Television

'You Can't Turn Back the Ocean'

MTV's Kurt Loder on the delusions of celebrity culture, the coming collapse of mainstream media outlets, and the rising tide of free expression that can't be stopped

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Kurt Loder has been chronicling cutting-edge culture in the United States since the 1970s, first with the defunct rock magazine Circus and then during a legendary stint at Rolling Stone. Along the way, he co-authored Tina Turner's memoir, which became the basis for the hit movie What's Love Got To Do With It. In 1988 Loder joined MTV as a news anchor and now, among other tasks, serves as the channel's film critic. His weekly reviews, available online at mtv.com, are as broad in their selection of films as they are incisive in their analysis.

Consider Loder's take on Michael Moore's health care documentary Sicko. "As a proud socialist, the director appears to feel that there are few problems in life that can't be solved by government regulation (that would be the same government that's already given us the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Motor Vehicles)," wrote Loder, a military veteran, in June. "What's the problem with government health systems? Moore's movie doesn't ask that question, although it does unintentionally provide an answer. When governments attempt to regulate the balance between a limited supply of health care and an unlimited demand for it they're inevitably forced to ration treatment."

Born in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 1945, Loder is unabashedly libertarian in his politics and optimisticin his cultural outlook. As part of the October conference "Reason in D.C.," Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie interviewed Loder on the impact of technology (liberating), the rise of celebrity culture (noxious), the growth of the nanny state (really noxious), and the future of mass media (grim, but that's a good thing). What follows is an edited transcript, with audience questions mixed directly into the discussion for readability. The full interview can be viewed at reason.tv; comments should be sent to letters@reason.com.

Reason: Major record companies complain they're losing market share and revenue. Major daily newspapers say the same thing. Broadcast networks still command a huge audience, but it's much smaller than before. The big outlets don't seem to have the monopoly on audience they once did. Is the decentralization of audience, of culture, a good thing?

Kurt Loder: We're better off with new technology. Music is proliferating in a way it never has before. CDs are over. DVDs will soon be over. You'll download this stuff. I think it's a good thing. Record companies will change. They'll have to.

Copyright is going to be the big change. I think creators should be paid for their work. I'm on that side of the debate. If you make a record, you should be paid for it. Record companies do pay artists for the music they make, eventually. It's remarkable how little
they pay them—initially, especially. If you're a young band, you're going to make nothing originally. Maybe on your third record, you'll start making money. It's pretty amazing.

We used to live in a command-media world. You had no choice but to look at NBC, CBS, ABC; there was nothing else. If you wanted big stories, you went to The New York Times or The Washington Post. I think blogging and the Internet have changed that entirely. They've shattered the monopoly on information.

To give just one example: The "Baghdad Diarist" in The New Republic [a soldier who wrote an article describing alleged bad behavior by U.S. troops in Iraq] was a total fraud. It was exposed by military bloggers who came out and said this guy doesn't know what he's talking about. That wouldn't have happened 20 years ago.

Reason: As a journalist, how do you feel about the audience fact-checking you? And having direct access to you?

Loder: Some people are always going to call you an idiot. Some people are going to say you're great or you're an asshole. You have to get used to that. But that's good too. It's good to hear directly what people think. It's good to get rid of filters. I think we live in a great, hopeful age for media. I think it's the best of all possible times.

Anybody can be heard now. You put something out into the ocean of the Internet, and it bounces all over everywhere because things can be passed on so well. It's a great time to be a filmmaker because the technology we have allows you to make films and upload them, and people can see your work. You can make digital music and upload it, and people will hear it. This is the golden age of communication.

Reason: One of the great bogeymen of contemporary media discourse is the consolidation of media ownership. MTV itself is part of a giant conglomerate. Why shouldn't fewer companies owning more outlets be worrisome?

Loder: MTV is part of Viacom, which controls Paramount, and so on and so forth. It's the evil empire, right? But these giants—Time Warner, Viacom—are facing an upstart culture now. Things are coming from the ground up, and they can't really deal with it all. They're very upset about their content being taken and simply uploaded on [the video sharing site] YouTube. Viacom has a billion-dollar lawsuit against YouTube.

They can't really fight it. They have to become part of it. They have to buy part of it.

Reason: Should we worry about attempts, whether legal or technological, to clamp down on culture?

Loder: You can't turn back the ocean. I don't think there can be a clampdown. You can't go back to three channels and two or three national newspapers. It'll never happen again. There's too much good journalism online. I love newspapers and magazines, but I think they're on the way out. And that may not be a bad thing.

Reason: Do you worry about the fragmentation of culture? Some critics worry about what's lost from the time when we all had to listen to the same stuff or see the same stuff.

Loder: I think one reason that things are so fragmented is that there's no talent that can unify the world like the Beatles did. The Beatles appealed to everybody, even old people. Nowadays, you can talk about bands where they are always compared to something else. "It's like nu-metal, but it's death metal with touches of ska"—that sort of thing.

But as long as you don't have this monolithic critical culture defining what things are, you're going to have to go and seek out music for yourself. Things will be a little splintered until something comes around that is unifying. We're still waiting for that day, but in the meantime there's still lots
of good music around. But you have to go look for it. It's not just going to be force-fed to you, although God knows people will try to do that.

Reason: Some of the same technology that allows us to express ourselves more freely also means the state can surveil us more easily and effectively. You're very outspoken in your opposition to the rise of surveillance cameras in your hometown of New York.

