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?: