Recently, my friend Peter (who runs Manvertised) posted a link to the 120 Minutes Archive on Facebook. Some folks, like my friend Susan and maybe you, were way ahead of me on this one. But that didn’t keep me from squealing with glee over an evolving database of the music videos featured on MTV’s indie/underground music program. And it certainly fills a void that Pre-Durst never satisfied.
My family had cable intermittently throughout my childhood. The period in my life when having cable mattered to me was between sixth and eighth grade, which was a strange but glorious end of alternative rock and the music video era. Between 1993 to 1996, Sunday night was the couch potato highlight of my week.
I learned about 120 Minutes from my stepbrothers, who were also into Yo! MTV Raps, Headbangers Ball, and Alternative Nation. Though I knew that the show’s history stretched back into the mid-1980s, I only followed MTV’s left-of-the-dial video program in the mid-1990s. I had a television in my bedroom and no siblings to fight over the remote. As I’ve outlined previously, 120 Minutes was a big part of my Sunday night music geek routine. I’d burrow deep into bed and try to stay awake so I could absorb as much as possible. Without 120 Minutes, I might never have encountered Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl” or Cibo Matto’s “Know Your Chicken.”
And while I’d be short-sighted if I failed to notice the hip musical acts the network was pushing, I also wouldn’t know about bands like Helium, L7, Luscious Jackson, that dog., Lush, and many other hallmark bands of the period, much less pledge my allegiance to college radio.
The show informed the feminist development of this music geek. For me, the program is seventh grade. Seventh grade me, like many seventh grade girls, was a disaster. I was painfully shy but wanted to be involved with theater and, briefly, cheerleading. I painted my nails black but chewed until my cuticles bled. I was chubby, but primarily ate as a defense mechanism (in high school, I ate very little so I could be “pretty”). I had a hopeless crush on a popular boy who lived in my neighborhood, and would ride my bike by his front yard when he wasn’t home. I wanted to run with the eighth grade burn-out girls, but they wouldn’t hang. I could count my friends on one hand, and was often made fun of for being a fat kid. I cried most days when I came home from school, and usually before. When 8th grade came around, I made myself into a smart overachiever with a schedule packed with extracurricular activities. I also shopped at “preppy” retailers like the County Seat and starting eating a lot less. In short, 13-year-old me vehemently denied the existence of 12-year-old me.
Of course, 12-year-old me always existed and I still carry her with me. As I grew older, I learned to accept her and, thinking about my adolescence during modern rock’s last days, I really love her now. For one, I had style. I wore tiaras, pajama bottoms, and alligator slippers to school. I dressed up as Cleopatra for the Halloween dance when everyone else wore Yaga and shuffled to Hootie. My socks never matched. I toted around a Batman lunchbox I got from a thrift shop while visiting my father in Florida the summer before I started junior high. I wore six barrettes at a time like a rainbow. I asked my friend Kyle’s dad for all of his corduroys and cut them to fit me. I paired mechanic shirts with silver platform Skechers. I got made fun of for it, but I rocked that look.
And 12-year-old me may have run with a small group, but they were good, reliable people. Like the protagonist’s friends in Dyan Shelton’s Tall, Thin, and Blonde, they always saved a seat for me at our lunch table. And even when some of us grew apart during high school, we could still catch up whenever we saw each other. Plus, I had a cool slightly older stepbrother who’d play songs on his bass to cheer me up and make collages with me out when he’d visit. And I had a mom who gave me hugs, talked all the shit out with me, and took me to the park to scrawl out my angst on pieces of scrap paper so that I could burn them.
12-year-old me was also starting to develop good taste in music and already knew about some rad ladies. Sure it was shaped by corporate entities pushing of-the-moment artists signed to major labels and subsidiaries that took my allowance money. Rolling Stone and MTV were chief offenders. Spin was also starting to get my attention with their alternative record guide, though at this point I was unaware of college radio or downloading music and thus had to imagine what The Raincoats or Beat Happening sounded like. But I had an open mind and was learning how to record songs off the radio. Later, I’d reject nu metal on principle, have my own radio show, go to a bunch of concerts, read a lot of books, write a thesis on the Directors Label series, and put this thing together. Thanks, 120 Minutes. More importantly, thanks Alyx at 12.
