For '80s kids, it's the official end of an era.
Early this week, MTV unveiled their updated logo, with one glaring omission: music. Finally acknowledging what many viewers already know, the channel no longer associates itself with music. After 28 years, no longer does the logo display the words "Music Television" under the cartoonish "MTV" lettering.
The channel's executives apparently view this change as unimportant—as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, MTV's Head of Marketing, Tina Exharos, stated that "the people who watch it today, they don't refer to MTV as music television. They don't have the same emotional connection that, say, the people who are writing about" this change do.
While my generation are seemingly considered fossils—and MTV eliminated music videos some years ago—it still feels like a rite of passage. Remember when the channel debuted on August 1, 1981, with The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star?" While today the video looks like it was filmed in someone's basement, it still felt like the beginning of a revolution. For better or for worse, MTV changed music forever, being responsible for introducing Madonna and reinventing Michael Jackson. The music video rapidly became an art form, featuring stunning visual effects and interesting storytelling. Video directors such as Spike Jonze and McG translated their craft to the big screen, showing that the channel had fully impacted other aspects of popular culture.
For me, MTV holds some fond memories. The Chicago area finally got cable in the mid-80s, so before then the only way to view MTV was on vacation with my parents, staying in hotels that offered cable. After hearing how utterly cool the VJs and videos were, I would stare in rapt fascination as Martha Quinn or Mark Goodman would introduce the latest Culture Club or Duran Duran clip. After finally getting cable, I watched the channel to not only view the latest videos but to also learn about new artists. Shows like 120 Minutes, Headbangers Ball, and Yo! MTV Raps introduced me to songs I simply couldn't hear on my local top 40 station. MTV Unplugged separated the great acts from the merely competent, stripping artists of all electric instruments to prove their artistic mettle. I'll never forget R.E.M.'s delicate performance of "Losing My Religion," Nirvana's haunting "All Apologies," and LL Cool J's fierce rendition of "Mama Said Knock You Out."
MTV could also unite audiences over landmark events. Their nonstop coverage of Live Aid entranced me; it was like witnessing a modern version of Woodstock. Speaking of Woodstock, I also remember their coverage of the infamous Woodstock 1999, with VJ Kurt Loder signing off the air in fright while watching the unruly mob setting pieces of stage equipment on fire. Of course, videos themselves also became major events, such as George Michael's then-controversial "I Want Your Sex" in 1987 and Madonna's "Justify My Love" in 1990 and "Erotica" in 1992. Perhaps the ultimate video "event" was the premiere of Jackson's "Thriller" in 1984; I vividly recall everyone talking about it the next day on the playground.
But the tides began changing as early as 1987, when MTV premiered Remote Control, a game show that quizzed contestants about pop culture (with music heavily represented). Singled Out remade The Dating Game, propelling co-hosts Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Elektra to fame. They also experimented with comedy, such as Totally Pauly (starring the funny or annoying Pauly Shore, according to personal taste), stand-up comedy shows, and cartoons such as Beavis and Butthead and Daria. Aeon Flux took a more serious approach to animation. Few may remember that long before his Daily Show icon status, Jon Stewart hosted a talk show on MTV. Somehow, all these shows still held a musical connection, however tenuous. But perhaps no other show impacted the network more than The Real World.
Debuting in 1992, The Real World arguably began the current reality show craze. Featuring a group of disparate 18-22-year-olds forced to live together, the program filmed every argument, flirtation, and drunken night out. How "real" was the show? Obviously casting purposely chose participants for maximum conflict potential, and the homes where the group live sported the ultimate in hip décor. Yet The Real World resonated with high school and college-age viewers, with the cast becoming instant celebrities. Fast forward to today, where virtually every other show borrows from The Real World.
Due to the show's success, MTV execs obviously concluded that reality sells. Gradually similar shows were added to the roster, with The Osbournes and Newlyweds becoming pop culture phenomenons. By the late '90s music videos were relegated to very early mornings or late nights, with brief clips shown on TRL.
TRL (Total Request Live), originally hosted by Carson Daly, experienced immense popularity in the late '90s due to the resurgence in teen idols and bubblegum pop, best exemplified by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, N'SYNC, and Christina Aguilera. Remember the screaming teenage girls hanging outside the TRL studios, waiting to catch just a glimpse of their heroes? But even on that show, clips were not aired in their entirety, or were interrupted by superimposed images of fans loudly declaring their love for the band, song, or video. But TRL, the last bastion of music videos, was canceled in 2008 to make room for more reality shows such as The Hills and My Super Sweet 16.
Today MTV gains publicity for Jersey Shore, while music fans must scan for videos online, via such sites as YouTube and on MTV.com. But there's something about watching clips on television, on a bigger screen, in order to fully appreciate a clip's artistry. In addition, artists no longer have a dependable outlet through which to promote their music. Instead, they must rely on video sharing sites and their own web pages. While these outlets are available, can they reach the same large audience as on a major network?
What I miss most is that unity, of watching major music events on television and discussing them with friends. I miss the excitement surrounding the release of a new clip. What about the feeling of discovering a new artist through a show such as 120 Minutes? Ultimately, MTV was about celebrating music and its related lifestyle, of making viewers feel cool just by watching. Could a future channel fill that need?
To paraphrase The Buggles: reality killed the video star.