Blues on MTV?

I’m a teaching assistant at the University of Virginia, and this semester I’m happily assigned to Karl Hagstrom Miller‘s Popular Music seminar. Today, 240 or so undergrads, plus me and the other TAs, took in Karl’s lecture on early MTV. In the beginning there were videos, and they were mostly of white men rocking. This did not go unnoticed by artists and labels:

In the early 1980s, MTV focused primarily on music videos by white male rock and pop artists from Australia, Britain, and the United States, prompting some to charge the network with racist business practices. MTV’s nearly all-white programming strategy began to erode when CBS Records allegedly threatened to pull its videos from the network if it did not show Michael Jackson’s videos from the Thriller album. Ultimately, the overwhelming popularity of Jackson’s videos paved the way for other nonwhite artists, including Prince, Lionel Richie, and Run-D.M.C., to receive airplay on MTV. (Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, edited by Mary Kosut, page 243)

This got me thinking: blues was big in the 1980s. Were there blues music videos? Was that an investment labels were willing to make? For whom would they make this investment? Perhaps only white blues artists? 

Ok, ok. Damn. Way to strike while the iron is hot, Mercury Records. In 1985 Cray won Best New Artist at the Handy Awards (now called the Blues Music Awards) and released his third album on the indie label Hightone. The next year he earned a Grammy for his work with Albert Collins and Johnny “Clyde” Copeland on the now-classic Showdown album. By 1987 Cray was as big as a blues artist could get; Mercury was pushing his major label debut, Strong Persuader, as a crossover record.

But did MTV play this music video?

Yup. According to Wikipedia, the song reaching #2 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, and Cray was nominated for the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards for Best New Artist in a Video. Wow. 1987 is looking very, very cool.

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What the hell: Clarksdale Pt. 2 in photos

What the hell: a blues tourist in Clarksdale.

I’m irritatingly skeptical of everything “fun.” It might be the New Englander in me. Breaking into an abandoned building to read old medical records? That’s fun. Disneyland, cruise ships, guided tours? The possibility that some one-size-fits-all, for-profit construction of “fun” could actually be fun seems nonexistent. If you’ve never been a grad student, I’ll tell you what year one is like: you read books by weighty authors and are expected to speak confidently about how wrong their posited ideas are, how unpleasing their writing is, or how outdated and idealistic their notions of authenticity, racial essentialism, ethics, aesthetics, gender, and politics are. So I can still do my skeptical schtick, I just need footnotes. Sometimes, we even talk about blues (read: we talk about what Elijah Wald says about blues, because he’s done the skepticaling for us).

As a blues fan, I embrace some aspects of blues tourism while finding others problematic. Yes, I used the Mississippi Blues Trail markers to visit Magic Sam’s house in Grenada several years ago, and it was awesome. But I also wrote an undergrad paper on the impact of urban renewal on Beale Street. In short, Beale was closed for a decade-ish and then rebuilt as the tourist destination we know today. There’s very little literature detailing the institutionalized and systemic racism and classism that led to the closure of Beale; sweeping that stuff under the rug keeps the “home of the blues” mythology neat and simple. I get it. Blues needs landmarks, Memphis needs tourist dollars, and people want to experience music in a bar that opened when W.C. Handy was alive, but I’m uncomfortable with reproductions being passed off as authentic, lineage narratives that are gussied up for the general public, and the fetishization of physical places that come to represent “blues.” It is a musical genre and culture filled with folklore and fakelore, and that’s part of the appeal for me, but the complicated, problematic parts of the story are often unrecorded, inaccessible, and certainly not promoted. If something in blues is aimed at blues fans, I usually skip it.

Weirdly, I’ve been told by starry-eyed blues tourists as well as eye-rolling blues skeptics that the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi is worth a trip, worth a pilgrimage, even. And I find myself in Mississippi for the Blues Symposium at Ole Miss (yes, blues has a symposium!) with the fest starting today, my one free day, the day I figured I’d finally break into the Sterick Building in Memphis. I had hoped to catch guitarist Josh Roberts in Memphis last night, but a long day and a severe weather warning kept me inside the Best Western, so I’m jonesing for a music fix…

What the hell. Juke Joint Fest it is.