25 Years Down the Tube
Tuesday, August 1, 2006
MTV turns 25 today, 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 babysitters 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, after that, stay tuned as MTV takes you 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. You watch the entire "Making the Video" with Jessica Simpson's new video and feel a combination of loathing and rapt fascination. 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 -- music videos day and night, eased along by VJs wearing bigger and bigger shoulder pads, with higher and higher hair. "Remember when MTV played videos?" asked the front page of Friday's 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 the now. Its only nod to the occasion was to begin airing last week as "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, which is 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 a lot of short commercials for Toyotas, Tampax, video games and acne creams, you must do what MTV wants all its viewers to do now: Go online, to MTV Overdrive. There are more videos to watch now than ever, on your laptop. Go to iTunes, go to YouTube, go to the artists' Web sites, go to this one site where some guy is obsessively archiving videos from the 1980s. 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.
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Mother, forgive me, but I still waste a lot of time watching plain ol' basic-cable MTV.
Not all adults can do this, and I sympathize with parents who struggle to know how much of it to let in, and how much of it is just too much. A certain moral clarity sets in about media, and 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.
The other grown-up in my household has a claw-the-walls response to just a few minutes' exposure to "Laguna Beach," MTV's enhanced-reality series about rich kids in Orange County. Why do you watch it? Turn it down. Turn it off. This is a refrain heard from the saner people in my childhood, and now. I cannot exactly say how or if my life is enhanced by knowing about Kristin and L.C. and Talan and Jason, but I do know them now, and there it is -- nothing. If you needed a stack of photos of "Real World" cast members sorted by city and year going back to 1992, I could probably handle it unassisted, and that also means nothing.