The Dearth Of Musical Performances On Late Night TV Speaks To A Larger Cultural Shift

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Last week, it was announced that TBS’ Conan — the late night basic-cable outpost hosted by one-time NBC fixture Conan O’Brien — would be excising live musical performances in 2019 as part of a pivot to a new half-hour format. The news was spun as yet another way that the new Conan will be “leaner” than its higher-profile network competitors. But for many of us who remember when O’Brien was host of NBC’s Late Night in the ’90s and ’00s, it was a little strange, and even kind of sad. For more than 15 years, O’Brien presided over one of the best and most exciting TV showcases for emerging artists and bands ever. And nothing has replaced it.

Originally founded by David Letterman in 1982, the Late Night franchise established itself early on as a backdoor portal for the outskirts of music culture to enter the mainstream. Late Night was where R.E.M. performed for a national audience for the first time, and Captain Beefheart appeared as a panel guest multiple times. This embrace of the fringes was borne partly out of necessity, as Johnny Carson expressly forbade Letterman’s people from booking guests that were pursued by The Tonight Show. But it quickly became a foundational aesthetic of Late Night — if you want to see things that are simply verboten elsewhere on television, tune in here.

This tradition continued under O’Brien’s watch. The first-ever musical guest upon O’Brien’s notoriously shaky debut in 1993 was Radiohead, at the height of “Creep”-mania, back when Thom Yorke tried to look like Kurt Cobain and dance like Morrissey. “I really like these guys!” O’Brien chirped, a nervous endorsement that conveyed how unusual it was to see a relatively unknown British band on network TV in the early ’90s.

Up through O’Brien departure from the franchise in 2009, Late Night was the place to see indie and alternative rock bands that weren’t famous enough yet to get booked on any other television show. It was where Uncle Tupelo went to die, and Wilco came to be born. Arcade Fire also debuted on Late Night, while The White Stripes concluded there. Underground royalty too hip for Saturday Night Live — like Bjork, The Breeders, Pavement, At The Drive-In, Hum, and many others — were always welcome. And then there was the truly weird, like Ween, who were encouraged to out-Ween themselves.

What, again, is a little strange and kind of sad about all of this is that the musical offerings from that era of Late Night seem even more revolutionary now. Not the bands themselves, maybe, as many of them are now practically classic rock. I’m talking about the spirit. Regularly putting on musical acts that are virtually unknown to a mainstream audience, making a late night show an avenue for actual discovery — not to mention spontaneity, surprise, and plain old genuine excitement — who is doing that now?

Bands have always had a somewhat dubious place amid the standard construction of a late night TV talk show. It’s what you put on at the end, right before the credits roll, around when the viewer is already dozing off. And yet none of the other major late night shows appear to be on the verge of following Conan‘s lead. On the contrary, there have been attempts to make musical performances at least appear more interesting.

The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon consistently has the youngest, freshest acts — this summer has included spots by YG, Rae Sremmurd, and Leon Bridges — though it’s still pretty straight-forward when it comes to presentation. (A recent performance by Janet Jackson and Daddy Yankee felt like the sort of tired, variety-show Kabuki that clogs up the Grammys every year.) Over at The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, meanwhile, the inverse is true: The musical offerings are a little older (Beck, Luke Combs, OneRepublic) while the production is more elaborate, like shooting Arctic Monkeys in black and white. Colbert also breaks convention by introducing each act, LP record in hand, from the audience, SNL-style. (Fallon only does this occasionally, otherwise sticking behind his desk.)