Television is a friend, an enemy, a frenemy. It is a twisted lover, an addiction, a wasteland, and, oh yeah, a tool of political oppression. When songwriters take on TV, they tend to cast it in negative and neurotic roles.
But I won’t hold it against these musicians; few people understand the downside of TV more intimately than a TV critic. I love songs that take to task both TV and the people who surrender too easily to it. We need to be kept on track. Some of the lyrics to these songs are among my slogans, including these by Frank Zappa: “I am the slime from the video / Oozin’ along on your living room floor.” What else can I sing when Charlie Sheen is leering at me from my screen? Here are a few of my favorite songs about TV:
1. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
Gil Scott-Heron (1970)
The title has been reused so much that it has become a cliche. But don’t let that obscure the power of this Nixon-era song-poem. It is as strong a political statement as pop culture has known. Scott-Heron, who died last year, delivers biting lines with the directness of a newscaster, telling us that sitting in front of TV won’t bring change and equality. Furthermore, he tells us, TV is softening ugly truths to quell our urge for change. With his early rap-like flow, Scott-Heron unleashes a timeless warning about freedom that resonates with today’s headlines.
2. “Found a Job”
Talking Heads (1978)
Like many songs by the great Talking Heads, “Found a Job” is prescient in its take on American culture. If you closely follow the lyrics, which feature David Byrne’s classic faux-naïve point of view, they anticipate reality TV. A frustrated couple tired of TV fodder decides to make their own show, which makes them happy. The narrator, swept up in a Talking Heads groove, sees their shift as an improvement — but Byrne, as usual, is being ironic. Making TV may be less boring than watching TV, but it has no moral advantage. The Heads get extra credit for “Television Man” (1985).
3. “Fade Away and Radiate”
A hauntingly pretty take on the otherworldly impact of watching too much TV. As in many songs about TV, “Fade Away and Radiate” portrays the effects of the “blue blue neon glow” as similar to the effects of drugginess and sleep. The speaker, in the emotional voice of Debbie Harry, is almost moving backward in time, fading away to dormancy as her brainwaves merge with the screen’s beams of light. Robert Fripp plays the trippy guitar on this sad and lovely track.
4. “Coffee & TV”
With its irresistible rhythmic drive, this is one of my favorite TV-themed songs. It’s about more than TV; most of the songs listed here use TV as an entry point for ideas about alienation and escape. Graham Coxon’s lyrics are open to interpretation, like most good lyrics; they could be about a break-up, or recovery from addiction. To me, they’re about when the world is too much with you, when you want to retreat with coffee, TV, and someone you love, to reboot. The song’s despair is dominant: “Do you feel like a chain store / Practically floored.” But the hope — “We can start over again” — repeats like a prayer.
5. “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”
Bruce Springsteen (1992)
Springsteen’s classic, about the emptiness of the TV universe, seems quaint with its titular chant. We now have hundreds of channels, and there’s always something good on if you have a DVR or computer. But Springsteen’s larger point transcends the facts: TV, like money and mansions, promises gratification and then fails to gratify. To dramatize the speaker’s frustration, Springsteen cites an oft-told story about Elvis Presley shooting up his TV: “I just let it blast / Till my TV lay in pieces there at my feet / And they busted me for disturbing the almighty peace.”
6. “I’m the Slime”
Frank Zappa (1973)
There is no ambiguity in Zappa’s song about the slime oozing from TV sets. In the lyrics, TV is a “tool of the government,” a mind-controlling box in your living room working to commodify the human race. When the song delivers the slogan, “Don’t touch that dial,” it’s a dehumanizing command. This is a snarky, potent take on the tube, strafed with Zappa’s piercing guitar licks. Be sure to YouTube the live version on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976, with announcer Don Pardo performing with Zappa.
7. “Plastic Fantastic Lover”
Jefferson Airplane (1967)
Marty Balin’s lyrics are a bit purple — “The electrical dust is starting to rust / Her trapezoid thermometer taste” — but that’s what you want in a 1960s psychedelic take on TV as a soul-sucking partner. Some speculate that “Plastic Fantastic Lover” is about a stereo system, or a sex toy; and those valid interpretations add to the meanings and scope of the song. But Balin once said the lyrics were about TV, and the final lines drive that meaning home: “All I see is draining me / On my plastic fantastic lover.”
8. “Television, the Drug of the Nation”
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (1992)
This dire portrait of “Our United States of Unconsciousness” updates Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” an unambiguous warning cry filled with pop-cultural references and word play. “TV is the place where the pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of trivia,” Michael Franti sings urgently, “Where toothpaste and cars have become sex objects.’’ The song takes TV to the mat for aiding and abetting ignorance, social numbness, and political corruption.
