I hope I die before I get old. – The Who
This Tuesday, a somewhat monumental day shall come to pass: MTV will turn 25 years old. I don’t know how much the music channel is doing to promote this auspicious occasion, though it seems that its targeted demographic of 14- to 25-year-olds probably doesn’t give a damn. In truth, since I stopped watching the channel long ago, I don’t really care either, but I feel some kind of recognition should be bestowed upon the channel for its enormous impact on culture and life in America and the rest of the world.
MTV’s impact on my generation came swiftly. Prior to the day The Buggles' “Video Killed the Radio Star” debuted as the first video to be broadcast by the channel, we were relegated to wondering what images might go well with our favorite tunes. Now, in vivid and living color, our minds were deluged with images of artists, some ill-prepared at best, who hoped to capture our imaginations with their visual visions of what their songs looked like. Thus we were inundated with some good, some bad, and some rather ugly interpretations of popular songs.
The power of the early days on MTV was found in its song playlist and its VJs, among whom Martha Quinn stands out as the girl I (and lots of guys) fell in love with. When I think back on it now, the channel threw way too much power into these fledgling hands, but this helped shaped the '80s musical scene more than anything else. Singers like Madonna and Sinead O’Connor and groups like Wham! and A-ha became household names because they were exposed and over-exposed on MTV.
Still, when I think about those days, the impact, more than anything else, was akin to the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan Show a generation earlier. MTV was a corroboration that “our music” mattered. The old visual of the astronaut and the MTV logo drove home the message that this was not only one small step for young fans, but a giant leap for youth that sealed the fate of those watching and those not even born: young people’s music was as essential and significant as anything for adults, maybe even more so.
Unfortunately, MTV’s evolution away from its early format of music all the time was no doubt preordained. Just as the Beatles moved from the mop-top image to something almost unrecognizable to their teeny-bopper fans, MTV became the marketing and cultural juggernaut it is today because it took chances, made changes, and became something totally different.
Most viewers would have been hard pressed to find the “music” on MTV around the time of its tenth year on the air. Original programming became what the channel was all about, and while I used to faithfully watch that old game show Remote Control (I think, more than anything else, to see Kari Wuhrer), I knew it was the beginning of the end for me and MTV. By the time The Real World became a hit, I was through with watching the channel, but then again I’m sure that didn’t bother anyone at MTV since I had passed beyond the 14- to 25-year-old demographic so important to the channel and its advertisers.
So what will be MTV’s place in television history? Perhaps one should go out and see the new film Miami Vice this weekend with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. MTV impacted the old show on which this film is based as it has done with so many other things we may not even connect to the channel. Shows like Survivor and American Idol would not be what they are (maybe not even “be” at all) if not for the MTV influence. Also, the amazing and now seemingly essential integration of music (timely, popular, or cutting edge as needed) into all programming, but specifically drama, proves that MTV became the soundtrack for our lives.
I am not doing anything too special to mark MTV’s 25th birthday this week but, not surprisingly, neither is the musical channel. MTV probably doesn’t want the kids counting the candles on the cake or singing the childlike question “Are you one? Are you two?,” for the answer might surprise some of its young fans.
In my time we used to say “Never trust anyone over 30.” Then, when we sort of got close to that birthday, and that designated age seemed a little “young” after all. But that kind of knowledge comes with time and experience, so MTV’s demographic will learn, like all generations have no choice but to learn, but by then most of them will be watching VH-1 or maybe even (perish the thought) CNN.
So on Tuesday I’ll take out my old Martha Quinn poster, lift a glass of bubbly (probably seltzer), and toast the old days while listening to Sinead O’Connor sing “Nothing Compares to You” (I’ve seen the video hundreds of times but know I’ll never be able to find it on MTV these days). Afterwards, I’ll lug my old dinosaur bones over to the television and probably watch So You Think You Can Dance. Sadly, I fear that’s where this old MTV fan goes to get his kicks these days.