Arts Desk

BriTunes: Why Brian Williams’s Music Experiment Won’t Work

In the last half of the 20th Century, the national television news anchor played a deific role in American life: benevolent, yet possessing of an aloof omniscience that suggested divinity (and, by implication, infallibility). Behind the heroically concerned brow and dispassionate baritone there seemed to lie a great wisdom: unrevealed, and therefore perfect–the archetype being longtime CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, whom opinion pollsters in the '70s and '80s perennially deemed "the most trusted man in America."

In the 21st Century, everything has changed: Information is ubiquitous; newsmen are no longer godheads. The role of the national news anchor in American culture must be redefined. The question is: as what?

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams seems to be molding a new archetype. Newscaster 2.0, as Williams has shaped it, is not so much an avuncular sentinel as a cultural tycoon–one who regularly parries with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, gushes about pop culture on MSNBC, and appears in Saturday Night Live sketches making fun of–and effectively disavowing–the role of self-serious journalistic demigod that he inherited from the likes of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Ted Copple, and Cronkite.

Meet the latest extension of Williams’s tycoonery: A Web-exclusive music interview series called “BriTunes." The site, hosted by MSNBC.com, will feature band interviews alongside a blog and a constantly-updated playlist of Williams’s fave songs. “The thinking that went into this," he explained last week, "is that Al Roeker does about nine shows on the air, I think, about barbeque and food, Matt Lauer does men’s clothing beautifully, and so why not talk about our hobby here?”

For a series that sounds like a brand of dental cosmetics, BriTunes is shockingly hip. Williams's current playlist features Great Lake Swimmers, Interpol, Doves, and other bands that would elicit ripples of approving head-bobs from a Red Derby crowd. His latest blog touts the European daydream-pop group Camera Obscura. In an interview with Rolling Stone Williams recalls his freewheeling days as a blue-collar kid in Jersey who spent his free time stalking Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—you know, before it was cool. (He also reveals the breadth of his taste, saying that he pumps himself up for the Nightly News by listening to “My First Song,” by Jay-Z. “I was tempted to go on and say ‘Ch'boy!’ but I didn't,” he says. “It was close.”)

In that Rolling Stone interview—which is priceless, by the way—Williams acknowledges the awkward dissonance between his bourgeois, eminently mainstream persona and an indie-music ethos that is based on the willful rejection of that paradigm. “I have a wife and two children and a house and a two-car garage and a dog,” he says”…I'm not going to bars in Brooklyn and drinking PBRs.” Really, the disconnect is even more dramatic: Brian Williams is not just some shlub with a mortgage and a white picket fence; he’s a $10-million-a-year TV star with a rub-on tan and a closet full of immaculately tailored suits. It’s not that it is necessarily impossible for him to “get” music made by angsty twentysomethings who prefer ’zines to the Nightly News; it merely guarantees that any direct interaction between the two will be awkward.

Take BriTunes’s inaugural interview with Deer Tick, a neo-folk quartet out of Providence. (Perfectly, Williams heard about the band while on a family vacation in Rhode Island.) "Bri" looked at home, dressed in newscaster-casual—a gray cashmere v-neck over a subtly striped dress shirt, black slacks, black shoes—and nestled in a dark-leather chair on a set that resembled a sleekly furnished living room. Not so the members of Deer Tick, slouched on an adjacent sofa in rumpled plaid shirts and sneakers and looking like a group of teenagers trying to get through a conversation with someone’s dad while high. Williams intones an introduction over clips of frontman John McCauley, hirsute and shirtless, crooning nasally into a stage mic. He then lobs blandishment-laced questions to McCauley, who returns Williams’s noble baritone with laconic, mumbled answers, avoiding eye contact and pawing absently at his clammy cheeks. “Dirty Dishes,” the artist explains—a song Williams cited as a profoundly moving song about heartbreak and loss—is actually about McCauley and his roomies being too “miserable and lethargic” to do the dishes.

Ever the pro, Williams delves into his geniality reserves to keep the interview afloat through this revelation and a subsequent awkward joke from McCauley about unintended pregnancy. The use of a hand-held second camera—and its operator’s occasional toggling of the zoom lens—fails to dramatize the conversation beyond a threshold of excruciating discomfort. The segment mercifully ends with an eloquent thank-you from Williams and a collective grunt from Deer Tick.

It is doubtful NBC would have so undermined Williams's gravitas without a strategic motive. So what is the network hoping to achieve with this foray into underculture? The obvious guess is that with network news audiences skewing old, NBC is trying to use Williams—who has already made inroads with younger media consumers through his appearances on The Daily Show—to rebalance its demographics. In this, NBC certainly has a competitive advantage over CBS—whose Katie Couric is far more popular among middle-aged women than co-eds—and ABC, whose Charlie Gibson is unrecognizable to anyone under age 45.

But the reality is that just because the indie crowd may be aware of—and even amused by—Williams doesn’t mean they’re going to start going to him for musical insight, and it certainly won’t persuade them to start watching the 6:30 news. Assuming it will misunderstands the consumption habits of young people generally, and especially those of indie-music mavens, who will be far more apt to regard Williams as an interloper than an authority. More likely, BriTunes will attract middle-aged Nightly News viewers desperate for a way to communicate with their kids across the generational gap, resulting in awkward living-room conversations about underground music between well-meaning parents and their kids, who may or may not be high at the time.

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  • haterade

    What, exactly, are you trying to imply here Steve?

    That Brian Williams is not a credible source for young people to look toward when they want the latest "underculture" news? Shocking.

    Or are you just making fun of him for venturing to comment and bring attention to something that is not traditionally of his age groups interests?

    From what I can parse from your lengthy essay, you seem to be saying that Brian Williams is an old fogey who has no business listening to anything other than Eric Clapton CDs and that people of middle age should have no interest in new music beyond desperately trying to communicate with their pot-addled children.

    Anyway, if that's the case, you're making a contemptuous generalization that I think the hipsters, the red derby crowd, indie mavens, and any of the other imaginary demographics to which you refer here would probably find rather odious.

  • Steve Kolowich

    ...Dad?

  • Steve Kolowich

    Seriously, though, I think it's cool that Brian Williams digs indie music. But I'm concerned about his chemistry with his guests -- and I actually don't think age is the main issue. I think awkwardness of the Deer Tick interview grew out of a cultural incompatibility: Williams as the quintessence of mainstream bourgeoisie and Deer Tick as representatives of a bohemian counter-class defined by its opposition to all things mainstream and bourgeois. And it didn't help that they were about as charismatic as a sack of suet.

    Also, it's interesting that you read this piece as "making fun" of Williams. I thought I was making fun of Deer Tick! (Although it didn't help that Williams came dressed like Ward Cleaver.)

  • stevek

    I think its great when Camera Obscura and other bands get exposure beyond the usual outlets. Plus, someday you may even be over 40 and certainly won't like being patronized.

  • Vadim V

    I've watched the video and personally I felt that the awkwardness was less about Brian Williams being very very old and white and more about the guys from Deer Tick not being used to this sort of spotlight. It'll probably work better with someone who's a bit less camera-shy.

    Also, I really got the impression that it was Brian's pet project and NBC went along mostly because hey, it keeps Brian happy and it doesn't really cost anything to do it.

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