It may be hard to believe, but there was once a brief time in the history of American television when you could not flip the channel dial and say, “There’s nothing on.” In the beginning of the 1980s, there was always an option that pleased the most attractive marketing demographic, of which I was once a proud member. If ABC, NBC, and CBS let you down, there was always something on MTV.
“I want my MTV…”
MTV was never boring. Granted, there is more varied content available on TV today. With the explosion of niche television networks on cable that cater to every interest and fetish from classic movies (AMC) to driving in circles (SPEED), there should always be something on worthy of viewership. Sadly, programming quantity does not equal programming quality, and we spend more time surfing for something interesting on TV than we do watching actual telecasts. When MTV burst onto the scene 30 years ago, however, all that changed for my generation. If there was nothing on, we watched MTV. Sometimes we skipped all the other options just to see what videos were playing. MTV was our iPod.
We didn’t have a lot of safe, morally neutral time-killing choices beyond hanging out with MTV for a few hours. We couldn’t play video games. To do that in 1981, you needed to go to a bar or arcade with a roll of quarters. HBO was a single station and only the upper middle class homes could afford it. SNL was only on once a week, and Nick at Nite was not a network yet. The decade of the 80s was one long pilot for tomorrow’s Nick at Nite content. The shows and hairstyles just needed to age and season with time.
“…banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee, oh, that ain’t working…”
Granted, MTV quickly fell into the trap of being as vapid as the other channels, but it wasn’t completely the network’s fault. The station only became boring once you recognized that there was so little music video content available. You can only watch Peter Gabriel doing Sledgehammer so many times, or tap your foot to Haircut 100’s Fantastic Day for so long. Although the Robert Palmer girls never got old with their rhythmic step-thrusts, eventually, we had seen it all…thousands of times.
For me, MTV jumped the shark more than once. It jumped when they introduced their own awards show, creatively named the MTV Awards. It jumped every time any of the original 5 VJs left the network. It jumped the shark, fell in the water and got eaten by the shark when they stopped showing music videos exclusively. That’s when it became safe to change the channel without fear of missing anything.
“That little fa&&ot’s got his own jet airplane, that little fa&&ot he’s a millionaire.”
There is no denying the cultural touchstone that MTV became. Everyone knew the theme riff, as well as today’s generation knows the SportsCenter “da da da…da da dah.” The late 1960s had the classic Ginger or MaryAnn debate. For my contemporaries, it was Martha or Nina. People today know Flock of Seagulls for only one reason – MTV. MTV showed music, and in the process, made music history. Just ask Michael Jackson.
I don’t watch the channel anymore. I work for a living. The network, I am told, still has cultural relevance, although not to me and my new demographic. My new demographic learned how to set parental controls on our TVs specifically to block MTV. Times have changed.
I know that they have that show Jersey Shore that everyone is talking about. Having spent some formative years on the Jersey shore back when MTV was new, I don’t feel like I need to see the show to understand NJ. I lived with those people. I moved to a new “Situation” here in Virginia many years ago, in more ways than one.
“We got to move these refrigerators. We got to move these color TVs.”
Life has come full circle for me. Now I just listen to my music instead of watching it, and I think I like it better that way. Happy birthday, MTV. You are only as old as you feel, and MTV at 30 makes me feel old.