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Exploring how a subversive ‘60s situation comedy still messes with our heads

When The Monkees debuted on NBC this month in 1966, it was unlike any program that had ever been on television. Inspired in part by the Beatles’ mad-cap rock ‘n’ roll movies, Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, The Monkees started out as a sit-com centered around the shenanigans of a struggling pop music group.

But more than 50 years later, the show continues to stand out as a vehicle that served up anti-establishment youth culture to mainstream audiences, dismantling television conventions and blurring the line between fantasy and reality in the process.

For researchers curious about The Monkees’ revolutionary impact on popular culture, we explore how different kinds of resources offer a variety of perspectives and insights: A newspaper article from 1966 reveals how The Monkees’ were received in their own time; a scholarly article written in 1988 explores the postmodern elements of the show’s construction; and a retrospective article published last year in a contemporary rock’n’roll magazine demonstrates how The Monkees continue to defy categorization.

“The Monkees: Why the Teenagers Like Them”

It’s no wonder The Monkees are sometimes (dismissively) known as the “Pre-Fab Four.” Lloyd Shearer’s Boston Globe article from December 1966, written just four months after the show’s debut, outlines how The Monkees got started. Two young men (one of them the son of the president of Colombia pictures; the other, the president’s nephew) came up with an idea to capitalize on the popularity of The Beatles: A TV show about an American version of The Beatles.

So, Shearer notes, the partners put out an ad in the Daily Variety that read: “MADNESS…seeking a quartet of hip, insane, folk-oriented rock’n’rollers, 17 to 21, with the courage to work.”

More than 400 potential candidates showed up to audition, and ultimately four young men with varying backgrounds in music and acting (and four distinct personalities) – Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz – were cast as The Monkees, a quasi-fictional boy band designed to appeal to younger audiences.

And it worked, kind of. Shearer pointed out: “The kid audience likes it, but many of the adult TV viewers are resistant to mopheads, finding difficulty following a program which has little or no storyline, is based on wild camera work, and a special, hipster, juvenile vocabulary.”

(In fact, the show was so controversial, that some NBC affiliates wouldn’t even put it on the air. It was egg on their faces: The Monkees won Emmys in 1967 for outstanding comedy and comedy directing).

While Shearer expressed uncertainty that the show would continue, the band seemed to be a hit. Their records were selling, they were booked for personal appearances, and, “most important of all, fanatical teenage girls are writing in by the droves, requesting autographs, locks of hair, discarded clothes.”

Of course, teenagers loved The Monkees – its creators studied what young audiences liked, repackaged it and sold it back to them in the form of a television show/rock group, “[proving] irrefutably that the formula for entertaining today’s teenagers is easily reproducible. Two of the main ingredients are long hair and rock’n’roll.”

But is that really all The Monkees were about?

“The Monkees and the Deconstruction of Television Realism”

In 1988, a scholarly article by Laura Goostree, published in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, looked at The Monkees from a deconstructionist perspective. In doing so, she defines the conventions of traditional television sit-coms, and the cutting-edge ways The Monkees subverted those conventions.

For Goostree’s fascinating analysis, The Monkees TV show is considered as a critical text, divorced from “the leftover critical scorn felt for their music, their audience, and their very existence, prefabricated as it was.” This enables a focused examination of how The Monkees “radically critiques conventional network television realism in a manner that was part and parcel of the concurrent youth movement.”

Goostree explains that in traditional television, the viewer is put in a passive position to witness a self-contained fantasy world presented as reality. To create a fantasy that seems real, “realist television” avoids showing or referring to any elements of the production indicative of the show as a “show.” Sets, writers, make-up, the audience etc. ­are discreetly tucked away from viewers. In contrast, The Monkees “is not only conscious of itself as television, but also conscious that the audience is conscious of this fact.”

This consciousness, according to Goostree, is demonstrated through several creative and innovative devices. For example, each episode of the program included instances of direct communication with the audience, whether the characters looked or spoke directly to the camera, or on-screen graphics provided commentary on what was happening during the program, inviting the viewer in on the construction of the show. As a result, viewers had a more participatory than passive relationship with the program.