Loder: [New York Mayor] Michael Bloomberg wants more and more surveillance cameras. There are already quite a few, but he's inspired by London. Britain is so ahead of us in terms of surveillance and the nanny state. Bloomberg was recently in London, talking to his opposite number, Ken Livingstone, and he was thrilling to all the surveillance cameras. There's one on every corner, on every bus, on every subway. Bloomberg said, and I quote, "We're way behind. We do have to catch up."

This is a scary guy. I understand the fear of terrorism, but people don't seem to fully understand what would happen if this surveillance regime passed into the hands of less benign people. You have to look ahead to that, and no one does. There are 4 million surveillance cameras in Great Britain. We're heading in that direction.

Reason: Why is that scary?

Loder: I don't want people watching me.

Reason: That's a curious statement coming from a guy on MTV.

Loder: Very well. I don't want the government watching me. There are cameras that issue tickets if you're going through [yellow] lights. Soon they'll be able to tell if you're smoking in your car or using a cell phone. You'll be getting tickets for this. It's already happening in Europe. Do we want it to happen here? I don't think so. You always have to keep an eye on the state.

Reason: How do you feel about other nanny state issues? Smoking bans, trans fat bans, you name it; these are all part of reality in Bloomberg's New York and, increasingly, other parts of the U.S. and the West.

Loder: Bloomberg most recently started a crackdown on Mister Softee ice cream trucks in the city. Now if you want to sell ice cream, when you pull your truck over to the curb, you're not allowed to ring your bells. What can you say about this sort of thing? It's amazing that people don't rise up with pitchforks.

You can just go on and on and on. Calabasas, California, has become a city where you basically can't smoke. The whole secondhand smoke thing is ridiculous. I understand people not liking smoke. But there should be places where, if the owner doesn't mind you smoking in his bar or restaurant, you should be able to do that. What's wrong with that?

There are really interesting contrasts. I think San Francisco just started its first injection room, where the city will provide people with nurses to shoot people up with heroin. So you'll have a clean environment to get high in, but it's still illegal to smoke in bars. I just don't understand.

Reason: How do you define yourself politically?

Loder: I think people should be free to do what they want to do. I think it's very simple. I don't think anyone puts faith in the Republicans or the Democrats. You know, Warren Beatty once said something very good. Seriously. Somebody asked him if we needed a third party in this country, and he said, "I think we need a second one." I think that's true.

Reason: Where did your politics come from?

Loder: I grew up on the Jersey Shore, on a little barrier island. The Atlantic Ocean was on one side, the bay was on the other. Everyone there hunted and fished and clammed and got crabs out of the bay. And one day my brother told me someone had come down from the Bureau of Petty Harassment or something and they measured the temperature of the water and had decided it was a little too warm and a certain type of bacteria might incubate in it and there was a chance that might harm the clams. And so, from now on, no one was supposed to take clams out of the bay anymore. Which everyone ignored. And no one died. That was before the government got tenacious about this stuff. So I thought that was pretty stupid right there.

Later I got a draft notice, which focused my thinking.

And then one day, I was working for a newspaper in New Jersey and this flyer came across my desk from the local Libertarian Party. At the top, it said, "Free Love and Free Markets." And I thought, "That's some pretty interesting territory." And that's pretty much where I am.

Reason: How's your ideology received at MTV?

Loder: I don't go around preaching it. I mean, people know what I think. People in the media are sort of liberal. I don't know if you've noticed that. It's a liberal world. I don't know why that is. Maybe they all go to the same school or something. As [ABC News'] John Stossel says, this is the water they swim in, and they don't even notice it. But not everyone in the media is liberal. Apparently at The Wall Street Journal, there are a lot of Democrats on staff.

Still, they let me do what I want to do. I've got to give them that.

Reason: How do your views play with your younger colleagues at MTV? What political trends do you see among the kids who watch MTV?

Loder: It's hard to generalize about younger people because they're all different. I think you'd be surprised at how many people are not entirely, screamingly liberal. When I reviewed Sicko, you'd be surprised at the number of people in my company who emailed me and said, "You know, you got that exactly right. I'm glad somebody finally said that about this guy." You never know where support is going to come from.

Reason: Rock and roll has always been viewed as an instrument of rebellion. Yet it seems that performers are increasingly establishment in their views, and unapologetic about inflicting their politics on their audiences. They've gone from saying "Don't trust anyone over 30" and "Down with the man" to defending Social Security and pushing for national health care. What do you think about that?

Loder: I don't remember Elvis Presley telling us what to do about global warming. Nobody should ever expect millionaire celebrities to save the world. I don't know if you remember the Time magazine that had Bono on the cover and asked, "Can Bono Save the World?" Well, the answer is no.

All these people seem to have an opinion. I find it boring myself, but if you're 15 years old, you might find it rousing. I have no need for it.

I think we should realize that rock and roll is something that happened, and it's over, like the folk music period. There's rock, which is something different, which is something that is usually taken to be what happened after the Beatles became more self-conscious. Today, when kids who are 19 have a band, they walk into the room and sign a record contract; they arrive with lawyers and publicists and all the stuff. It's hard to be rebellious with that. Bands will say they want to change the world and "down with the man," and they're working for Time Warner.

Again, don't trust anything celebrities say. They're not going to save anybody's world. Not even their own, often.

Reason: You've suggested reasons for concern about freedom. But you're optimistic about the future, about American life and American culture. Why is that, if some things seem so dire?

Loder: You have to be optimistic about the human endeavor, I think. There are always creative people. I think the only thing we have to worry about is people who would oppress us, which would be the government. Only the government can censor us. Only the government can take from us. I've never really believed in government. I don't think you can. I believe in people, and the good they'll do.