Into the Maw

James O'Brien

What will you do when Andy Warhol's skinheaded stepchild taps you on the shoulder and tells you that your 15 seconds of fame are nigh? Will you be strong? Or will you do what I did recently?

Will you get a call from a VH1 producer who asks you to appear on camera for a new show that they're launching, and cave? Or will you tell him thanks but no thanks, that I'm better than that and VH1 never plays any of the music I like, so I reject your offer of quasi-media celebrity and go find some other sucker hungry for the limelight, someone chomping at the bit to be an Expert with Opinions, because I get plenty at home, thanks, and besides I'm too busy reading Proust?

Of course you won't. That's not what we do in America. We are nothing until the cathode ray says we are something, so when our chance to have millions watch as we sit in a hot tub with a naked stranger as our girlfriends comment from the confessional on how the date is going or watch as five queer guys trim our nose hair and throw out our porn and redecorate our bathroom or watch as we impart our vast knowledge of Prince's "1999" for something called VH1's Behind the Song, we say Yes dear, where and what time?

I arrived at the Millennium Hotel in downtown Minneapolis a couple of Tuesday mornings ago at promptly 9:30. I parked my car in the underground garage and loitered for a few minutes in the lobby, where three hungover businessmen and a music industry type with a laminate around his neck blankly watched CNN. I took the elevator up to the ninth floor and found room 901. I was greeted by Tyler, my interviewer for the morning, who introduced me to the sound and camera guys, Ed and Ted.

The suite was nondescript, save for the shuttered windows and the living room, which had been turned into a film studio with lights, boom mike, and a backdrop of colored sheets. There was an empty beer bottle and a half-empty liter of lime Gatorade in the bedroom, where Tyler, who flew in from Denver, had spent the night. We chatted for a few minutes. Tyler gave me a bottle of spring water. I looked around at the room, this place where countless men and women had sullied the sheets and themselves; now it was my turn.

I sat down in the chair, knowing full well that it wasn't just any chair. It was the same chair that has been sat in by any number of the nameless, gigless, bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment journalists who march ceaselessly across our flat-screen moonscape these days. The chair where the unfunny desperately attempt to be funny, the uninteresting try to make the banal seem captivating, the chair from which editors of magazines like Buy More Hot Shit make their marks and further their careers. The chair, it must be said, that the dweeb sits in, the culture vulture who interprets and brings context and socio-political-something-or-other to the segment, while everybody else itches their remote-control trigger finger, waiting to hear some music.

"Ready?" said Tyler. I thought about bolting. Instead, I crossed my legs and said what Gary Gilmore said just before the firing squad opened up: Let's do it. Tyler asked me questions about Prince and the song. I relaxed. It was going to be okay. I like talking about Prince. I like "1999." I like talking about Minneapolis music history. I told Tyler everything I knew. It was painless.

We both knew the drill. They wanted sound bites. I thought about Noam Chomsky, who doesn't do these sorts of things--no Nightline, no drive-by interviews--because his subject matter is too involved and his theories don't lend themselves to quick cuts and voiceovers. I tried to think about all the things I'd rather be talking to the world about, but could only come up with "Viacom: Behind the Evil." I thought about all the songs I'd rather get behind for "VH1's Behind the Song," and felt, as is so often the case, like a program guide who can't get with the program.

I gave Tyler three easily digested nuggets that we both smiled at, sickly, the moment they came out of my mouth. Now we were getting somewhere. Now Tyler and Ed and Ted and I were doing our jobs. Somewhere in VH1-land a marketing specialist awaited our work, but there would be no epiphanies, no discoveries, no "you gotta get in here and see this footage!" because they didn't really care and I didn't really care and exactly no one really cares to hear the story "behind" this or any other song, even though that's what we've come to expect from water cooler culture: nostalgia as news, rehash as revelation. So right there in room 901, with the air conditioning keeping the muggy Minnesota morning at bay, Tyler and Ed and Ted and I waltzed the waltz that thousands before us had danced, and went down into the maw of unhistory together.

I had my Talking Points. I held forth on the theory that "1999" was inspired by the Orson Welles documentary on Nostradamus and his doomsday predictions. I opined that Prince's band at the time, the Revolution, was "ferocious" and among the great live bands of my generation. I stayed On Message. I talked about the signs of the times in 1982 and race and harmony and Minneapolis and the political climate in which "1999" was hatched. Then I made a mistake.

Near the end of the interview, with me running out of interest and gas, Tyler asked about the "1999" video. I wasn't prepared for this. I stammered. I tried to remember the video. Sequins and purple satin registered in the distance. I heard myself telling Tyler that I thought the video was "cheesy," what with "Lisa and Jill Jones snuggling by the keyboards and all." I think I made a face. I may have rolled my eyes. I caught myself. Suddenly, an all too clear future image came to me: a quick-cut of my face plastered with the VH1 logo, and the sound of my voice having an opinion about something I truly don't have an opinion about, which is as cheesy as it gets if you ask me.

Tyler asked a few more questions, I made some more accommodating noises, and then our dance was done. It had taken less than an hour. I said goodbye to Ed and Ted and thanked Tyler for the water and took the elevator to the parking garage. The guy in the booth took my five dollars without looking at me. Which is his loss, for he did not recognize that the man in the muffler-hurting Toyota before him was a recipient of the ultimate postmodern validation: I was--and, through the miracle of ad nauseam reruns, would remain--a tick fastened to the ass of celebrity.

My "Behind the Song" moment airs sometime this year. Or, with any luck, Nostradamus will come through and we'll all be blown up by then.

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