As the wide world knows – thank you, every media outlet ever – today is the 25th birthday of MTV. It seems like only yesterday, doesn’t it, that there was a channel on cable television that played music videos. And it seems like only yesterday that that channel was an influential powerhouse. And that’s not overstating things at all. MTV defined culture for a generation – appropriately known as the “MTV Generation.” Madonna, Michael Jackson, “Yo! MTV Raps!,” VJs, a-ha, “Purple Rain,” Thomas Dolby, Duran Duran – all that and more came to define the ‘80s for an entire group of people.
But like in “American Pie,” a story-song lamenting the death of Buddy Holly and music, I can remember the day the video died.
OK, more like the years the video died.
Growing up, I was too young to be super-influenced by the sex of Madonna, say, or the grip of VJs like Martha Quinn. But I could appreciate the videos. I have fond memories of coming home from school with my brother, plopping in front of the TV with a glass of Crystal Pepsi and rocking out to MTV’s videos. More often than not, Van Halen’s “Right Now” would come on sometime between the time the TV went on and the time our mom made us turn it off. And before that, we would come home from school hoping to see the video for Prince’s “Batdance.”
There were other videos, too. Like “Take on Me.” And “Bad” – and Weird Al’s spoof, “Fat.” And “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And “Once in a Lifetime.” And on. And on. And on.
MTV was an audio-visual soundtrack, a channel you could put on to see what was now along with what might have been big a couple – or five or ten – years ago. It was Now, as well as primer for Yesterday. It was solid entertainment, interrupted infrequently by celebrity hosts and weird game shows, like “Remote Control.”
Then MTV morphed. It became a normal cable channel. Actual TV shows began to take prominence at the expense of the video, the thing that built it into what it was.
“Real World.” “Road Rules.” “Beavis and Butthead.” “Singled Out.” Let’s not forget Jesse Camp. And the most toxic of them all, “Total Request Live.” (Yes, tweeners, “TRL” does stand for something.)
Sure “Total Request Live” played videos, but they were for insidious, culture-destroying entities like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. And the videos weren’t even that good. They were all flash and no pop. All style and no substance. All tease and no fulfillment. (Spears built her early career on leading lascivious hangers-on to MTV by the you-know-what and then leaving them hanging after three minutes.) It was sad.
MTV has since left the video behind. It was supposed to be M2’s task to keep that flame going, but it too has succumbed to real-deal programming. And on its 25th birthday, it stands as a barren pop culture wasteland, a place populated by the mirage of past glories that, when approached, reveal themselves to be present-day horrors. The station that began as a clearinghouse for long-form music ads has devolved into a house of horrors of short-form ads for the Disney Radio set.
On “Access Hollywood” this evening, Jesse Metcalf of “Desperate Housewives” and “John Tucker Must Die” – as well as the ridiculously camp NBC soap opera, “Passions” – fame, remarked that MTV was a good place for advertising. That speaks volumes as to the state of the station on its silver anniversary. The rallying cry was at one time, “I Want My MTV!” Now, it’s more like, “Gimme gimme gimme whatever you got!”
I still want my MTV. The MTV of music videos and music videos and, oh yeah, music videos. But it’ll never happen. That MTV is long since dead. And the one greeting us today, 25 years later, is a horrible travesty.
Godspeed, MTV Spaceman, wherever you are.