9. “TV Talkin’ Song”
Bob Dylan (1990)
Naturally, Dylan had something to say about the dangers of TV. But the song is not written as a direct screed; the speaker hears a man in Hyde Park lecturing people about the evils of TV. Citing the story about Elvis Presley, the angry man says, “Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out.” The crowd riots and grabs the incendiary guy — an incident that the speaker watches that night on the news. The ironic flourish at the end is a reminder of the all-consuming power of TV; it co-opts even its most vocal adversaries.
Robyn Hitchcock (2004)
This is an intimate love song of sorts. The melody is beautiful and sad, like a plea or an apology to a lover — but the loved one is TV, “the devil’s fishbowl.” The singer holds the remote, so in some ways he is in charge; but then the TV is more formidable, with lies that are addictive. Rather than simply trashing TV, Hitchcock is getting at the more complex emotional relationship a person can develop with the box “deep inside” our homes. Lovely harmonies by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings add to the pathos.
11. “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night”
Simon and Garfunkel (1966)
“All is calm, all is bright.” Simon and Garfunkel blow that sedate image wide open, singing the Christmas carol “Silent Night” against a recording of the cold facts of the nightly news from 1966. As the report of anti-war protests and a struggling civil rights bill gets louder and more insistent, the delicately sung song of peace gets softer. Simon wrote a few songs implicating TV, including “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” and “The Boy in the Bubble.” But “7 O’Clock News / Silent Night” has a simple power, with TV not as the predictable enemy but as a dramatic conduit to the real world — the messenger, not the message.
12. “My Country”
Randy Newman (1999)
The sweetly uplifting melody suggests an anthem of pride. But Newman being Newman, he is singing one of his ironic statements about America, in the voice of someone passively grateful for being part of one nation under screens. American families watch TV to withhold feelings; they are groups of lonely TV addicts “watching other people living, seeing other people play, having other voices fill our minds.” Newman paints TV as the perfect codependent partner for those who don’t like change or growth, who are addicted to the familiar, who prefer to stay comfortably numb.
13. “Satellite of Love”
Lou Reed (1972)
Technically this is a simple song about jealousy, but it’s jealousy fueled by the images on TV. It’s about how what we see on TV — satellites sailing into the sky, for example — doesn’t measure up to the reality here on Earth. “Satellite of Love” is far from a screed or a paean to TV, so much as a glimpse at the impact of the medium’s intensity on ordinary viewers. If you spend too much time watching idealized and pasteurized stories on TV, your real-world perspective may get distorted.
14. “Kicking Television”
TV as addiction? Check. It’s a common theme among the songs about TV. Jeff Tweedy’s version, though, has a twist, as it teases people who are always making self-help pledges. His speaker is kicking many addictions at once, including sloth and shopping. “I’m serious, you’ll see,” he begins over a driving beat, “I’m working on my abs.” No, this isn’t a pro-TV song, so much as a goof on extremes of behavior and people who get sucked into compulsion and self-loathing.
OTHER SONGS ABOUT TV
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
The Rolling Stones (1965)
When I’m watchin’ my TV
And a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
Eye on the TV
Cause tragedy thrills me
Whatever flavor it happens to be
Dave Edmunds (1978)
Let me tell you I don’t care what’s on if it’s happy or sad
Don’t give a damn if it’s good or bad
I’ll sit and watch it ‘till it drives me mad
Just as long as it’s on I’m glad
“Sixteen Military Wives”
The Decemberists (2005)
And the anchor person on TV,
Goes la di da di da
Gang of Four (1979)
Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen
The corpse is a new personality
Ionic charge gives immortality
The corpse is a new personality
The Normal (1978)
I don’t need a TV screen
I just stick the aerial into my skin
Let the signal run through my veins
Green Day (1994)
I sit around and watch the tube but, nothing’s on
I change the channels for an hour or two
The National (2007)
We’ll stay inside till somebody finds us
do whatever the TV tells us
“Amused to Death”
Roger Waters (1992)
The little ones sit by their TV screens
No thoughts to think
No tears to cry
All sucked dry
“I Hate the TV”
Violent Femmes (mid-1980s)
I hate the TV
You know that it’s killing me
“Throw Away Your Television”
Red Hot Chili Peppers (2002)
Throw away your television
Take the noose off your ambition
Reinvent your intuition now
“Turn on the News”
Husker Du (1984)
With all the ways of communicating
We can’t get in touch with who we’re hating
“The Sun Always Shines on TV”
How can it be
The sun always shines on TVMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.