I chose to check out a couple of the selections—songs that at least supposedly changed the world in my conscious memory: Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
I started with the Madonna DVD. Billy Steinberg, co-writer of “Like a Virgin” (who also wrote Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”) kind of uncomfortably states that he wrote the song from a man’s perspective of entering a new relationship (huh!). Producer Nile Rodgers didn’t like the song, because he thought the lyrics were “lame” (according to the smooth-voiced female narrator). Madonna’s stylist said, “Excuse me… No one is going to believe you’re a virgin…” so encouraged her to play with that and wear a wedding dress for her performance at the first MTV Music Video Awards. Unfortunately we don’t get to see the actual video of Madonna infamously grinding and flopping around on the stage, but the interviewees, including Madonna biographers and fans put the image right back in my head. Especially for this episode, I ended up wondering, “Did ‘Like a Virgin’ change the world, or was it actually MADONNA that changed the world?” I’d have to say the latter, despite the lots of interesting trivia presented.
Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit a little closer to home. Yes, I have to agree that it was that particular song that exploded back-to-basics hard rock/punk back into the mainstream. And yes, I remember seeing flannel and torn jeans as a result in a display at Nordstrom (and how shocking that was). This episode of Impact! works generally well, and I was impressed that they got people who were truly part of the scene, like Seattle music journalists Grant Alden and Charles R. Cross. Interviews with folks like this mostly make up for the rather inane cultural commentary by a music editor from Newsweek, and a curious chirpy professor from Belmont University (huh?). Samuel Bayer, the director of the music video for the song, is a curious and self-absorbed fellow, admitting he and Cobain had different visions for the video (Bayer was trying to “make his own personal Apocalypse Now”). Surprisingly, Tori Amos makes an appearance (because she recorded a ballad version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and actually ends up making the most sense of those that try summing up the cultural impact. “It gave a generation some juice.” Amen, sister.
The Impact! Songs That Changed the World series chooses 12 songs total, some of which are obvious (like The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive”, The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”), others are a little questionable (like why Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” rather than “Hound Dog”? or Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” over “Johnny B. Goode”?), and one that simultaneously surprised me and pleased me (Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”). Each disc, sold separately at $9.99, lists its running time as 36 minutes, which is actually a bit misleading. The actual song profile episode only clocks in at 23 minutes (aka, a half-hour TV show sans commercials), and the other 13 minutes is a medley ad for the rest of the series. Sure, fans may only want songs by their favorite artists, but it seems to truly show the big picture of how popular music can affect the bigger culture, these should be sold or viewed as a complete set.