The sudden death of The Monkees lead singer Davy Jones has sparked renewed interest in the made-for-TV band and gotten people thinking -- and talking -- about the evolution of manufactured artists as legitimate entertainment content.
The Monkees were criticized for being studio pawns when they were first assembled in 1966 for the purposes of creating a television show around them. While the show and the accompanying records were huge commercial successes, The Monkees were largely dismissed by critics.
Two decades later, The Monkees aired in syndication and found a second generation of fans who -- perhaps desensitized to the notion of contrived celebrity -- were able to appreciate the band outside the context of cultural scrutiny.
In response to the news of Jones' sudden death, author and Fordham University professor Paul Levinson published the column "Why the Monkees are Important" on Mediaite. In the essay, he argues that The Monkees were the first example of something created in a medium -- in this case, a rock group on television -- that jumped off the screen to have big impact in the real world.
Levinson credits The Monkees with paving the way for later 'crossover' content -- reasoning that The Monkees' influence reaches beyond The Partridge Family and The Archies to include contemporary, multi-platform adapted content like "Julia and Julia," "Sh** My Dad Says," and the work of Tucker Max.
Levinson elaborated on his points in a thought-provoking discussion Thursday -- where he argued that, in some ways, The Monkees were and are no different than recording legends like Elvis Presley and Whitney Houston.
IBTimes: Micky Dolenz went on "Good Morning America" today, and he talked about "Glee," saying it was the closest thing that's come along down the pike since 'The Monkees.''' What do you think about that?
Levinson: I think that Micky Dolenz is completely right. And I furthermore think that to some extent there is a false dichotomy between the artists in "Glee," The Monkees, The Partridge Family, even The Archies...and other so-called legitimate artists.
Here's what I mean: If you think about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, obviously there you have songwriting genius and performance genius that The Monkees and the people on "Glee" never even came close to. But on the other hand, if you think about most successful rock groups, whether you're talking about the Supremes or Elvis, they didn't write their own material, for the most part....Essentially they were still brought into the studio by a producers...and somebody else wrote the songs. And from my point of view, that really is essentially the same as what happened with the Monkees.
IBT: So you're saying that the fact The Monkees first existed as a television show is really no different than an artist who is groomed by a studio and has people writing for them? Someone like Whitney Houston, for example? She didn't write any of her own songs.
PL: That's exactly my point...Some might think I'm putting down Whitney Houston, but I'm not. There are two paths to success in the record business. One path is indeed people who write their own material, who are responsible for every lick that's in a record...that's certainly an extremely worthy and admirable way of making music, and I would certainly put that in the top tier of musical acts, whether it's Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, etc.
But the other half, or more, of the music industry is indeed people like Whitney Houston, and all the way back to the beginning of rock and roll, where the groups were mentored...they were singing other people's material -- and they also had an enormous impact on the public.
IBT: Would you agree that one thing that distinguishes The Monkees from these other artists who were perhaps manufactured -- if not as obviously -- is that The Monkees were uncomfortable with it themselves? It seems they -- at least some of them -- were resentful of the fact that they weren't taken seriously as real artists. They made that movie, "Head," which kind of addressed that.
PL: This is what I think of as the snobbery of rock criticism. This also goes a long way back. ...These writers are entitled to their point of view, but they can be very hurtful to the artist. And very often they have nothing to do with what people love. ... Rock critics are paid to listen to music and write about it. That to me is a world of difference from someone who just listens to music because they love it, and they don't have an axe to grind. I don't blame The Monkees for being upset by that.
So you feel it's really because of the negative professional criticism that The Monkees resented their position? A central theme in "Head" is the notion that the band's free will is stunted, or an illusion -- do you think it's really not about that, but rather about the critics?
PL: I think basically The Monkees felt, as individuals, uncomfortable with their success; because if you read that somehow you're a fraud and you're a fake -- it's a painful thing to read. So I think they were understandably wanting to write their own songs, and they did to some extent.
In the early 60's, the ideal of music was the singer/songwriter...The guys who got together in their basement and wrote some great songs. And that is a worthy ideal. I certainly think that is the best kind of music.
But what that ideal wound up doing is making groups like The Monkees feel inadequate, like they were somehow being programmed. But the fact is most musicians are programmed.
IBT: I'm sure most would agree with you that The Monkees were pioneers for acts like The Partridge Family, and The Archies, and Glee as Dolenz said -- maybe even 'NSYNC or the American Idol stars. I was surprised to see that you took it even further to compare [The Monkees phenomenon] to basically everything that begins within a particular contrived medium and crosses over into another.
PL: When I was thinking about the Monkees after I heard the bad news that Davy Jones had died, I realized that [what The Monkees did] was really the first time where something that was created in one medium jumped through the television screen and out into another medium - the recording business -- and then out into the real world.
In other words, there's no reason that a highly successful television show with a band that was put together for the show would have hit records in reality. But the reason that happened is because of the same principle that applies to Julia & Julia, and Tucker Max, etc. -- when people respond positively to something, regardless of in what medium it was created, there's always the potential that it could leap into another medium and then out into the real world....
If a human chord is struck, if people have an incredibly positive enthusiastic response to something, then it seems totally natural to them to want to experience that in other media and in the real world.
And that's why I think those other examples are relevant.
IBT: Where do you think that desire comes from? Is it a desire to have it duplicated, or is it to actually see it go through a transformation?
I think you can put it in really simple terms: If you love somebody, you like seeing them dressed in different ways. Because you like being with them and you like seeing them. So it's fun to go casual, to go formal...When we enjoy content, we are very receptive to that content in another context. In another medium or in real life itself.
IBT: Even if -- as I think was the case with The Monkees -- for them to legitimately bring themselves into another context, they kind of had to reject, in some way, the original context?
Not reject it, just go beyond it.
I was unfortunately out of town so I never got to see that final concert [The Monkees Reunion Show at the Beacon Theater in June 2011] with the three of them, but I've seen lots of YouTube clips. ... And they are as real a group there as any group is.
It's not that they rejected their life on the other side of the screen, they transcended it. They moved into something more.♦
Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC. His nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), and New New Media (2009), have been translated into ten languages. His science fiction novels include The Silk Code (1999), Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002), The Pixel Eye (2003), and The Plot To Save Socrates (2006). He appears on The O'Reilly Factor and numerous TV and radio programs. His 1972 LP, Twice Upon a Rhyme, was re-issued in 2010. He reviews television in his InfiniteRegress.tv blog, and was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education's Top 10 Academic Twitterers in 2009.