When I was a kid, MTV was cool.
I hate coming out with that at the start, it makes me sound like a crotchety old bastard, and I'm not. For the most part. Today. But it's true, goddamnit it. It was cool -- and for a while it just got cooler. And then something happened. I'm not sure when -- sometime when I wasn't looking, surely, and now? Well, I'm getting ahead of myself.
When MTV started out, it was awesome. It was fresh, it was innovative and cutting edge, it was something that the world hadn't really seen before. Oh sure, there were a thousand-and-one music videos made in the 1960's and 70's where a bunch of dirty hippies jammed out in front of a random color-cycled fractal background. They played occasionally on a few television programs that needed filler space -- the one I remember from my childhood was "Dracula and Friends" that ran on CHSJ (that's Canadian) at 6:00 AM Atlantic Time. I remember watching it while I was getting ready for school. I asked my parents why there were all those colors and they would say something like, "Oh.. those colors are for grown-ups." That's not the same as MTV. MTV was music all the time. The only break you'd get was for Kurt Loder at 10 minutes before the hour, every hour.
Oh, the world of opportunity that has blown out of MTV's flowery pink-and-orange bung hole.
Remember the old promo they used to run? With the astronaut holding the flag of the ever-changing MTV logo? It was representative of what MTV stood for. It was a pioneer -- an explorer, if you will -- taking bold new steps where no television station had gone before, and constantly evolving. They had the chance to explore the art of music video, use it to help music evolve, maybe even create and explore new mediums for the artists. Who knows? The sky was the limit! And you know what? For a while, that's exactly what they did.
As MTV grew they realized that they needed to play more than just music videos. As interesting as it was, the only thing that was setting them apart from any Top 40 radio station was the fact that the music being played was accompanied by pictures. All fine and good, but it was just a fledgling station; the rotation was still small. On top of that, artists hadn't quite gotten the hang of what it was to have a good video. In fact, people could turn on the TV in the other room, listen to the music and not watch TV. Advertisers don't like that, and neither do TV execs, so what did we see? Programming -- and a lot of people mark that as the beginning of the downfall of MTV, but I don't think so.
We saw the introduction of programs on MTV that were not made entirely of videos. Rather, they often were mostly videos accompanied by a lucky VJ who would provide witty banter, interesting facts, and occasionally bring in bands to play live performances between videos -- y'know, just like before, but more so. One of the few exceptions being "Remote Control", the best game show ever. The rest of what we saw was focused genre programming like "Yo! MTV Raps!", "Headbanger's Ball", and my personal favorite "120 Minutes". We saw the Top 20 Video Countdown which was based, I believe, on the Billboard Charts. For a while in the late 80's we saw "Monty Python's Flying Circus" from 7:00 - 8:00 each night, but in the end, we saw videos, videos, and more videos for everybody.
For everybody. Key phrase there. It wasn't just one style of music, it wasn't just for kids, or parents, or metal heads, or Sinatra cultists or music geeks. It appealed to everyone. MTV was surfing the edge of pop culture like Patrick Swayze's surf double in Point Break. So when did they turn into Keanu Reeves?
It must have been around the second season of "The Real World". "The Real World" was a good idea: put a bunch of people with irritating personalities together for a while and film what happens. It's cheap and it's fascinatingly original -- at least it was in 1992. But then MTV fell into the "Saturday Night Live" trap. You know the one. "Hey, that worked, let's repeat it until it sucks." Predictably, "The Real World LXVII" will be airing this fall, in which 6 conflicting personalities break into somebody's basement and start a combination Burger King/Starbucks franchise while having sex with each other, all of their employees, and most of their customers.
But that's not the only problem that MTV has. It's not just repeating their programming until it becomes vapid, stupid, insipid, tepid, and all kinds of other "-pids" (except for intrepid). That's only where it started. When they started turning out programming that brought in a mind-boggling amount of viewers they got cocky. That's what brought them to their final fall. Instead of hovering delicately on the edge of pop culture and riding its wave into success they said, "Screw this trying-to-keep-on-top-of-things business. We can drive it."
Let's step away from this for a second.
Did you know that in Times Square in NYC, right underneath the MTV studios there is an MTV Store? Now, as somebody who has been alive in the past 15 or 20 years, what can you imagine would be inside the MTV Store?
