Reality Killed the Video Star

18 Jun

Being sick sucks. A particularly nasty stomach bug has confined me to home for, as of today, four days. There’s a certain luxury to sick days, however, because suddenly, you have free reign to watch whatever crap you want on TV. This sick run has included reruns of “Ellen”, “The Price is Right” and DVD marathons of “South Park” and “The State”. Oh, “The State”, the mid-90s sketch comedy show from MTV. If I were sick as a kid, I’d be content to watch MTV all day. Hell, if I were awake as a kid, and a teenager, and an adult, I was content to watch MTV all day.

Remember when MTV actually stood for “Music Television”? Yeah, I know, it’s a common complaint of folks in my generation and older – it’s gone down the tubes because it doesn’t play music videos anymore. For those of us who were around for the early days of MTV, though, its transition from being the gateway of coolness to the home of Snooki really does feel like a betrayal. I sort of know how those Star Wars fans who balked at the prequel films feel.

Growing up in a music-loving household, the main reason to get cable television was because we wanted our MTV. I still remember the first music video I ever saw on our black-and-white TV: Phil Collins’s “You Can’t Hurry Love”. Through MTV, I had many crushes that I didn’t figure out were crushes until later on. I’m looking at you, Sting, David Bowie and Daryl Hall. I must’ve had a thing for blondes. Through MTV, I heard about bands that weren’t getting substantial airplay in the South, but were legends elsewhere, like Oingo Boingo and Social Distortion. And as our local radio stations all took a nosedive, MTV became practically my sole source of discovering new music. I remember late nights watching “120 Minutes” or “Alternative Nation” and getting my first looks at Nine Inch Nails, Beck, James and Blur.

Not to mention that music videos, as an emerging art form, were just really fucking cool. Michael Jackson’s smooth moves, Madonna frolicking in her rubber bracelets, Cyndi Lauper cavorting with wrestlers? More, please. The early “morphing” technology used in Godley and Creme’s video for “Cry” was stunning for its time. Drawings come to life in A-ha’s “Take On Me”, the bold use of computer animation in Dire Straits’s “Money For Nothing”, and what may be the best music video of all time, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. I could go on. Yeah, a lot of artists likely just got by on their looks (I doubt Duran Duran would have been THAT popular without their dreamy vids), but that’s just further testimony to MTV’s power as a platform to fame.

Even when the channel DID start including shows among their video programming, they all seemed to carry the requisite “edge”, and most of them still bothered to incorporate music in some shape or form. There are bands I learned about, and sought out their music, because I saw Beavis & Butt-head mocking their videos. Even “The Real World” in its first few seasons worked in social commentary about racism, politics, and with the inclusion of HIV-positive cast member Pedro Zamora, a sobering look at the AIDS crisis. So where did it all go wrong?

Some of my friends and I share the conspiracy theory that the tide turned for good after the 1999 broadcast of a special called “25 Lame”. Hosted by Jon Stewart, Denis Leary, Janeane Garofolo and Chris Kattan (one of these things is not like the others), the foursome counted down what MTV viewers judged the 25 worst videos of all time. They even invited Vanilla Ice on the program to destroy the Beta tape of “Ice Ice Baby”. After some prodding by Leary, Vanilla Ice also trashed the show’s set, to the hosts’ mock horror. At least, it looked mock to me. The media really came down on Vanilla Ice, and the show, for his outburst. After this show, there seemed to be a noticeable trend towards the safe on the channel.

What’s likely the most rational explanation, though, is that each generation gets the MTV that they want. In the 80s and 90s, we were entranced by the new medium of music video, and the superstars beamed into our living rooms. These days, it’s much easier to access music – on the gadget where you’re reading this blog, for instance. Cable, like radio before it, has divided genres onto their own channels: where there was once only MTV, we now have BET, VH1, CMT, Fuse and many others. With the reality TV-obsessed public, “provocative” isn’t just whatever Lady Gaga is doing today. The people want their drunken shenanigans, and MTV, always being one to sniff out trends, delivers trashy TV shows in spades.

Someday, MTV will change direction once more, in its constant bid for cultural relevance. Maybe they’ll even put “Music Television” back into their logo. And there will probably be people who’ll wax nostalgic for “Room Raiders” and “Jersey Shore” the way I do for the days of Martha Quinn, Mark Curry and Matt Pinfield. Ah, the one thing that will bring young and old together: the unifying belief that MTV was better when we were younger.


If you remember “The State” at all, it’s likely for this. Awww yeah…

The Vanilla Ice “25 Lame” incident:

The best music video ever made?:


3 Responses to “Reality Killed the Video Star”

  1. wbibbiani 06/19/2011 at 10:16 AM #

    I, too, idolize the MTV of our mostly concurrent youths, but I actually feel a little guilty about it. What was MTV if not a more-or-less 24 hour delivery system for music videos, and what are music videos if not – let’s face it – advertisements? Advertisements for products we actually care about, certainly, but advertisements nonetheless, and growing up in the last quarter of a century has trained me to be wary of anybody spending more money to sell me something than to actually make their product.

    The irony of course is that the music videos themselves, I suspect unintentionally (at first), became a rare breeding ground for new talent. A smaller musical act could achieve greater recognition with a quality music video, but beyond that – as you’ve written above – the filmmakers involved found almost unprecedented freedom to not only experiment with the medium, to not only make what are essentially short films, but also put those films in front of an enormous and, what’s more, thoroughly interested audience. I bemoan the loss of ‘proper’ MTV not as a means of discovering and celebrating new music, but as a breeding ground for the likes of Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, Michel Gondry, Alex Proyas, Gore Verbinski and even, damn it, Michael Bay, all significant filmmaking talents who might not have achieved such great heights without the boost in visibility that MTV, of all things, afforded them.

    These days, these individuals might have gotten stuck in the miasma that is YouTube, desperately competing with hundreds of thousands of amusing kitty videos for the exact same amount of audience attention, if not less.

    In short, I miss you, MTV. Do away with the commercialized programming and bring back the damned commercials!

  2. Todd Kivi 06/22/2011 at 10:57 PM #

    Ah, 120 Minutes, now that was a good show. Even if I didn’t like all of the bands, I could at least RESPECT them. That has never been the case about any show since – and damn few before.

  3. Jill 06/22/2011 at 11:45 PM #

    And, you know I agree with all of this:)

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