(MTV turned 30 last month. Wow. Any music lover who came of age in the 80s, and most of the 90s, certainly has a positive or negative (or both) opinion of the network and its affect on popular music. In the first of two pieces, AD’s J. Neas looks back at the network, its place in pop culture, whether anything like it exists now and whether or not we should care. Part two, coming next week, will be an interview with former MTV News anchor and reporter John Norris.)
It’s easy to scoff at what I’m about to say, so I won’t blame you if you do. I miss my MTV.
Technically, yes, the station still exists, but with its own self-awareness reaching a peak with its decision to drop the “Music Television” wording from its logo last year, the MTV that I miss is truly a thing of the past. It’s not something I’d spent a lot of time thinking about until August 1st, 2011 rolled around and there was a bunch of hullabaloo around the 30th anniversary of the channel’s launch, back in the dark ages of cable television. VH1 Classic devoted an entire weekend to playing clips and videos and whole programs from classic MTV, sometimes in thematic segments. (A section of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance segued into the MTV News report announcing Kurt Cobain’s suicide.) But of course, the fact that all of this celebrational look-back played on VH1 Classic while the regular MTV was just, well, its normal self, says everything about who might still care about the once domineering arbiter of musical cool that was MTV.
I’m a bit younger than some people whose experience with MTV was similar to mine. I was born 20 days after the channel launched, so I’ve never known a world without it, and I really didn’t come into its gravitational pull until the early 90s. Mostly what I remember about 1980s MTV is being forbid to watch it and it, in fact, being locked from our television. The summer I remember watching MTV for the first time was around the release of Cracker’s Kerosene Hat and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Dulcinea, as I remember the videos for “Get Off This” and “Fall Down” quite clearly. But that was an awakening summer for me, and it was all thanks to MTV. To this day, I can still name some of my favorite video directors and describe, in detail, the goings-on of the videos to particular songs. Those images have remained embedded in my head in a really persistent way.
As much as I could sit here and talk on and on about shows like 120 Minutes and even Beavis and Butt-head that affected my knowledge of music, the recent anniversary celebration of MTV’s launch begs the question: how archaic a celebration is this? I ask this mostly because what is there, if anything, like MTV in our culture now? Is there any true clearinghouse of culture? At a bar the other week, the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards were on one of the televisions and while this was once guaranteed entertaining television because of its spontaneity and unique performances, it’s become anything but. Sure, Lady Gaga’s gender-bending performance raised a few eyebrows, even if her somewhat mis-executed attempt to make the performance about a criticism of gender splits in awards categories failed to spark the kind of conversation it might have otherwise. But why bother watching a network that can’t even be bothered to air music videos anymore give out awards for them? No one with any sort of serious, devoted ear to music claims MTV as a divining rod the way they once might have. But is there any such thing? There’s the overarching specter of the Internet in all of this. With millions of new songs pouring out of all manner of sites, why settle for just one song at a time from a corporate megalith that seems just a bit too quaint anymore? Print magazines, music video channels, even my beloved medium of radio – dying, dead and dying, respectively. As much as it’s fun to celebrate what MTV was, it’s just a touch sad for those of us who were witness to how it changed the music landscape.
I worked in a big box music retailer one summer and one night, as we were closing, I asked an older gentleman still in the store if he needed help finding anything. He whipped around on me, fire in his eyes, as he asked me where the Elvis Presley CDs were. I showed him and then he gave me the same look. “You wouldn’t know what Elvis meant to my generation,” he spat at me. I’ve told this story many times, often punctuating it with my wish-I’d-thought-of-it-at-the-time response of “Elvis has left the building, old man, and so should you. We’re closed.” But now, more and more often, when I imagine that scenario, it’s me in the old man’s shoes, railing at a coterie of bored teenagers, the disinterest radiating from their faces. “You wouldn’t know what Music Television meant to my generation,” I cry. No. And really, who blames them? words/ j neas