Well, music, for one. Certainly! A Music Television store would certainly have music in it. Maybe some kitsch touristy crap about the history of MTV, maybe some of the latest albums, whatever is top on the MTV charts. Maybe An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn by Alan Licht -- an evocative book about the history of rock and roll. Surely the MTV Store would be the perfect place for this!
No. You know what's in the MTV Store? Twenty-two size-0 Total Request Live shirts in pink and orange, with big chunky 70's flowers on them, glitter, and an occasional "I love Carson." written across the tits. (Oh, don't dare to think that men shop there.) If you really wander around, you might find sweatshirts, too, but I visited during the summertime. That's it. Nothing to do with music. Nothing to do with videos. No history, not even a frickin' MTV logo. Just Carson Daly and his rampant menagerie of screaming, drooling fourteen year old girls. Fucking sheep.
You know what the M in MTV stands for? It sure as hell isn't Music. It's Marketing. There is nothing left of what made MTV cool. The cutting edge is dull and lifeless. There's nothing on MTV that MTV doesn't specifically generate for itself. You can't see a full video on MTV any more. They won't play a full video unless there's something else blocking most of the screen -- the contents of the latest MTV.com chatroom, or the online voting results of what the next video should be, out of a big ol' choice of two. It's not about music anymore, it's about MTV. It's one large branding exercise gone horribly awry.
They could have been a living gallery, a place where people could display their proud works, both in music and film, for everybody to see. Through focused programming, they could have helped music and music videos progress as an art form, as the way to be seen and heard, and the way to deliver music in the 21st Century. But that opportunity is gone. Bands make music videos, now, because somebody on their label says they should, not because anybody will actually see the damn video.
You ever watch those Top 100 Greatest Video countdowns? How many of those videos have come out in the last 5 years? How many of those videos from the last 5 years that you might have seen weren't a manufactured artist/boy band, a hip-hop act, or a bunch of angry white boys on guitars?
Ever see a Tom Waits video? Me neither.
Well, I hope they fail. I want people to see what MTV has really become -- it's not a network all about music and its place in our society. It's a self-serving money machine meant to empty the wallets of every 12 to 16 year old and their parents, grandparents, siblings, or any other acquaintance they might have. I want them to stop. I want somebody to step in who actually appreciates music and all of its facets. I want my MTV to go the hell away.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
8.15.03 @ 12:04a
You know what MTV needs to show? Carson Daly and his rampant menagerie of screaming, drooling fourteen year old girls, fucking sheep. I'd watch.
8.15.03 @ 12:29a
MTV. At this point the only thing left to do regarding our once loved music channel is echo the sentiments of Elvis Costello.
It was a fine idea at the time/Now it's a brilliant mistake
8.15.03 @ 12:32a
As far as Mr. Daly goes, does anyone disagree with me that the man is the antichrist?
8.15.03 @ 12:48a
"It's not just repeating their programming until it becomes vapid, stupid, insipid, tepid, and all kinds of other "-pids" (except for intrepid)."
Oh. My. That is hysterical.
Bravo, bravo. Too bad your opinion doesn't matter to them. And that's the funniest thing of all. MTV and VH1 have turned away the very audience that built them.
8.15.03 @ 2:05a
The thing with MTV is, they were good back when they needed the bands to survive. For a long time, if bands didn't produce videos, MTV would have died out. So they promoted the bands first and the network second.
They went downhill when that switched. At some point, MTV became bigger than the bands they promoted. And that's when they were free to go do other programming, thus promoting MTV first and the music second.
8.15.03 @ 7:07a
Well, see? You've both got it right. They don't need the bands anymore, nor do they need their original audience -- the people who liked music, because now they can create their own audience, that cross-section of society who want to get onto television and touch Carson Daly.
And no.. that man is not the antichrist. The antichrist would have better taste.
8.15.03 @ 8:41a
Carson Daly is like Ashton Kutcher - one lucky s.o.b., in the right place at the right time.
8.15.03 @ 8:47a
But what makes him so attractive aside from the fact that he's on MTV?
And how the hell does he merit his own late night show?
He's a product. Like J-Lo's ass.
8.15.03 @ 10:07a
But that's the point. MTV is nothing but product, custom-designed to attract consumers. It's long since stopped being entertainment. More than perhaps any other media outlet, the message is: "We want you to watch this, hear this, buy this."
8.15.03 @ 10:12a
You've got it. It's disgusting. I find it disappointing that people eat it up.
