In case you missed it, Saturday Night Live is relevant again. I don’t mean that it’s back to being funny, though that’s occasionally been true this season. (Granted, I’m a sucker for sketches where Fred Armisen impersonates Barack Obama impersonating how Bill Cosby makes a hoagie.) I’m referring to the show’s musical offerings, which have been consistently generating headlines lately, though not necessarily for positive reasons. It’s not supposed to be this way: In the age of YouTube and an overabundance of music websites offering original video content, a 37-year-old TV show on a major network shouldn’t be an important player when it comes to spotlighting up-and-coming artists. And yet SNL is must-see music TV.
SNL’s recent musical performances have been such big pop-culture news that SNL itself has satirized them. After Lana Del Rey’s iconic bungling of “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” on the show back in January, Kristen Wiig was on “Weekend Update” as Del Rey, skewering the singer’s oddly aloof persona and the ferocious criticism her performance inspired on the Internet. Then, two weeks after Bon Iver seemingly went out of its way to embody every doddering soft-rock cliché during its listless SNL appearance, Justin Timberlake impersonated the band’s leader Justin Vernon and played an even sleepier version of “Holocene” in a memorable sketch. As for the YouTube-endorsed lobotomy-pop duo Karmin, which was soundly mocked after appearing in the February 11 Zooey Deschanel episode, there’s been no SNL parody yet, probably because Karmin is practically an SNL parody already.
All of this has given SNL a curious reputation of late for bad (or at least polarizing) musical performances. Even Bon Iver, which has the best critical and commercial pedigree of this latest batch of SNL musical acts, looked a little unprepared for the show’s spotlight—or, at the very least, nobody in the band seemed to recognize that playing something slightly more upbeat (like Bon Iver’s rousing opener “Perth”) would have played better on television than the deathly cheeseball ballad “Beth/Rest.”
Old grumbles about SNL’s famously bad sound mix aside, none of these performances have reflected poorly on the show, even as critics have blown acid-covered raspberries at the artists. SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels might hang out with the A-team of baby-boomer rock stars—Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger, among other walking album covers—but he’s maintained the integrity of his show as an up-to-date snapshot of contemporary pop culture by gambling on young artists who appear to be on the cusp of breaking. The snapshot might not always be pretty, but at least it is current.
And it’s kind of amazing that it still matters. SNL is first and foremost a comedy institution, of course, but it’s also been one of television’s great music programs. Being a live show is a big reason for that. Even if lots of people now watch SNL via their DVRs or bite-sized online clips, the “live” part of SNL still gives the show an “anything can happen” vibe borne out by classic music moments—Elvis Costello suddenly launching into “Radio Radio,” Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope, Ashlee Simpson’s backing-track malfunction—that simply would not have happened if it were taped.
Then there’s the show’s tried-and-true format, which more than any cast member is SNL’s most enduring star: There’s the cold open, the opening monologue, the pre-taped fake commercial, the two best sketches of the night, “Weekend Update,” a few not-so-great sketches, and the weird sketch at the end that comedy geeks always stay up to watch. The musical guest performs before “Weekend Update” and in the final half-hour; the new single typically comes first, and then a deep cut from the album.
That’s twice as much exposure as an artist would normally get on a late-night TV show, and considering there’s a week’s worth of build-up and no competition on Saturday night, SNL is easily the single most important television show on which not to bomb. Del Rey, who’s been nagged by rumors that she put off concert dates in order to get some space between the tour and her SNL appearance, learned this the hard way. If she had struggled on one of the other late-night shows, she probably wouldn’t have gotten so much bad press. Certainly the number of people paying attention would have been much smaller. (Then again, maybe I should qualify my definition of “bomb,” since Del Rey’s Born To Die debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart post-SNL.)
I’m a dyed-in-the wool SNL apologist, so I’m inclined to appreciate the show’s formulaic structure and how inviting flash-in-the-pan disasters—like Karmin or last season’s would-be pop sensation Jessie J—fit into the show’s tradition of dabbling in whatever happens to be popular musically that week. But there’s no denying that SNL is clunky and old-fashioned compared with the myriad of musical video options online, where you can play what you want when you want, and always with a new set of choices once the video is over.
Here’s what you can’t get online: Size. Saturday Night Live is a big show, in terms of its production values, its audience, and its apparently unkillable cultural prominence. And that size has a way of pointing out the shortcomings of artists who normally play only on computer screens. For Del Rey, Karmin, and to a lesser degree Bon Iver (which is a relatively well-traveled concert act), SNL served as a devastatingly brutal reality check for web-friendly artists trying to break out of our nation’s MacBooks. The SNL stage made Del Rey and Bon Iver seem muted and callow, and underlined Karmin’s one-note silliness. Add in Sleigh Bells’ amateurish and tinny-sounding performance from last Saturday (which, ridiculously, took place in front of a wall of towering Marshall amplifiers that obviously weren’t plugged in), and the term “not ready for prime-time players” suddenly has a whole new meaning.
What SNL represents is legitimacy for musicians that the Internet, no matter how ubiquitous a presence it has in (some of) our lives, decidedly does not. The hostility that Del Rey's appearance inspired speaks to this; sure, she was big online—and signed to a major label—but what was she doing here? How did she earn this? No matter how many next-big-things people are bombarded with in cyberspace, they still expect a reliable bastion of old-media like SNL to present something that's not only good but, in a way, tenured, with some kind of track record that justifies its appearance in millions of homes. It's exactly what the web appeared to abolish: an apprenticeship system.
That shouldn’t be a problem for SNL's next musical guest, Jack White. Unless something goes horribly wrong, White surely will handle himself capably, setting the stage for the release of his solo debut, Blunderbuss, in April. (Whether a competent musical guest after SNL’s recent run is good for the show’s publicity is another matter.) But no matter what White does, he better know that people will be watching closely and judging swiftly.