An open letter to Lorne Michaels
Dear Lorne Michaels:
It is time to eliminate the live music segment from Saturday Night Live.
Not only do the contemporary music bookings stand in profound contrast to the spirit of both the current show and the historical SNL, they also seem to wreak holy hell with your show clock. The music segments feel like some big, tangled up iron object in the garage: No one is entirely sure why it’s still there, it almost certainly doesn’t work, and it’s majorly in the way. Oh, but I guess the big thing in my garage — maybe it’s a deck chair that is missing a strut? Is it part of a deck umbrella? — doesn’t have a sponsor.
Your show is a little over 46 years old. Amazingly, by and large SNL remains essentially true to its original mission statement: You mock authority and consistently point out social, political, and cultural hypocrisy and bigotry. Of course, the context has changed—the kind of establishment poking that was virtually unseen on network TV in 1975 is now commonplace—but your content still pisses off people in power. After nearly half a century, that’s quite an achievement.
There is, however, a notable and grotesque exception to SNL’s values of intelligent opposition and cultural literacy. This is your musical segment.
In your first four seasons, SNL’s musical guests included non-chart legacy acts like Chuck Berry, Eubie Blake, Betty Carter, and Esther Phillips; artistically deep cult heroes like Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Gil Scott Heron, John Prine, Kinky Friedman, the Meters, Al Jarreau, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Leon Redbone (twice!); and leading-edge tastemakers who were either between hits or hadn’t had them yet, like Patti Smith, the (pre-comeback) Kinks, the McGarrigle Sisters, and Elvis Costello. In its’ early years, SNL’s musical bookings consistently matched the anti-establishment and culturally provocative quality of the show as a whole.
VIDEO: The Patti Smith Group on Saturday Night Live
Mr. Michaels, people’s lives were changed by the music they saw on SNL. Young men and women actually formed bands or moved to a new city because of the artists they saw on SNL. My god, can you imagine anyone reacting to your last decade of live music like that?
As SNL moved into the 1980s (and I understand you may not have been involved for all of these seasons), the show still featured stimulating artists like Lou Reed, Lone Justice, Fear, Percy Sledge, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Orbison, Miles Davis, Mink DeVille, Sparks, Kid Creole, and Captain Beefheart, to name a few. Quirk and quality were the standard, not the exception. However, by the early 1990s, SNL was primarily booking musicians who were making a big noise on the charts (as it happens, chart acts may have been a little more interesting during this era, but, like, your bookings were a symptom, not a cause). And it has stayed that way. SNL’s contemporary musical bookings, with some very infrequent exceptions, seem driven by the charts, and stand in pronounced opposition both to the snarky and courageous content of the current show and its’ storied history of creative and outsider musical bookings.
Sir, you must recognize this: Unlike every other aspect of your show, SNL’s music segment appears to be there to fellate sponsors. In addition, the live music on SNL consistently represents the mainstream taste of America, though it may not seem that way to you. Mr. Michaels, I say this with great respect both for your age and everything you have created: You are 76 years old. You are the kind of man who goes, “Ohhhh THEY HAVE BLUE HAIR they MUST be weird! They RAP, wow, they must be hip! Look at all those tattoos – why, there‘s even one on the neck! — they must be on the edge!!!”
Uh, no, sir. Your instincts for satire are right on, but when it comes to music, you are just another old guy walking around the hardware store looking at riding mowers. Really. That act with the weird colored hair and all those tattoos? They are as “edgy” as the Starland Vocal Band on Mike Douglas in 1974. They truly are. SNL’s endless round of chart acts and lip-synchers are as middle of the goddamn road as the stuff you were rebelling against when you put your show on the air, and that is the effing truth. Either someone isn’t telling you this because they don’t want to lose their job, or you’re not admitting it because NBC is getting paid long green to put the latest hitmakers on your show. Oh, and please note, Mr. Michaels: Smashing your guitar on SNL in 2021 is significantly less edgy than wearing a peace sign around your neck on the Dick Cavett Show in 1969. It really is.
VIDEO: Phoebe Bridgers performs “I Know The End” on SNL, February 2021
I also can’t help but notice (especially in the last two seasons) that the last quarter of your show has become a total mess, and I suspect the two obligatory musical segments are to blame. Seriously, the last act of your show is as fragmented as one of those 20-minute Three Stooges two-reelers that ME TV cuts down to seven minutes. Every week, the final fifteen or twenty minutes of SNL seem to be a hard-scissored hodgepodge of commercials, isolated sketches, and a large pile of show-ID cards. This is abruptly followed by the vastly dull and obligatory goodbyes, invariably featuring a bunch of random musicians from whatever abominable act you had on that week jumping around like fifteen-year-olds who just had their first bottle of peppermint schnapps (does Pete Davidson ever get tired of being hugged by people who will be valeting his car in five years?).
While watching this ugly kaleidoscope of elements, I always assume last-minute cuts are being made or that someone is getting screamed at in the control room, except this happens every single week. Mr. Michaels, I suspect if you just cut the musical segments, the whole damn show would flow a lot better…but you would lose some sponsors, wouldn’t you? Listen to yourself, Lorne Michaels. You might as well be some hack producing Mac Davis’ summer replacement show: You’re sucking off advertisers and booking whoever has a hit that week. You should be ashamed.
It also occurs to me that you are simultaneously the symptom, the cause, and the victim of a phenomenon that has become very common in the American mainstream music media: Mistaking the more interesting edge of the ultra-mainstream – i.e., artists like Billie Eilish, the XX, or HAIM, to name three – for genuinely outsider artists. Many of these chart artists are talented or innovative, but Patti Smith, Ornette Coleman, or Captain Beefheart they are not, though I genuinely believe someone is telling you they are. Stop listening to this person, Mr. Michaels. You want outsider, Mr. Michaels, sir? Google Deli Girls. Dry Cleaning. Lucidvox. Rabies Babies. Heilung. SAULT. Any of these acts would get people talking about SNL live music again. Seriously, it would be like the old days: The Monday after the show, people would be going, “Man, did you see that?!?”
VIDEO: Captain Beefheart performs “Hot Head” on Saturday Night Live
Listen, money talks, so I suspect you are going to keep on parading a bunch of occasionally interesting chart acts on and off your stage twice a show. Generally, the most intriguing thing about these artists is determining which elements of their act are pre-recorded. Is it a full lip-sync, or are they singing a live vocal on top of a tracked vocal? Is the entire band on tape, or are some of the players live? The fact is, sir, SNL’s live music segment is a total freaking contrast to the rest of your show, which remains culturally and politically on point, even when it’s not particularly funny.
You could, try this, Mr. Michaels: Imagine you are 29 or 30 years old again. You are an idealist, right? You want to change the way America sees comedy and music on television. Now, visualize your 30-year-old self, but you are walking into a 2021 production meeting. Hand someone a list of the musical acts SNL booked during your first four years and say, “Fuck Apple Music and their sponsorship deal. Fuck what Jann Wenner and Paul and Edie tell me. See this list? I want you to find me the modern equivalents of this fascinating and random gumbo of quirky cult acts, legends, up and comers, and the occasional hit maker.”
But you won’t do that, will you? So just kill the musical segment, okay?
Long time watcher,
P.S. If you can find a sponsor for that thing in my garage – now I’m thinking it might be an old fireplace screen, tangled up with an umbrella stand? – let me know, and all will be forgiven.
VIDEO: Donald Pleasance introduces Fear on SNL Halloween 1981