As previously noted here in Celebritology, MTV turns 30 today. As we reflect back on the three decades’ worth of programming the network has given us — does anyone else miss, or even remember, “Sifyl and Olly”? — there is a tendency, especially among Generation Xers, to mourn the loss of what MTV once was.
In 1981, when the then-underground cable network launched, it was Music Television, a channel devoted strictly to music videos and exposing its largely adolescent audience to artists they might not have discovered on mainstream radio. Anyone who remembers those early days tends to believe MTV has skidded progressively downhill since, losing its way once it ditched its musical focus and started offering original programming that has spanned the addictive-and-occasionally-crass gamut from“Beavis and Butthead” to “16 and Pregnant.”
But is that true? Were MTV’s best days really in the ’80s? Let’s discuss — and allow you to vote on that issue in a highly scientific online poll.
As one of those aforementioned Generation Xers who can remember the days of Martha Quinn and non-stop music videos, I tend to prefer the MTV of the 1980s. After all, that’s the time period that gave us hours of Live-Aid coverage and guest VJs such as Molly Ringwald and John and Andy Taylor from Duran Duran. Back then, we all wanted our MTV because having it and watching it was like wearing a badge of coolness.
But of course, part of my attachement to that time period relates directly to my age. I was in the prime of my coming of age when MTV itself was coming of age, so naturally the big hair, Buggles and Bangles of that era are what speak most to me.
But whether broadcasting the premiere of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or the latest episode of “Jackass,” one thing about MTV has not changed: its, for lack of a better term, core values. It has always been about youth culture and continues to be. Which is why — as Hank Stuever wrote in his Post piece about the 25th anniversary of MTV — the network will always represent summer days and being home on break from college. My youthful summer days — specifically the ones I spent on vacation, which was the only time I got to ingest MTV on a regular basis since my parents refused to allow it in our home — were about Cyndi Lauper and Huey Lewis and the News videos. For other people, they may have been all about “Daria” or “The Real World.” MTV was always preaching to the same choir; it’s just the members of said choir eventually grew up and got replaced by new ones. So the MTV that means something to me is completely different from the MTV that means something to my co-worker who graduated from college in 2006. Does that make my MTV better? Maybe, but probably only to me and my peers who share the same ’80s associations.
More evidence of how the more MTV changes, the more it stays the same: the reasons we criticize it. When the network first launched, music purists expressed concern about MTV and its celebration of style over substance. “It’s rewarding flash and style over musical talent,” some cried at the time. Now, in 2011, which current show is most strongly associated with MTV? “Jersey Shore.” And what do Snooki-haters say about that show? That it glorifies vapid behavior, rewarding its stars with fame and wealth despite their lack of any specific talent or skills. In other words, it’s just a variation of the hand-wringing MTV generated three decades ago. (Naturally, as an old Gen Xer, I tend to agree with the “Jersey Shore” hand-wringing.)
What MTV deserves more credit — or, depending on your perspective, blame — for is the way it foreshadowed and perhaps influenced the acceleration of our culture. When MTV debuted, it delivered its content in easily processed three-minute bites, each of which featured quick editing cuts and rapid-fire images. The music video was the fastetest form of entertainment we had ever seen, and it influenced every form of filmmaking at the time — movies, television, even commercials. It was a sign of things we couldn’t even see coming: viral videos and the lickety-split mentality of the digital era.
In 2011, where yesterday’s news is whatever happened more than five minutes ago, life moves faster than any of us in the 1980s could have imagined it would. Perhaps that’s partly because, 30 years ago, kids like me desperately wanted our MTV and all the non-stop, short bursts of entertainment it would give us.
Now it’s time for me to ask that important question: Was MTV better in the ’80s, when it focused solely on music? Or does a later era represent its golden moment? Vote in the poll below.