No one shows kids a good time like MTV. The 24-hour vid channel offers so many crazy deejays, wild contests and nutty promotions that, in MTV Land, it seems like Spring Break every day of the year.
What MTV's savvy image makers don't say is--there's such a thing as having too much fun, especially when that fun comes at the expense of important MTV advertisers.
Guilty as charged is Neil Young, whose new video, "This Note's for You," was banned by MTV last week because the song's lyrics mention such commercial products as Coke, Pepsi and Budweiser spokesdog Spuds MacKenzie.
"I think the whole thing is a disgrace," said Elliot Roberts, Young's manager. "It tells me that the \o7 M\f7 in MTV stands for \o7 money\f7 , not music. The shame of it all is that Neil had written a song talking about how advertisers are taking control of the music--and now MTV has proven that corporate control of rock has gone further than you could possibly imagine."
The video, directed by Julien Temple, offers a devastating spoof of such pop-star commercial pitchpeople as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Eric Clapton. Highlights include a shot-by-shot satire of Clapton's Michelob ad, a scene where a Gloved One impersonator sets his hair on fire during a Pepsi dance routine, a romp with a Spuds double who licks the shoulders of several bikini-clad beach babes and a giddily surreal lampoon of those pretentious Calvin Klein Obsession cologne ads.
The clip is such a hoot that it seems hard to imagine that MTV's timid Standards and Practices Department--which is clearly far less vigilant about sexism than satire--could find fault with the video's good-natured corporate digs.
"I must admit I feel awkward defending our decision because I happen to think it's a fantastic video," said MTV/VH1 General Manager Lee Masters. "Everyone in Programming loved it--it's spectacular and it's very funny. But we had two corporate problems: First, our attorneys advised us against playing it because its use of likenesses of Michael Jackson and Spuds MacKenzie could leave us open to trademark infringement charges. Since then, Warner Records' legal department has offered to indemnify us against any claims, but our attorneys still felt that might not be enough protection."
Warners--and manager Roberts--also suggested a second compromise, offering to supply an all-performance video that wouldn't use any shots of celeb impersonators.
However that didn't solve the major issue. It has been a long-standing MTV policy that the channel refuses to air clips that depict--or contain \o7 lyrics--\f7 that refer to specific commercial products. The intent of the edict is to protect MTV from the glut of tacky product placements that clog so many Hollywood films (try to sit through a Columbia Pictures movie without seeing a close-up of a can of Coke).
While "This Note's for You" is clearly a parody, Masters insisted it still violates MTV policy about mentioning products, even though the products were clearly used for humor, not plugola. "I agree that it's a spoof, which is what I argued with our Standards execs," he said. "But I lost the argument. Standards feels that if we appeared inconsistent, other record companies would want exceptions down the road."
The debate rages on. Roberts is also angry because he says he sent MTV the song and a video script before it was shot, just to make sure MTV would air it. He says MTV approved it. Masters said MTV's Standards department rejected the song, but when Roberts phoned him, he mistakenly approved it without asking for Standards' permission.
For now, Roberts has given up on MTV--he's trying to get the clip played on "Saturday Night Live" (it will air on the Z Channel this week).
"All this clip does is poke fun," Roberts said. "But it's not funny anymore if MTV is so afraid of sponsors' power that they won't air an ingenious satire."