In 1994, Entertainment Weekly called Tad Low “The Biggest Idiot on Television.” Three years later, the magazine picked Low and Woody Thompson as two of the “100 Most Creative People In Entertainment.” The about-face was abrupt, but its cause was obvious: Pop-Up Video. The VH1 show, which premiered 20 years ago today, annotated music videos with factoids and behind-the-scenes details that turned sound into stories and gave rise to a legion of imitators.
The premise was initially a red flag for Viacom, who feared viewers wouldn’t want to read while they watched, according to Low. But the power of Pop-Up is in the details—there’s something magical about knowing that Phil Collins chose his own outfits for the “Take Me Home” video or that Ethan Hawke’s cat stars alongside Lisa Loeb in “Stay.”
Two decades after it first aired, Pop-Up‘s straight-faced irreverence still feels at home in popular culture. “To hear something that’s unvarnished and truthful, that hasn’t been polished over by a PR representative really can catch your ear,” Low says. “Because so much of what we consume has been mediated prior by these gatekeepers. That was a big thing, and of course, that is now the voice of the internet.” While its contemporary Total Request Live feels dated, Pop-Up Video still manages to pop today. Here’s how it presaged the attitude and style of the internet.
Styling Themselves After Spy
When he conceived of the show, Low felt that the entertainment media was ultimately too cozy with labels and artists. He wanted his show to take a more antagonistic approach—just like his favorite publication, Spy Magazine. Spy‘s ruthless wit has since inspired a generation of writing online, with Gawker.com founding editor Elizabeth Spiers citing it as her biggest influence. “We were trying to curb the more egregious celebrity antics by putting artists on notice that their crew was watching,” Low says. “The caterers, the limo drivers, the makeup artists, the stylists—these were the ones that had great stories to tell.”
Going Where Google Dare Not Tread
After selecting a music video, the entire staff, from production assistants to graphics people, would sit in a room for what they called a “Brain Screen”: they’d put on the video and everyone would throw out questions and ideas. During the meeting for Melissa Etheridge’s “Come To My Window,” someone in the room asked: How many birds a year fly through windowpanes? “It’s not like you could just Google that,” Low says. “We had to get on the phone to animal groups. We had to call a window repair shop. Our research team was on the phone all the time, asking the most ridiculous questions. But nobody had ever called these organizations—nobody had ever called the National Window Repair Association.”
Crowdsourcing Before Crowdsourcing Was a Word
The show’s deadpan, class-clown voice generated a loyal fanbase—a base that became a valuable research tool. “This was early on for a TV show to have an active fan participatory community,” Low says. “But we got a ton of fan emails, and people would be like, ‘I run a dog-walking business—if you ever need some weird facts about dogs, give us a call. And here’s some videos you might wanna consider.’ People thought of themselves as our friends and they would offer forth ideas.”
Embracing the Hate
Low and Thompson owned Popupvideo.com—”much to Viacom’s chagrin,” Low says—and their contract stipulated that their domain Spinthebottle.com could appear in the credits of the show. The website became a home for intimate interaction with fans. The creators also used it as a defense against angry letters from artists and their reps—posting the penned grievances alongside the offending scripts. “We knew that a fun way to guard against future attempts at censorship was to take these letters of complaint and make them public, and the internet was perfect for that,” Low says. “Once we started doing that, I think agents and directors started thinking twice before they’d send a letter.”
Taking It to the Man
After seeing their “popped” videos get censored or edited by the network, Low and Thompson decided to turn their gripes into Easter eggs. Without telling anyone, they started pasting cut content into single frames of the credits—along with a secret word. “This was long before DVR, but people started to coming to the website and announcing that they had found the secret word,” Low says. “The only way they could have done it would have been to videotape with VHS and literally do the frame-forward to find it buried in the credits. That’s when VH1 really got upset.”
Trolling Before Twitter
The sarcasm with a smile—and sometimes a sneer—that was Pop-Up Video‘s stock in trade went on to become the unofficial language of Twitter. In fact, nearly a decade before the little blue bird, Low was already framing jokes in one of Twitter’s favorite styles. “Whenever I saw [Counting Crows singer] Adam Duritz pretentiously playing his piano in like an abandoned parking lot with fake snow and a candelabra, I sort of equated him to the entertainment business at large,” he says. “I found a picture of Rowlf, the piano playing dog from The Muppet Show, and placed a picture of Rowlf in a bubble right next to Adam Duritz. I was like, ‘Ah, beautiful.’”
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