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25 Years Down the Tube

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; C01

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.

* * *

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.

The answer has always been nothing, even when my mother begged me to get up off the den floor and do something, go somewhere, get up; MTV means nothing. "I hate television," Orson Welles told the New York Herald Tribune in 1956. "I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts." I've always leaned on these words when describing my inseparability from MTV.

I turn it on in the mornings, while getting ready, instead of the news. I watch it especially in summertime, for some aural-aesthetic reason I can't exactly explain -- what comforting solace some men find in the sound of a baseball game on television on a summer Saturday, I find in moving about the house while MTV blares in the background. Perhaps because so many of my youthful, endless (but ended) summers were spent watching too much MTV, in between mowing yards or floating in a pool or working at the mall or simply ignoring everything. Summer with MTV was about beach-house parties (the ones MTV had) and Live Aid and "120 Minutes" in the waning hours of the weekend; later, "Real World" chapters and "Beavis and Butt-head" cartoons echoing through my first apartments and group houses. The sound of MTV means you are home from college no matter how long ago college was; it's a sound that says that life has stopped, for a moment.

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. This was when Bill Clinton showed up and talked about his underwear. You had to rock the vote, vote or die, get tested, free your mind (and the rest will follow). The partying vibe seemed to intensify, although the target age by now would never be able to legally drink. 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 (in some cases, completely reinvent) 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 her.

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. Although the "Newlyweds" starred in a reality show where final editing control rested with her father/manager, in MTV's realm, the couple 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 plusses 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, as if living in some kind of MTV indentured servitude. 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, whether arguing with my mother in 1980-something or giving it a sideways glance in 2006.

But I can recall a blazing hot afternoon in New York a few summers ago, walking from Central Park to Penn Station to get a train home. I hit Times Square just when teenagers, waving signs, were screaming up at the plate-glass windows of MTV's studios during the day's live taping of "Total Request Live." I didn't stop, but I took some brief solace at crossing MTV's path.

More and more, it feels as if there is no longer such a thing as mass culture. MTV, for good or bad, still reassures me that there is.

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