It was the summer of 1994 and MuchMusic had been running promos all week for a Whitney Houston retrospective, featuring some of her biggest songs and music videos. I’d been working on my parents for days to let me stay up and watch, clutching The Bodyguard soundtrack CD to my chest like a holy book, beseeching them to give in to my pleas. We eventually reached the compromise that my dad would give up one of his blank VHS tapes to record the special so I could watch at a more child-friendly time.
I wore out that predigital brick playing it again and again and again, memorizing every scene from every video as though I’d be called upon to recite it all under duress at a moment’s notice. I’m still apologizing to my family for the strain on their ears when I reached for those high notes on Queen of the Night.
For Gen Zs and younger millennials who consume most of their music videos on TikTok and YouTube, I’m sure most of that anecdote is utterly meaningless, but such was the power of music television back then. But nostalgia for the heyday of Much – fuelled by older millennials eager for a blast from the past – has brought the channel back to life on TikTok, with MuchMusic relaunching on the platform on July 7 as a digital-first offering.
It’s easy to see why music programming would have a resurgence. Back when the only way to intimately know your favourite singers and bands was through three-minute music videos on channels such as MuchMusic and MTV, these little vignettes felt like cinematic masterpieces, abbreviated Citizen Kanes soundtracked by pubescent pop stars and grunge bands. And the glue holding them all together, providing context and keeping you informed, were VJs (or videojockeys), charming and frank hosts with seemingly encyclopedic knowledge about everything from a group’s back catalogues to their backstage antics.
MuchMusic debuted on the airwaves in 1984 and spent at least two decades as a barometer of cool for Canadian youth across the country. The music videos were exciting, but it was the VJs that you came back for – from the glamorous appeal of early hosts such as Erica Ehm, Ziggy and Monika Deol, to the detached cool of Master T, Sook-Yin Lee and George Stroumboulopoulos, it always felt like there was a home for every genre subculture on Much. Regardless of where you lived, you just had to tune in at the right hour to find your true community.
But digital killed the video stars, as YouTube and Vevo began offering on-demand alternatives. By the early 2010s, ratings slumps killed all-day music programming and in 2019, MuchMusic shut down nearly all its music-related content, save for an hour a day.
There have been calls to bring back MuchMusic in some form for years, but it makes sense now, with 1990s and early-aughts nostalgia having a grip on the current cultural moment as millennials hit middle age and crave the comforts of their youth. Music consumption and streaming is a booming global business, but the sheer breadth of content now available makes curation and context increasingly appealing. So when parent company Bell Media announced the channel would relaunch on the popular social media platform, there was considerable buzz and enthusiasm from some millennials. But would their preteen kids find it as exciting?
The beauty of using TikTok for this updated version of MuchMusic is that it was designed from the outset for music fans. The platform’s popularity has helped launch multiple artists and songs into the stratosphere and even brought some old tunes back onto the charts by sheer virtue of being in the background of a viral TikTok meme.
Unfortunately much of the joy and creativity that is the app’s hallmark is missing from the new Much. No doubt constrained by expensive rights issues, this “content-driven digital-first network” doesn’t actually feature any music videos, and the time constraints of the app limit in-depth programming. What you’re left with are gimmicky, charmless snippets that feel more like promos for something longer and more entertaining – something just outside of reach.
Without any of the videos that drove the original iteration of the channel, TikTok Much is left to rely on its new slate of VJs, which of course was just as much a part of the appeal of its televised predecessor. But without the space to get to know these new hosts, their draw is limited as well – particularly when there are so many creative young people on the platform who have already built loyal followings for years. In just shy of a month, Much’s account has attracted around 36,000 followers. In comparison, popular TikTok music influencers such as Ariel Martin and Chase Hudson have tens of millions of followers. Rather than start from scratch, Much would’ve been smart to tap into influencers who already had a foothold in the platform and the audience to show for it.
Ultimately appealing neither to the generation of teens on TikTok nor the youth-grasping millennials it’s aimed at, in the end, just like Skip Its and Pogo Balls, the MuchMusic reboot proves that some things that evoke nostalgia are best left in the past.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.