From music videos to reality shows, MTV tops at 25
By Hank Stuever
By Hank Stuever
MTV turned 25 this month, which is still a few months younger than Justin Timberlake.
The typical way to go from that sentence would be to bemoan — in snarkabratory fashion — what MTV has become since it first transfixed some lucky cable-ready teenagers on Aug. 1, 1981. (Those of us first labeled "the MTV Generation" would now like to apologize to all the parents with basic cable who hired us as baby sitters in those days. You should know this: Your small children went unsupervised, unless they happened to pass between our eyeballs and Adam Ant's.)
But for real? MTV has never been better.
You get older, while MTV happily and wisely regresses. You watch in slack-jawed horror as it takes you into the details of a $200,000 16th-birthday party for another irreparably spoiled spawn of the baby boomers, or on a bus with five 19- or 20-year-old women, all with tramp-stamp tattoos on their tailbones, as they find themselves "Next"-ed by a finicky, shirtless, overmuscled dipwad. MTV guarantees you a lifetime pass into someone else's spring break.
What, after all, would be the point of being MTV if it were still pleasing to the Gen-X eye? I need now for MTV to disgust me even as it lures me in. I rely on it now as the cleanest, surest path to the American teenage id. The worst that could happen to MTV is also the best that could happen: Everyone older than 30 finds it boring, or too different, or irrelevant, or a barrage of immaturity. And whenever MTV reaches a milestone, people whine that it lost its juice long ago by abandoning its original format. "Remember when MTV played videos?" asked USA Today, waving its cane.
For those reasons, the network is understandably cautious about nostalgic reflection or cutting much cake; its publicists are unhelpful about digging up archival photos, claiming even that no such history exists, that at MTV, it is always about now. Its only nod to the occasion was to begin airing "A.D.D. Videos," showing just a glimpse of iconic music clips from each year of its history, in five-year chunklets. ("A.D.D." for attention-deficit disorder, one of MTV's proudest legacies.)
There, in a sort of cuneiform recitation of the ancients, are "Rock the Casbah" by the Clash representin' 1982; "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston for 1987; "One" by U2 for 1992, and so on. If you would like to see more old videos, in their entirety, and also see a lot of new videos and commercials, you must do what MTV wants all its viewers to do now: Go online, to MTV Overdrive. Go to iTunes, go to YouTube, go to the artists' Web sites. Gorge yourself on music videos, past and present. Over at VH1, which debuted Jan. 1, 1985, as an adult-oriented music channel, they would love to bathe you in their fountain of endless flashback.
But do relieve MTV of the burden of being its old self. It has now been around long enough for its first generation of viewers to forsake it, only to have some of us frequently and curiously return, this time as voyeurs.
Mother, forgive me, but I still waste a lot of time watching plain ol' basic-cable MTV.
Part of the longing for the days of Billy Idol is, on some level, because Billy Idol merely cavorted with dark-sided imagery, zombies and smoke. Billy Idol did not kick a girl back on the "Next" bus because he deemed her too fat. Billy Idol said it was a nice day for a white wedding; Billy Idol did not rent an elephant, a helicopter, a stripper and a foul-mouthed rapper for his daughter's velvet-rope birthday party.
Somewhere between VJ Julie Brown's incantations of "wubba, wubba, wubba" every afternoon on the dance party and the 1994 death of AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, one of the San Francisco "Real World"-ers, MTV embarked on its much-criticized metamorphosis from music channel to lifestyle arbiter. You had to rock the vote, vote or die, get tested, free your mind (and the rest will follow). Having spent its first decade immersed in fictional, visual narratives of the rock star life (music videos), MTV set about making it all come true.
To watch MTV now without disdain is to understand oneself as the primary celebrity. It's about your friends and your party, your body, your tattoos, your gizmos. Of all the warnings sounded by cultural worrywarts in early-MTV times, this is the one that came the most true: Kids would emulate it.
Did they ever.
The attentive, lifelong watcher of MTV also can intuit something most critics never have — a kind of basic moral grounding. Yes, a moral center in MTV.
For all its noise, the network is a very good listener. Recall that teenagers are most hungry for narrative about one another's lives. MTV goes to wars and disasters and elections; some of its least-heralded shows embrace the core values of documentary journalism.
"True Life" routinely introduces viewers to other people's beliefs and motivations and gastric-bypass surgeries. "Room Raiders," though vulgar, literally rummages through the drawers and closets of college students, which must seem terribly fascinating to a 15-year-old who is anticipating life at 20. "Made," now in its seventh season, acts on a teenager's desire to improve on himself — which, I duly note, gets to the very thing my mother was imploring me to do: Get off the couch. Turn off the MTV. Live your life. Very often, for a teenager to be "Made," she or he has to simply get up and see what's around.
MTV abhors close-mindedness, intolerance; it also likes to expose liars, whether they are Alpha girls in high school hallways or, in a way, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. "Newlyweds" became nothing if not a cautionary tale about what marriage really means, and whether you're ready to balance it with everything else. And those episodes of "My Super Sweet 16" come more from a place of tut-tutting than their participants will ever know, a casual dissection of misplaced, consumer-driven values.
"The Osbournes," which now exists dimly in MTV's characteristic failure to recall its past, provided fresh data on the pluses and minuses of millennial-age, loose-rules parenting.
"The Real World" went from exploring how to get your adulthood started (remember that its earliest housemates were trying to do something on their own — one was a doctor, one was a journalist, one was an AIDS activist) to a recurring drama of sloth, ill tempers, wasted days and wasted nights. "Real World" producers quickly surmised that people prefer to watch other people do nothing with their immediate futures. The ratings were better if the housemates were dopier, prettier, drunker — and willing to come back season after season to compete in obstacle courses against one another for relatively little cash reward.
Is there not some desperate moral at the bottom of all that? For all the tens of thousands of college students who apply each season to be on "The Real World," aren't there millions more who tune in and see them ultimately as dupes?
No? Well, I've never been able to make a complete case for MTV. But I can recall in New York a few summers ago, when I hit Times Square just as teenagers, waving signs, were screaming at MTV's studios during a live taping of "Total Request Live." I took some brief solace at crossing MTV's path.
More and more, it feels as if there is no longer a mass culture. MTV, for good or bad, still reassures me that there is.