Television, Satire, And The Monkees
There comes a point when fiction becomes so relevant and paramount that it evolves itself into reality. In the case of film and television, it's been witnessed many times before. The Blues Brothers, for instance, evolved from a Saturday Night Live sketch, to a full-length feature film, to an actual touring duo with a number one spot on the Billboard charts after selling 3 million copies of their album Briefcase Full of Blues.
Josie and the Pussycats, The Cheetah Girls, Big Time Rush —the list of fake-television-musicians-gone-real is quite substantial, but no one quite matches the high stature of fame that The Monkees earned. And it's hard to say if anyone ever will again.
The group's conception came from the TV show The Monkees, which first aired in September of 1966. The show had a simple structure: it was centered around a young band trying to make it big in rock n' roll. The first two seasons had a combined 58 episodes (which, by the way, is about 14 more episodes than an average series) but was canceled in March 1968 after ratings dropped off. Despite the drop-off in viewers, the show was undoubtedly popular. Television, however, is not what made The Monkees so magical.
The Monkees didn't play their own instruments or write their own music, but this never turned their fans away. The lure seemed to come from their comical personas and the silliness each member brought to the band. Unlike other "real" bands of their time, The Monkees were not experimental or particularly groundbreaking. Instead, they depended on catchy tunes and the popularity of their characters, which translated well from the television screen to the stage.
Though it's easy to draw contrasts between The Monkees and their contemporaries (like The Doors or Pink Floyd, for example) it was always obvious who the band drew most of its inspiration from. Their matching outfits, sixties-centric style and catchy pop-rock tunes were a definite a spiff on many music groups of the decade, but clearly centered around the biggest of them all: The Beatles.
The Monkees were often called "The Fake Beatles" and accused of making a mockery of the Fab Four, but the sentiment did not seem to be as directed towards The Beatles themselves. The show and the carefree, teen-centered tone of the band was seemingly more a statement on the kinds of pre-fabricated, monitored groups pumped out of record labels during that time. In the beginning of their career, The Beatles produced a lot of short, catchy pop tunes and stuck to a very clean, matching aesthetic.
In a way, The Monkees proved that following the mechanical procedure of creating a sixties rock band would result in a top-selling group. Their self-titled album was released in 1966, sold 35 million copies, outselling both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. And it wasn't a fluke, either. The Monkees went on to win two Emmy Awards, have three number one hits on Billboard, four top-charting albums, went 15x Platinum in album sales and had six gold singles. All of this for a satirical TV band — a band that didn't even write their own songs.
While The Monkees had an impressive track record, it's interesting to point out why and how this fictitious band rose to their level of fame. Feeding off the popularity of modern culture was their first technique: The Monkees' inception happened in the midst of Beatlemania. Their blatant similarity to The Beatles was a commentary on the fandom phenomenon happening in America. The Beatles were a spectacle that had never been seen before, and instead of creating something new for their program, The Monkees simply mimicked it.
There was one thing, though, that set The Monkees apart, and that was their character personas and the fact that the band stemmed from a popular show. In the setting of the series, the characters came off as relatable to the audiences. Everyone could relate to the struggling musicians they saw on screen, whereas bands like The Beatles were larger-than-life and far more unattainable.
Lastly, The Monkees did not suffer in any entertainment department because of the vast team behind them. The actual Monkees were hired for their presence, while the songwriters were a separate department altogether. Thus, no one had the pressure of pulling double-duty. The songs were always good because songwriting specialists wrote them, and the band members were always entertaining because they were professional actors.
There was a definite lasting impact of the explosion of the fictitious band that stretched past their cancellation and fame in the sixties and seventies, as evident by the number of performers that have become popular from television series. The Monkees even aired on MTV and Nickelodeon throughout the 1980s, and their songs are played and remembered as lovingly as any other "real" band of their era. Interestingly enough, it seems that the satire of The Monkees turned into the product of the very system they were mocking...except they did it even better.