As one ages New Year’s Eve rituals get more and more constricted.  At first you get tired of spending your New Year’s Eve in public places among strangers so you restrict yourself to private parties with friends. Eventually you wind up spending it at home among family and eventually just in front of the television. You end up realizing that time zones are artificial inventions so you don’t have to stay up until midnight. Whenever you go to bed it has become a new year somewhere and upon awaking you will find it has become one for you. This is not an inevitable straight line progression; everyone goes through it in their own unique way. I bet however that everyone has gone through each stage at some point in his or her life. At one point in my teens I even went to Times Square to watch the ball drop.  This was neither as memorable nor as enjoyable as it was cracked up to be. For the last few years I have restricted myself to television watching and early bed times.  This brings me to the real subject of this essay: televised New Year’s Eve shows. When I was a kid the only thing on New Year’s Eve was Guy Lombardo. A mummified man who came out once a year to play music that was decades out of date with an orchestra that was stunningly un-hip. He was eventually replaced by the perpetually young looking Dick Clark whose “Rockin’ New Years Eve” promised to be a music show for the rest of us. It proved to be about ten years out of date but an accurate barometer of how youth culture was mis-perceived by mainstream culture. It has since become as much of an institution as Guy Lombardo and has fossilized as well. The transfer of the institution to Ryan Seacrest and the pale imitators like Carson Daly are just signs of this fossilzation. The institution has become a recap of what became popular in pop music culture that year.

For the last few years I have satisfied my longing for a counter cultural New Year’s Eve television experience by watching CNN. That’s right I said CNN. It is hosted by Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper in a morality play whose depths go on and on. In this play Griffin portrays the forces of chaos being barely contained by the uptight Cooper. Now think about that for a moment. The establishment is being represented by a gay Vanderbilt heir while the counter culture is being represented by a straight white woman who is an icon in the gay community. She has built a career out of taking down popular cultural figures in the Joan Rivers’ “Can we talk?” confessional mode. He has built a career not by denying his sexuality but by ignoring that it makes a difference. Talk about an inversion of roles.  It is all an act of course.  She is not really an agent of chaos but a skilled performer who knows exactly how far to push and what lines not to cross. He is not as establishment as he could be and she taunts, cajoles and brings out the sides of him that he works so hard to suppress. The moments of his laughter, embarrassment, and discomfort offer glimpses into the man behind the straitlaced persona.

I could go on about this morality play, but that is not all the program offers. CNN doesn’t have much money to put into the show and it does not try to compete by providing performances like the others.  It is however  broadcasting from the same spot so it can show you far off shots of the Ryan Seacrest and other network shows. Some of the guest on those other shows occasionally come over for interviews before or after their performances. Griffin uses those interviews and long shots to offer meta-criticism of the other shows which highlights both their artificiality and how much more money the networks have to spend. What CNN has used its money for is to have its correspondents report from locations they feel have interesting (read unusual) New Year’s Eve celebrations. These celebrations have ranged from odd local ones to a Miami one in which a drag queen is lowered at midnight in a giant high heeled slipper to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which has become a stereotyped anthem of the gay community.

Let’s face it mainstream New Year’s Eve television programming will never really be counter cultural. We won’t see indie bands, hard core hip hop or political stuff. Even an ironic hipster viewing of the Ryan Seacrest ilk is not enough. At least on the CNN broadcast we can see how the mainstream can change if only to misrepresent the margins.

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