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The supreme law [of the culture industry] is that they shall not satisfy their desires at any price; they must laugh and be content with laughter.
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer
Mheheheh heh ... heh heh--Huh huh ... huh huh ...
Beavis and Butt-head, opening soundtrack from the MTV show Beavis & Butt-head, 1993--
Much reviled in the press as avatars of teenage nihilism, banished from prime time to late night owing to their purported encouragement of impressionable young pyromaniacs, Beavis & Butt-head have drawn a substantially larger audience than almost all other MTV programs: in 1995 the show grossed over $17 million in advertising revenues for the network, and box office sales for their feature-length film topped $55 million within the first two months of its December 1996 release. More significantly for the focus of this essay, Mike Judge's creations have been the only MTV video-jockeys to address music videos critically. While other programs merely present videos without critique, Beavis and Butt-head overlay their soundtracks with pointed, sometimes scathing criticism.
Such criticism often takes the form of statements along the lines of "this video sucks" (admittedly not trenchantly insightful analysis). Yet just as often the boys' comments do address relevant issues about the video's imagery or musical style. And by interweaving insightful with trivial comments and video criticism with banal dialogue, the show's writers depict the boys' critical process as seamlessly integrated into their mundane activities. Beavis and Butt-head do not consider interpretation a separate endeavor requiring "critical distance": they are always in the process of performing critically. And the boys are not merely listeners and spectators: they often sing and dance along with videos, and use musical expression (usually some form of heavy metal "air guitar") to punctuate particularly gratifying events in their lives. Indeed, Beavis and Butt-head's intense interaction with music is what most clearly defines their daily activities. Despite probably being the most objectionable characters ever to grace prime-time television, the boys are remarkably savvy musical consumers.
As depictions of critics whose interpretative (and even artistic) operations are an integral part of daily life, Mike Judge's personae Beavis and Butt-head reveal themselves to be cut from the same cloth as Robert Schumann's critical personae Florestan and Eusebius. And in their abandonment of critical distance and their purposeful depthlessness, in their constantly shifting subject positions, not to mention their excessive, unbounded, and constantly unfulfilled desire (both sexual and musical), the boys appear to be a textbook example of the "schizophrenic," de-Oedipalized subject that has been seen as a result of postmodern culture.
Beavis and Butt-head first made their appearance in a couple of brief (five-minute) episodes on MTV's experimental animation program Liquid Television in 1992. Overwhelmingly positive public response to the over-the-top, grotesque plots and humor of the segments (in the first episode the boys play "frog baseball" and attempt to progress to "dog baseball"; in the second they attend a monster-truck rally and are confronted with Sterculius, the Roman god of feces) led to MTV commissioning a series of half-hour programs from their creator, animator Mike Judge.(1) As counterpointo the boys' grotesque adventures, Judge introduced segments where Beavis and Butt-head watched and responded to portions of music videos; since the boys were portrayed as heavy metal fans, this genre initially predominated on the show, with the boys usually reacting by swaying, head-banging, or singing along with the band during particularly exciting passages. When faced with music they didn't like, the boys would urge each other to change the channel, crying out "This sucks," belching, passing gas, or otherwise expressing their disgust. While a number of MTV comedy shows had been punctuated by segments of music videos, Beavis and Butt-head were the first actually to acknowledge the music and react.
The boys' rise to stardom was momentarily jeopardized in the fall of 1993, when they were accused of inspiring a five-year-old to set fire to his family's trailer; while the accusation was spurious, fear of negative publicity led MTV to move the show from a prime-time to a late-night time slot.(2) MTV censors also induced Mike Judge to tone down Beavis's pyromania and, to some extent, the show's violence.(3)
Despite the time-slot change, the show continued its success--which suggests that the appeal of Beavis & Butt-head was never primarily to school-age children. In 1994 Rolling Stone dedicated a cover to Beavis & Butt-head, suggesting that "50 million Beavis and Butt-head fans can't be wrong"; the magazine observed, "Despite the time change [from 7 to 10:30 P.M.], they still draw three times the network's average audience."(4) The boys' success can be partially measured by the fact that their comments were credited with destroying the careers of some bands (for example, Winger and Warrant) and boosting the success of others (Babes in Toyland and White Zombie).(5)
The move to a team-based writing approach for the show by the second (1993) season led to more varied and subtle characterization of the two boys: Butt-head became the leader and the more grounded of the duo, while Beavis's sadism and pyromania spread into more diffuse psychosis, making him the more creative and fanciful of the pair. Increasingly complex characterization of the secondary characters in the show, particularly the adult males who are ever endeavoring (unsuccessfully) to provide a role model for the boys, led to an increasing proportion of satire to slapstick. In fact, while Beavis and Butt-head's outrageous behavior still drove the plot, the idiocy of the "normal" characters surrounding them became more and more the focus of the show's humor, and the humor became increasingly more absurdist and satirical, and less scatological.
The boys' extraordinary success continued through 1996 with high daily viewership despite the limited number of new episodes each season.(6) Following the extraordinary success of their feature-length movie, Beavis & Butt-head Do America (released during the 1996 Christmas season), the format of the show changed; perhaps partly because of this change, the show's popularity waned somewhat.(7)
From 1993 through 1996, the format of the show was kept constant, each half-hour show consisting of two fifteen-minute episodes. Each episode contains a full story line, so that the boys' adventures are portrayed in fifteen-minute blocks, a telegraphic pace that provides a reductio ad absurdum of the narrative sketchiness of half-hour sitcoms. To disrupt the narrative flow further, Beavis and Butt-head's adventures are intermingled with segments in which the boys are shown watching and commenting on portions of MTV videos; these segments are unconnected to the story line.(8) Figure 1 illustrates the sequence of narrative and video-watching segments in four typical Beavis and Butt-head episodes. As the figure shows, the episodes consist of a regular alternation of narrative and video segments, with a central commercial break that takes up roughly a third of each episode. No single segment is longer than two minutes, and many of the narrative segments are shorter than a minute.(9)
[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Initially just an excuse for the boys to head-bang or make scatological comments, the video segments developed into much more complex critical commentary and dialogue, hand in hand with the show's increasing use of satire. The increasing sophistication of the show's humor is perhaps most noticeable in the video segments, for while the idiotic behavior the boys perpetrate and encounter in the course of the story segments is committed by fictional characters, during the videos the spotlight is turned on music and performers featured during MTV's regular programming, and frequently consists of comments on the quirks and foibles of real-life rock and pop music and video production.
In the video-watching segments, Beavis and Butt-head are seen sitting side by side on a ratty couch; the view alternates between the TV from the boys' perspective and the boys from the TV's perspective. This device not only serves to connect the boys to the video they are experiencing, but also encourages the viewer's identification with the boys' subject position(s) through the reminder that the viewer, just like the boys, is seeing this video on TV.(10) The visual aspect of the video is frequently interrupted by scenes of the boys picking their noses, fighting, or reacting to particularly steamy images; the soundtrack is overlaid with the boys' dialogue-which alternates between comments on the video at hand and banal repartee or crude noisemaking.
When Beavis and Butt-head encounter a video that strikes their fancy, they frequently sing and dance along: their tastes run primarily to heavy metal and rap/hip-hop (the latter tends to elicit most of their dancing reactions, though punk/hardcore dancing also seems to appeal to them). The story lines show the boys punctuating particularly gratifying moments in their lives by singing and playing air guitar, thereby further incorporating music into their everyday …