It’s impossible to put a value on “cool”. The term can be what makes or breaks a band, TV series, movie, lifestyle, or just about anything else. If you’re cool, people will flock. If you’re putting out a cool product people flock to, then you have it made. That’s what MTV (Music Television) had going for it basically since its inception in the early 80’s up until about the mid 2000’s. MTV was special because it wasn’t just telling kids what was cool; it was showing them.
Whenever we hear someone tell a story, we want to see it for ourselves. We want to experience what made this story so good to share. MTV put that in front of our faces day in and day out for decades. The channel still exists today but now greatly pales in comparison to the musical goliath it once was and that’s a shame for the generations to come.
The first time I realized MTV was cool was when I saw Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance in 1993. I thought the Unplugged series was the coolest thing in the world—taking music’s biggest stars and having them play their biggest songs in a stripped-down acoustic version at intimate venues. The show created some truly memorable performances: Eric Clapton’s “Layla”, Rod Stewart’s “Have I Told You Lately”, Oasis being fronted by brother Noel Gallagher instead of Liam because of the latter’s intoxication. These classic moments were important to me and to many young kids being molded by the music scene, and they could only happen on MTV. You wouldn’t and couldn’t see performances like them anywhere else. MTV was groundbreaking television. MTV was the trailblazer.
Nothing hammered that home harder than the music videos. The first music video ever broadcast on the channel in 1981 was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and MTV’s ensuing reign over the music industry for two decades made that statement almost prophetic. Music videos are a visually stimulating interpretation of a hit song. Singles-as-mini-movies. Who can resist? The long list of classics, including my favorites, is a whole other article, but those images remain tattooed in my skull whenever the songs come on my iPod or radio.
To the younger folks out there, they might not realize how important music was in that era—it was everything. Albums didn’t get leaked or streamed, you waited and saved your money and bought them. MTV would give you a taste of it, just as radio would, and you would salivate for weeks until the release date. The VJ’s (video jockeys) that hosted the daily and weekly shows became like your family. For kids home on summer vacation, the MTV beach house was like their beach house except it was full of stars and celebrities during a very potent time in music history.
Today it is much easier for bands to be heard and much harder for people to hear them. The avenues through which bands can release material are nearly endless these days. Due to that upgrade in technology, our attention spans have decreased to nearly nothing and we are much quicker to dismiss a song or band without even giving them a second thought.
Back in the mid 90’s you could dislike hearing a song on the radio but turn it up every time the video came on because visually it was entertaining. Take a look at some of your favorite songs from that era. The videos are trippy, the fashion is absurd and they are far from HD quality, but they will make you feel extremely nostalgic, trust me.
The height of MTV’s popularity is debatable but it would be hard to argue against the reign of Total Request Live (TRL) as its strongest and most influential period. With a small studio in Times Square, NY, MTV set up shop and had a Top 10 Countdown show Monday thru Friday with videos requested by fans. The show would also host awards galas, New Years Eve parties, live performances, and celebrity appearances that literally would shut down the busiest street in the busiest city in the world. At that point in music, boy bands ruled the airwaves and grunge rock took a backseat. The videos themselves became more extravagant as chiseled abs and cute dimples replaced pale-faced rock stars.
For MTV, it worked. I tuned in every day to watch songs I would realize years later, I didn’t like at all. It was hypnotic to see Eminem or Britney Spears shut down an entire section of a city just by making a small 10-minute appearance. Fans and paparazzi would flock and the opulence of the music “celebrity” really started becoming apparent. TRL and MTV had the world’s attention and kids were turning to them for the news of the day—not what their parents were watching.
TRL’s reign of dominance (led by VJ Carson Daly) eventually became the only time MTV would even play music videos. With the success of the hit series The Real World (which used to be an amazing look into the lives and cultures of others) MTV focused their attention on creating made-for-network movies and a slew of reality series that for a time were something worth watching. However, the once-substantial programming suffered some core degradation. Series stopped focusing on people from different walks of life cohabitating and co-existing and started becoming all about who was going to fuck the most people on the show or cry about why they couldn’t.
MTV lost its way in terms of being truly worthy television and yet its ratings soared. That was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Why go back to playing the next big video from the next big music star when the antics of kids from the Jersey Shore were the only thing people seemed interested in watching? Had the creative team at MTV never put those raunchy shows on the air, perhaps the music industry wouldn’t have suffered so badly. Sure, Napster and all of its pirating brethren would still have swept the internet; but people would have still tuned in to MTV because they cared about music. MTV even created a separate channel exclusively for music videos called MTV 2, which is now just a second channel for re-runs of MTV original programming and old sitcoms. Those people who would rather watch music were alienated from the channel and remain so to this day.
The biggest joke about MTV now is that they still air their annual MTV Video Music Awards. A previously “can’t miss” spectacular with legendary once-in-a-lifetime performances, the event now features artists that aren’t even played on the channel, or if they are, it’s between the hours of 6am-8am. MTV even dropped the moniker “Music Television” from its logo.
The saddest part to me is that I am probably in the minority. The generation today doesn’t seem to know any better, they settle for these programs, which I admittedly dislike, but maybe it’s because they were never given the option to grow up with channel I did. YouTube and VEVO are great for watching your favorite videos over and over again, but they are nothing like waiting for the premiere of a new song or video from one of your favorite artists on the MTV of old. The suspense and thrill has been taken out of the music video experience now that the power is in the hands of a new generation of consumers.
I know I’m old fashioned in many ways when it comes to music and I can’t believe I am about to say this but, back in my day, it just seemed better. MTV has aged just as I have and we no longer see eye to eye on many things. To someone growing up now, MTV will be the network that brought them Catfish, Awkward, Teen Wolf, and Snooki & Jwoww. For me, it was where I saw Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day drunkenly serenade a party on New Years Eve to “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” back in 1998. Where I saw the Smashing Pumpkins open up the MTV Music Awards with an incredible performance of “Tonight, Tonight.” The first place I saw 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s epic video for “California Love.” And most importantly, the channel I watched in my youth to listen to the music I wasn’t even sure I liked yet, but realized I couldn’t look away from.