35 Years Later: What The Hell Happened To MTV?

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35 Years Later: What The Hell Happened To MTV?

You might not know it now, but 35 years ago yesterday, one of the most important and monumental events in the history of music took place: The birth of MTV.

Take a moment to relive that first broadcast…

…And watch the first video ever broadcast on the network: The Buggles’ aptly-named “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Keep this on repeat while you read this if you want to catch all the feels. Goosebumps are an unintentional consequence.

For an entire generation plagued by the Baby Boomers who programmed radio stations at the time, MTV was an instant youth rebellion. A voice was given to a voiceless group, colloquially referred to as the ‘MTV Generation’, described by the New York Times as “young adults struggling to establish a cultural niche for themselves, something that will distinguish them from the hippies and Baby Boomers and yuppies of times past.” A group defined by the uncertainty of the times they were growing up in (the Cold War, economic downturn, etc.) and the cynicism with which they saw the world.

And what underscored the ‘MTV Generation’ revolution was what united them: music videos.

MTV brought about the ‘Second British Invasion,’ an infusion of new-wave pop and rock music from across the pond to US shores. British artists like Culture Club, The Eurythmics and Duran Duran broke out thanks to MTV, as did as domestic acts like Cyndi Lauper, Blondie, Men at Work and the Human League.

Later on, MTV would become an icon for breaking the “color barrier” in music. This video in particular was a huge breakthrough for a network struggling with its identity in 1983.

After ‘Billie Jean,’ things became a little less lily-white on MTV. Rap and hip hop hit the MTV hard, with acts such as Run-DMC, the Fat Boys and L.L. Cool J receiving heavy rotation, as well as other African American non-rap acts such as Prince, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Kool and the Gang, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder.

The ’80s and ’90s were also home to one of the most iconic shows in hip hop history: Yo! MTV Raps. While, today, the show’s name is used as a punchline, the show introduced rap and hip hop to mainstream audiences, proving that it was not only popular, it was extremely marketable beyond its target audience. The show enjoyed an unprecedented seven-year run, and by the time it came to an end, it became an iconic part of the early history of hip hop and rap music.

MTV didn’t just launch the careers of musicians, either. MTV created the VJ (video jockey), personalities that introduced each song and acted as hosts just like your traditional radio station at the time. The original VJs , like Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter — these people became icons. Music legends. The faces that launched MTV.

The MTV alumni club is a pretty prestigious group: Celebrities such as Pauly Shore, Tyrese, Daisy Fuentes, Vanessa Minnillo, Downtown Julie Brown, La La Anthony, Mandy Moore, Colin Quinn, Adrienne Bailon and more all got their starts, or broke out, thanks to their time on MTV. Ooh, and don’t forget Weird Al Yankovic, who saw a ton of success thanks to MTV playing his music videos early on. His music video ‘Ricky’ is regarded as the first comedy video on MTV.

How about Carson Daly? Odds are, if you grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, you parked your ass in front of the TV after school and watched Total Request Live. TRL was the American Bandstand of our generation.

And that was probably the biggest part of what made MTV such a part of the generational Zeitgeist: MTV was ours, or at least, it felt that way. The slogan ‘I Want My MTV’ was a complete and utter game-changer. Music icons reached out to the youth of America and told them to go to their parents or call their cable companies and DEMAND they add MTV to their cable lineups.

It was MY MTV. It was YOUR MTV. It was OUR MTV.

The MTV generation felt a sort of ownership over MTV. Even though it was as corporate as any other network, you felt like you were a part of something special when you watched MTV. You felt cool. Edgy. MTV was the home of ‘Live Aid’ and the VMAs. Howard Stern came down from the ceiling, like unto a god, and broke a podium with a fart. Hell, it was one of the first places that talked openly about AIDS, spearheading a safe-sex initiative the likes of which had never been seen before. And this was in 1985! Six years before Magic Johnson would announce he was HIV-positive. NOBODY was doing this. COMPLETELY unprecedented. They did it because sex was still a taboo, and back then, kids were more likely to learn about sex from TV than their parents.

That safe-sex initiative still exists to this day. It’s called ‘It’s Your Sex Life’ and they still talk about sexual issues that effect the youth of America today: from Safe Sex to Consent.

Even when MTV stopped purely showing music and introduced more scripted comedy shows in the 90’s, you still felt cool. We were all Beavis and Butthead. Its spinoff Daria spoke to the angsty, acerbic, misanthropic teenagers in all of us. Celebrity Deathmatch made me laugh so hard I shot juice out of my nose on two non-consecutive occasions. They aired live specials and concerts: MTV Unplugged was a revelation, from Springsteen to Nirvana. TRL was an iconic way for artists to reach the fans.

Then, one day…the fun stopped. Who’s to say what brought about the end? Was it when they banned Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay for life after he did his usual “Adult nursery rhymes” routine at the VMAs? Or when a five-year-old burned his house down, potentially inspired by Beavis and Butthead? Maybe it was the now-infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, right after MTV’s parent company Viacom was purchased by CBS, which led to sweeping censorship from the FCC.

Or, maybe, the instant, overnight success of reality television programs might have been too tempting for them to pass up; cheap to produce and lucrative as all hell. For every great show like Jackass, there was Laguna Beach, The Hills, Jersey Shore, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, and whatever the hell a Tila Tequila is. The network thrust Teen Moms into the spotlight. While there were fun shows to watch and zone out to, like My Super Sweet 16, NEXT and Parental Control, that’s all it was: mind-numbing entertainment. Not exactly the stuff of revolutions.

If you were to ask me what’s on MTV right now, I probably couldn’t tell you. I’m not even sure if a teenager right now would know either; they’re wrapped up in what’s happening online. And if a teenager happened to follow MTV on Twitter right now, this is what they’d see:

Not exactly a celebration of an iconic anniversary.

MTV Classics is coming soon to a TV near you, bringing back classic, old-school MTV programming such as Daria, Beavis and Butthead and Jackass. But with that channel will also come reruns of Laguna Beach, The Hills, and Run’s House. Also, somewhere in that mix, there will allegedly be music.

Should I be happy that there will be a more classic-themed MTV coming my way? Hardly. This isn’t as much a rallying cry as it is an opportunity to make money on nostalgia. Nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. And maybe I’m just a bitter, old fool, but I think an iconic platform for music, race relations, and a cultural revolution deserves better than this.

I Want My MTV.

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