon now" during an MTV event for the Clintons. But remember, this was during a time when young people were highly skeptical of government in general.
What about Tabitha Soren? At 19 years old she was in the Beastie Boys video about fighting against the oppression of your parents in order to live freely. She then embarked on an MTV career introducing teenagers and young adults to the importance of politics and voting—interviewing presidents, leaders, important political figures, and winning awards along the way.
Even the most commericialized personality at the time—Downtown Julie Brown‐had a sizable impact on culture as a mixed-race UK import who turned an on-air mistake into a catch-phrase. This is a company that launch Pauly Shore into the stratosphere by cultivating his surfer-bro party alter-ego during a time when America was transitioning out of the experimental 80's, forgetting it's Vietnam War sins, and was entering into economic recovery. Shore was also a performance comedian whose parents owned the Comedy Store where he opened for Sam Kinison. Not exactly "commercial."
Today, MTV is a pale shell of what once powered the collective, subversive mindshare of America's youth.
Drew Austin has an excellent newsletter called The Kneeling Bus, and in one of his issues, he quotes Richard Meltzer who noted that rock-and-roll had value until it was everywhere—this idea that scarcity breeds contemplation, which breeds catharsis. Radio made music readily available, but still on rotation. Want the song? Buy the album. As technology progressed and the tape deck emerged, you could record off the radio in lieu of buying the whole album. Nowadays, you can just buy songs individually, or stream them whenever you want. Artists who painstakingly crafted everything from the music, the song order, the album cover art, the lyric sheets, and the videos that expanded the message they wanted to convey have been replaced by immediate, single consumption.
Largely this is the result of our financially extractive economy. Large corporations dominate the music (and overall entertainment) industry, looking to execute on the mythic algorithm to create the most viral pop song. The demand from shareholders is for financial growth, so corporations are looking the spend the least for the greatest return on investment. This why the movie industry invests so heavily in sequels, and if not sequels, the movies follow a formulaic approach devoid of a soul. Music is no different, and all of the major music companies invest mostly in the formulaic pop music that rotates on the radio and YouTube. Originality is gone. Messaging is gone. The very emotional, carthartic, and transformative origins of music have been completely stripped out—eliminating the value of storytelling—leaving us with Billboard charts of clones that can be converted to data, measured, and duplicated for financial growth.
This is the very dystopian future that Max Headroom implied—people as data. The subversiveness of music and music videos was the 80's answer, but that fell once corporations found a way to absorb and commericialize the salient talking points of the counterculture.
Despite the odd foray into Coca-Cola spokesmanship, the craziest part of Max Headroom's legacy might be the Chicago television hacks in 1987. With no engineers on duty, a hacker was able to place an antenna dish between the transmitter tower and the transmission. The hacker was never caught.
The signal intrusion actually occurred twice for short bursts, and the videos were chaotic and a bit creepy. The hacker wore a Max Headroom mask, and clearly wasn't sure what to do with his or her newly discovered power, but the disorganization of the hacks made it all the more interesting.
There was some speculation about who the hacker might have been, but no definitive evidence was ever acquired. The FCC was, however, able to determine the location where the videos might have been recorded because of visual clues in the material.
In my opinion, using a Max Headroom mask would be far more appropriate for hacktivism than a V for Vendetta one, but I guess just like the commercialization of our music, our hacking has to be a commercialized, attention-grabbing, pop culture sound bite as well.
Thanks to Stranger Things and 80's nostalgia, it looks like Coca-Cola is actually selling some New Coke (or was) as part of a promotional campaign for the Netflix show. It was some interesting synchronicity that I found out about 2 days after we launched the Max Headroom episode, and being a sucker, I ordered a pack. It was interesting to once again taste the difference between the two cola formulations. Yes, New Coke was sweeter, but soda is soda, and none of us should be drinking it anyway. The taste certainly wasn't different enough to justify the uproar Coke experienced at the time. If you can get your hands on some, do yourself a favor and try it. Consider it the official taste of this issue. And if you're disappointed that no alcohol made it's way into this issue, feel free to mix the New Coke with some high quality rum.
Header photo of discarded television sets on the streets of Sarphatistraat, Amsterdam by 24oranges.nl.