As someone who works at an archive, I also appreciate the efforts independent, motivated people have made to preserve this important part of a network’s programming history and make it available to people, especially as it is now unrecognizable from its origins. The history major in me also appreciates being able to explore the rest of the series that I missed and gain a better sense of the show’s context.
There’s some stuff I miss that the archive doesn’t have. I wish the episodes were available in full, particularly the ones that featured musical guests as hosts. Things got really unpredictable and exciting when an act, or a few available band members, or two tangentally related musical artists shared space together (fans may remember Thurston Moore smashing a phone with Beck). I also liked when a band showed off their hometown, as Soul Asylum did when giving viewers a tour of Minneapolis during a 1995 taping. I liked guessing which music videos the artists’ picked out themselves and watching them grate against the latest Tripping Daisy or Frente! clip. These moments really gave viewers a larger sense of who the people were behind the records.
Most of all, I liked the show’s liveness — staged, pre-taped, or otherwise.
Because when the Johns from They Might Be Giants announced the 10th anniversary show, I felt like they were singing just to me.
And there’s plenty of other MTV programming that folks could archive. In addition to the music programming I outlined above, I’d love to see footage of Courtney Love’s 24-hour MTV2 takeover.
So while I’m happy about this archive, I’d treasure viewing fans’ VHS recordings of the show even more. As Charles R. Acland observed in his wonderful Flow column about video’s obsolescence and how media scholars must address the resultant loss of history, these tapes give us indications of a program’s text, its supertext, and the recorder’s preferences and practices. Something tells me there’s a Clearasil ad in one of those tapes and, with it, the ephemera and long-buried memories of its viewers.
Some super-smart feminist friends have been talking about records and musicians that made them feminists lately and it makes me wanna wax nostalgic too. I’m really excited to be talking about Viva! La Woman, one of many albums that made me a feminist but the first that left quite an indelible impression. I basically put this blog together so that I could, at some point, thank Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda for blowing my mind. Thanks, ladies.
Right before I turned 13, I saw the video for “Know Your Chicken” on 120 Minutes, which was the pinnacle of my pre-teen Sunday nights. This video, with the two amazingly cool ladies bolted me upright. I’d get to the clip’s deliberately cheap aesthetic style and its parodying of both the sitcom and the genre’s gendered relational dynamics later. In junior high, I just needed to find out who the ladies were.
Sunday, the day of ritual for many, was also one for me. At 7 p.m., Houston’s alternative station (then Rocket 107.5 the Buzz, now 94.5 the Buzz) would broadcast “Lunar Rotation,” where director David Sadoff would play new stuff and oldies that didn’t make into heavy rotation. At 10, the station would broadcast “Modern Rock Live,” KROQ’s syndicated call-in program. Finally, at midnight, the station would have an hour of “whatever” programming. Usually, some guest would play whatever they wanted. The one that most immediately comes to mind was Self’s Matt Mahaffey serving as guest deejay, playing album cuts from Portishead’s Dummy. It never mattered, because it was always white noise for 120 Minutes, which ran the coolest, newest videos that never aired on MTV during the day.
In terms of feminist reflections on my girlhood, Sunday was this fantastical time where I could hang out in my room (usually playing Nintendo, sometimes reading, sometimes making wall collages out of clippings from Seventeen) and wrap my head around some new music. This was a bit hard to do as my hometown is a bit removed from much of anything new.
But Fridays on MTV gave me another place to access this beguiling song, via their short run of Squirt TV, originally a New York-based public access show that my boyfriend, Jake Fogelnest, would record in his bedroom. Liz Phair also came onto Fogelnest during the show’s MTV run, but Liz will get her own post when I write about my 17th birthday. For now, let’s watch Cibo Matto perform live.
And then they were on House of Style, eating dessert. Then the video for “Sugar Water” came out, which left such an impression that I wrote an entire section of my thesis on it. A short time after that, they were getting a write-up in Rolling Stone, with their album’s genre-melding, cut-and-paste sound being favorably compared (however problematically) to fugu. I would later come to call my college radio show “Cheesecake or Fugu” in tribute. And there they were on my stepbrother’s Tibetan Freedom Concert CD, a bit later, when I was a freshman, yelling “shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!”
So, even though they were on a major label and being promoted on MTV and Rolling Stone, Cibo Matto seemed like they were from Japan based in New York transmitted from the moon. And yet, they’ve followed me everywhere since, making themselves familiar, like a home.