Additionally, the actors on the show play themselves – in a way. The characters have the same names as the performers who play them, and the show incorporated non-story fragments – such as interviews and outtakes – featuring the performers as themselves, not as their fictional personas. In doing so, the program drew attention to the identities of the actors as separate from their characters, disrupting the conventions of realist television.

Goostree notes that in doing so, the show creates “an unresolvable tension between fantasy and reality wherein we are left not knowing who the ‘real’ Monkees are and who the ‘pretend’ Monkees are.” Often, in the interviews and outtakes included in the show, the elements of each of the actors’ personalities are revealed in direct conflict with the characters they portray.

The result of these efforts to subvert traditional television convention is, according to Goostree, that “instead of the simple series of stories about a struggling rock band it is disguised as, The Monkees is a complex text that is part and parcel of the oppositional youth culture of the 1960s.”

But how aware where the stars of The Monkees of the cultural phenomenon they were creating?

“Do I have to do this all over again?”

In 2016, The Monkees celebrated the 50th anniversary of their debut, and members of the band spoke with Peter Watts from the U.K. rock music magazine Uncut about the paradox of the Monkees’ career. Mike Nesmith explained it this way:

The TV series was one group, who lived in an imaginary beach house. They were a rock’n’ roll band that wanted to be The Beatles, but never made it. It was about the struggle, and that’s what endeared it to the kids around the world, because on the show we were never successful. But then there is the other Monkees group, the one that went on the road and got hit records. You have to dig down deep into it and see the genetics of it. It wasn’t a manufactured band because it was never meant to be a band. Get your head around the concept and it makes sense.

Of course, the success of The Monkees as a band complicated matters. Even as some of the members of the group had some experience and background in music, they weren’t hired to make music together – and they didn’t really know how make music as a band. Watts describes how as the show was being made, professional musicians worked on the record.

Then the song “Last Train to Clarksville” reached no. 1 on the charts. Nesmith told Watts, “We had to do something to satisfy the fans. We couldn’t just wave and sign autographs. They wanted to see The Monkees come to life.”

Peter Tork added, “We were like a cover band for our own music.”

The Monkees learned how to play their own songs, and buoyed the success of their first tour, they started making their own records, going on to release a couple of well-received garage rock albums. But according to Watts’ article, as The Monkees became a real band experimenting with an identity increasingly distinguished from the show, the show fell apart, and then the band started coming apart as well.

Nesmith concluded that The Monkees “wasn’t a trick to fool the public. It was us discovering the power of combined media, of TV and music, and the symbiosis of that and live performance…It was strange, scattered, multiple efforts all strung together to become an actual thing that no one can define. That’s where we are 50 years later. An actual thing.”

Suggestions for further research:

Ebooks:

Austen, J. (2005). TV-a-Go-Go: Rock on TV From American Bandstand to American Idol.

Greene, D. (2012). Teens, TV and Tunes: The Manufacturing of American Adolescent Culture.

Wojcik, P. R., & Knight, A. (Eds.). (2001). Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music.

Dissertations:

Belscamper, D. L. (2014). "Your Ticket to Dreamsville": The Functions of 16 Magazine in American Girl Culture of the 1960s (Order No. 3635251). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1614530726).

Bodroghkozy, A. (1994). Groove Tube and Reel Revolution: The Youth Rebellions of the 1960s and Popular Culture (Order No. 9431444). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304112017).

Stahl, M. W. (2006). Reinventing Certainties: American Popular Music and Social Reproduction (Order No. 3244179). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305347414).

Citations:

Goostree, L. (1988). The Monkees and the Deconstruction of Television Realism. Journal of Popular Film and Television, XVI(2), 50-58.

Shearer, L. (1966, Dec 11). The Monkees: Why the Teenagers Like ThemBoston Globe (1960-1985). 

Watts, P. (2016). Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? Uncut, (229), 46-51. 

19 Sep 2017

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