8.15.03 @ 10:47a
Well MTV's current business model is based very much on the short-term view. Reality Shows (aside from (ironically) The Real World) may be the big thing at the moment. But what will happen when they lose popularity?
Like Russ pointed out, it's all about product. What MTV largely is, nowadays, is a pop-culture channel targeted mainly at 13-20 year olds who have access to a large amount of disposable cash (their parents wallets) and thus can fill the MTV coffers by buying products. However it is sufficient to say that MTV made the same mistake that the record industry did and that will come back and hurt them the same way the record industry's mistake is hurting them.
What mistake am I referring to you ask? The fact that the record industry took the short term view as well, in basing its whole business model on the boy band thing and by aggressively targeting one bit of an audience to the exclusion of all others. That has now come back to haunt them big time. Of course, they refuse to see that it is their own fault and try and blame other people.
My overall point: MTV will fail as well as a result of its current mentality. It's just a matter of time really.
8.15.03 @ 11:03a
VH1? The path they took is different than MTV's. They went from being the "adult contemporary version of MTV" in 1985-1992 (the days when Bryan Adams, Whitney Houston, Michael Bolton and Kenny G ruled the roost there) to being a version of MTV for so-called thinking people (when they followed in MTV's lead and switched from videos to original programming, albeit programming of a musical orientation (Pop-Up Videos, Behind The Music)) to their current incarnation of repeated movies (Some classics like The Godfather (which is good. But I already have the DVD) some junk (Lost Boys)) and inane Top Twenty Lists, which is a roundabout way of saying that VH1 is nowadays the TV channel for people who read People Magazine and US Weekly.
8.15.03 @ 11:16a
The Lost Boys is not junk.
8.15.03 @ 11:32a
I knew Julianelle was going to say that.
8.15.03 @ 11:49a
The funny truth is that the ratings for MTV suck. Hard. And they keep going down. But MTV survives on its strength as a brand, not as a network - which has been their grand strategy since the late 90s.
8.15.03 @ 11:54a
The day that MTV crashses and burns, I will laugh a hearty laugh.
8.15.03 @ 1:11p
I think the Illuminati card game put it best. MTV should be spelled Empty Vee
8.15.03 @ 11:02p
You guys are hilarious, all of you! I love reading everyone's comments... love it. But here's my feeling on the subject: I feel like MTV has become a certain genre of music or lifestyle. Let me elaborate a little. Back in the day, when MTV was something awesome and innovative, all kinds of people could tune into MTV and feel like there's something for them and instantly, they fit in. Whether it be the Metallica-head or the rapper, there was something for everyone. Now, it seems that you have to wear certain clothes and style your hair a certain way and talk and listen in a certain way in order to even ENJOY MTV. Am I right? Or did I just make you all go cross-eyed?
Bottom line is... the Bugles should come back and sing "Britany Spears killed MTV."
8.16.03 @ 1:25a
Okay a couple of things first. One, I want a job in that Burger King/Starbucks franchise. Strictly for the sex, of course. Two, I do like Carson. He's sort of this generation's Peter Lawford to Kid Rock's Sinatra. I like him more on his NBC late night time slot interviewing his posse.
Now, about MTV. It was great when it all began. I was a regualr MTV fan. But it was over when Real World hit the screen. You're right, it's now a marketing machine.
Now the only thing that gives me hope, is, um, well, nothing. Sorry, but aside from my attraction to BoyToy Carson and the occasional Mary J. Blige video, the station is just something to channel surf by on my way to find Designer Guys on Discovery Home And Garden. (Great column, BTW.)
8.18.03 @ 12:51p
The other day, I was watching MTV and a video came on. I was nearly confused. I was wondering where they'd been hiding.
And then that damn commercial promoting M2 came on to say "Quit asking where the music is." Does that seem like a copout to anyone else? I mean, create MTV to showcase music, sellout and then come up with a second station to put your music on and, by extension, make your customer pay even more for it by putting it on premium cable!
8.18.03 @ 1:13p
YES YES YES!
See, that's how I feel about MTV2 -- what a bunch of crap. If it was on free cable, then fine. But the fact is, you have to pay even more to get MTV2 which is just absolute bullshit.
8.28.03 @ 3:57a
I totally agree with you! When I was a little girl,mtv rocked...now it's...well never mind. No really, now it just turns my brain off! LOL!
9.15.03 @ 1:19a
VH1 has a concert by The Donnas on right now. Weirdness...but I'll take it.