All this hype, but I didn’t get the album until Christmas sophomore year, when I was 15. I wanted the purchase of this album to be special. When I finally got it, I spent hours ignoring the paperback of Wuthering Heights I had to read for school (which also made me a feminist, in opposition) so I could study the album’s packaging. Mike Mills’s cover alone was empowering — the curvy, muscular, perhaps multi-ethnic superwoman standing proudly in her gold bikini and sandals. And the curvilinear sketches that accompanied the lyric sheet was elegant and beguiling. But for me, it was all about the inlay image underneath the disc.
While this image was shot in New York, it looked like another world to me alone in my bedroom in Alvin, Texas. I wanted to know everyone in this scene and be their friends. I wanted to know where Yuka and Miho got those bikes and dresses. I wanted to listen to all of the records people were pouring over. And I actually did pull my stepbrother’s skateboard out of the garage, busting my ass as I attempted to use it. But more than that, I wanted the confident cool that these two women possessed.
The older I get, the more comfortable I feel with myself, and I feel much of this is indebted to Cibo Matto, especially this first album, as to me its basically a declaration for the powers, pleasures, and peculiarities of femaleness. One need only look to the title.
The concept of the album is important. “Concept album” as a construct tends to make me shudder, thinking about bearded dudes noodling with guitars and piles of synthesizers and writing tiresome odes to alienation, but, indeed, Viva! La Woman is a concept album. About food. Eating food. Each track, with the exception of “Theme,” is named after food and all of the songs mention eating or being consumed as if they were food. More times than not, it’s about eating instead of being eaten.
And OMG, they did something totally dirty with their cover of “Candyman,” turning the original, which I always found oppressively, creepily cheerful, and turning into some kind of porn soundtrack/trip hop/bossa nova thing, complete with sampled moaning (*blush*).
On that tack, this album is super-sexy, in ways both obvious and difficult to process. Perhaps it suggests that Asian and Asian American women don’t reflect the limited, servile, infantalized depictions others have circulated at their expense. With “White Pepper Ice Cream,” a slow, rollicking bass line accompanies lines like “black and white, Bonnie and Clyde” suggesting that women and girls can occupy both within themselves at once. And with “Theme,” the album’s centerpiece, what begins as a short story about a chance encounter with a handsome stranger while vacationing in Milan becomes a blind-folded S&M session that collapses into muffled, breathy coos; the music reflects the narrative changes at every turn. I didn’t know what to do with this as a teenager, and am still trying to figure it out as an adult.
Thinking about the constant stylistic shifting that goes on in the album’s instrumentation, I guess the duo’s sample-happy approach brings us to another feminist awakening: everything is connected. Beck gets a lot of credit, via Odelay, for helping set to tone for popular music’s comfort with hybridity the 90s (of course borrowing from The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, bringing on The Dust Brothers as producers). I won’t dispute that. But I’d like to add this album (along with Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Björk’s Post) into the discussion. If mention wants to be made of the group’s gender, ethnicity, and their relationship with hip hop, so much the better.
Cibo Matto’s use of quotation and musical association was crucial to defining the era, but also bespoke the duo’s attitudes toward femaleness. Because connectedness doesn’t just apply to how they built tracks, but also in how they wrote lyrics. Once again, everything is connected. In “Sugar Water,” black cats crossing one’s path is cosmically linked to a woman in the moon singing to the Earth. Extrapolating further, everything is connected and everything is informative. The personal is not only political, but educational.
And finally, I really enjoy the album’s weirdness. I say this not as a way to other the Japanese American women responsible for its creation or to announce my whiteness alongside it. Literally, the album is packed with memorable, weird, sometimes shouted non sequitors that serve as the songs’ hooks. For example, in “Beef Jerky,” the chorus is “Who cares? I don’t care? A horse’s ass is better than your’s.” In “Know Your Chicken” the bridge is “spare the rod and spoil the chick before you go and shit a brick.” And of course, “Birthday Cake” contains the much-quoted line “extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and the MSG — shut up so we can eat, too bad no bon appétit!” I like to think moments like this suggest the possibilities to rupture, critique, and find humor in living life female.
And sometimes songs don’t end. A song like “Beef Jerky” concludes with the elliptical phrase “let’s eat carrots together until . . .” Indeed, life doesn’t end. It simply builds on itself, layer by layer, line by line, sample by sample. I can’t wait to discover what I find in this record when I’m 35.