Think of 1991 as a show, with Guns N' Roses as the closing act. No, better yet, think of 1991 as a video, with nothing -- including Magic Johnson's HIV announcement and the Gulf War -- whose essence cannot be conveyed in a three-second clip.
Now, and only now, you are prepared to watch "The Year in Rock," MTV's annual review of the musical year, which airs tonight at 8. (It repeats tomorrow at noon and Sunday at 1 p.m.)
Co-hosted by MTV newshounds Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren, this show has become something of a tradition, presenting the musical year as a centerpiece around which swirls all that other stuff that happened in all those other places where Madonna does not set the agenda.
Madonna gets a relatively long and mostly loving segment here, making her the program's musical co-fave alongside Guns N' Roses and R.E.M. Metal artists get an increasing proportion of the air time and, in fact, Metallica's Lars Ulrich emerges as the best of the guest sound-biters.
After an extended discussion of why concert ticket sales fell this year, centering on the recession and other socio-economic factors, Mr. Ulrich comments, basically: I think people just didn't care about some of those acts any more.
Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" album, even with the controversy surrounding the "Black or White" video, is treated as one more news story, rather than the news story. The growing popularity of rap is noted, but this is tricky turf, since that's a phenomenon that has developed more in spite of MTV than because of it.
Perhaps accordingly, the longest segment on black artists in this show focuses on black films and filmmakers rather than black musicians.
Several black musicians do show up in a segment on "the year in court," which runs rapid fire through lawsuits and legal actions involving musicians. These range from complaints of uncredited vocal use against Paula Abdul to the kidnapping charges against Rick James, which makes the presentation tricky: It can't appear to take a rape charge against Run of Run-DMC lightly, but neither does it want to make the arson charge against New Kid Donny Wahlberg seem more significant than it was.
Fortunately, MTV News is equipped to do this kind of balancing act, since much of its charm stems from what it always looks as if Mr. Loder and Ms. Soren are suppressing -- in his case, a laugh, and in hers, a squeal.
If parts of this show look superficial, so are all year-in-review shows, by definition. Still, the Gulf War montage here deserves special recognition for reducing the whole thing to, literally, a video. Then, after all the special effects, quick-cut sound bites and three-second analyses, a media expert remarks that anyone who thinks he could understand the war just by watching TV "is a fool."
Just when you think MTV has finally lost it, they go and do something like that.
In the end, "The Year in Rock" is mostly fun, a fast run through MTV's corner of music and a lite look at the news. There are some interesting factoids on concert attendance and reminders of up-and-coming new acts, but this is not PBS. Profundity here means Madonna saying, "Honesty is a frightening concept to most people."