Since it first popped up on airwaves on August 1, 1981, MTV has evolved from music video mainstay into a network with its fingers on the pulse of today’s young people. While that change hasn’t jived with everyone (many of those who first tuned into the network wonder what happened to the good ol’ days when it was simply music television), it’s impossible to brush off the channel’s influence over its thirty year span.
They don’t just cover pop culture, they make it.
To celebrate MTV’s 30th birthday, we’ve taken a look back and some of the greatest shows, performances and milestones in the network’s history. The good, the bad, the ugly—and most importantly—the memorable:
The First Music Video: “Video Killed the Radio Star”
One minute past midnight.
The world is born anew when MTV’s first music video blast-o-thorps into the public conscious, altering the way we would forever perceive reality, love, politics, fringe politics, and humanity. You can’t imagine the genuine impact this had on TV and music alike—the divergence between the mindsets pre- and post-Radio Staricide was astronomical. The Buggles didn’t just change their own lives, that day. In fact…it doesn’t seem like their lives changed much at all. Has anyone heard of them doing anything since? But the point is: they changed our lives. So good for them.
La la LA La la.
So, you know how somewhere in the 1990s, being uncool became way cooler than being cool? BAM. DARIA.
We’re not saying that Daria is entirely responsible for the post Gen-X counterculture rebellion, but Daria exemplified that nerds, artists, losers, lovers, loathers…they were better than everyone else.
This is the true story, of a TV show, that has been running for 25 seasons, but nobody watches anymore. The Real World started as a revolutionary innovation- there had been reality TV before, but never with the scale or focus of the micro-sized show. The early seasons of the show made it clear that TV could have a conscience, raising awareness of political issues, race relations, and AIDS activism. Unfortunately, the show’s legacy has little to do with its beginnings- thousands upon thousands of copycat reality shows that highlight sex and fistfights over social experimentation. If you listen really closely to the audio in the first episode, you can hear the sobs of television writers who know that they’re watching their careers end.
MTV Movie Award Parodies
With categories like “Biggest Badass Star” and “Best Scared-as-Sh*t Performance,” the MTV Movie Awards won’t be rivaling the Oscars anytime soon—but there’s one aspect to the night of famous faces, big blockbusters and corporate worshiping that even the Academy Awards had to adopt.
The movie spoofs are a staple of MTV, with every host (and a bevy of celebrities) weaseling their way into clips from that’s year’s biggest flicks and taking any jab they can. Along with being uproarious and technically impressive, they also straight up deliver on fantasies—wasn’t the world waiting for Justin Timberlake and Sean William Scott to co-star in The Matrix?
Wasn’t high school hard? Wouldn’t it be harder if you were Abe Lincoln?
Yes. But it’d also be way funnier.
Clone High remains one of the five funniest shows that has ever existed in the history of television (the other four are all Chico and the Man). But Clone High managed to tackle every trope of afterschool specials, teen dramas, soap operas AND still teach us a little something about world history.
One of the first indications that MTV was evolving into a full-on celebrity-worshiping destination was the introduction of Cribs. MTV remained classy by always giving a wink wink to the ridiculousness of the big stars they were profiling, editing together shots of a basketball player’s 18 cars with a funny bonk sound or a pan across fading rock legend so-and-so’s epic swimming pool accompanied by a choice, befuddling quote from said rocker.
Cribs was the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for the young crowd, but MTV relied on the famous faces to be their own Robin Leach, much to the enjoyment of anyone who caught the endless 20-episode marathons.
Yo! MTV Raps
There was perhaps no better time to be a hip-hop fan than between 1988-1995, when Yo! MTV Raps cornered the market on the distribution of urban culture and sound. The show is credited with spreading hip-hop around the world and breaking many emerging artists, though declining ratings (as well as the channel’s changing demographics) led to its untimely demise.
The Naked Cowboy
He’s not specifically an MTV staple, but it’s because of his daily appearances on TRL that the rest of the country apart from the select set of folks milling around Times Square could point him out in a lineup. He’s pretty pointless – naked for the sake of being naked, singing forgettable tunes, kind of like half of people on MTV – but we remember him and MTV is the reason for that. (You can send them your hatemail now.)
During its relevance, there was quite a following of overwhelmingly passionate fans of this group. THEY HAD EVERYTHING A BAND NEEDED: The Heartthrob, the Bad Boy, the Cute One, The Shy One, and the Older Brother—with an age range between members spanning twenty years,
This show effectively blurred the lines between reality and fiction. The public was provoked to ask the questions: “Are they a real band? Are these real people? Is anything real?! Am… Am I real?”
And who’s to say, really? 2Ge+Her made us laugh, cry, yearn, strive, hope, compel, persist and vindicate. And in that, they were realer than anything mankind has ever known.
Singled Out may not be the most memorable of MTV’s coral reef of broadcast majesties. However, the show did allot us two of the most unforgettable women America would come to know. Jenny McCarthy hosted from the get-go, spawning a career of acting, modeling, comedy, and supporting wildly unfounded claims about vaccinations.
After the McCarthy Era, we were graced with another household name: Tara Leigh Patrick. Sometimes performing under the stage name Carmen Electra, this equally multifaceted starlet would also bring to MTV her relationship with Dave Navarro, which translated to relative entertainment in the forms of “Carmen and Dave: An MTV Love Story” and “‘Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen and Dave.”
When we weren’t busy watching Britney Spears writhe around in the sand with some half-naked hunk, wishing we could be that skinny and tan and famous (and date Justin Timberlake), we were watching the show that let some folks live those superficial dreams: Made. This show gave the band geek a chance to be the prom queen or the cheerleader. It gave the AV nerd the chance to make the football team. It gave us hope, but it also entertained us with lots and lots of teenage whining and hissy fits along the way – which let’s face it, is really why we watched.
As the channel became less about music and more about reality programming like The Real World and Road Rules, MTV had great success with LoveLine, a live show that followed the same format as its KROQ radio predecessor with a few minor alterations. Two hosts would field questions about relationships, sex and all related topics and provide reasonable, if somewhat comedic, answers. Though the radio program continues to thrive, the now-defunct televised version will always hold its own special place in pop-culture history.
Last year, the boys of Jackass premiered the third film in their stunt comedy trilogy at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That should tell you something—what started a on-a-budget comedy show for MTV spawned a phenomenon. Sure, it’s buffoonery, but after many years of ridiculous concepts of personal injuries, the show managed to be about something. Friendship.
Laugh, but Jackass is the closest thing to “art” MTV may ever produce.
Just in case the title didn’t give enough of the plot away, this show was mostly about high school and college students having sex. The series was considered controversial for its sexual promiscuity and same-sex relationships. Could this give teens the wrong idea about having sex before you’re ready? Sure. Could it lead to STD’s, pregnancy, not to mention emotional trauma? Maybe. But Undressed was brought both laughs and insight into the kind of issues teens would encounter in their futures—and there wasn’t any other place on TV even remotely as daring. That’s the naked truth.
Kurt Loder and John Norris
Sure, the whole mantra of MTV was anti-establishmentarian. Sure, it was all about being a wild child and doing whatever you wanted. But out of that, we found two older, wiser men to follow through our angsty teen and college years: Kurt Loder and John Norris. Every hour on the hour, we’d get those MTV news breaks with Norris or Loder reminding us that there were things happening outside of the barrage of ‘NSync and TLC videos. Sure Loder had an entire journalistic career before MTV, but those of us who were watching were too young to know that. He and Norris will forever be cemented as symbols of the little-seen grounded side of MTV.
Pimp My Ride
Yo dawg, I heard you like commemorative lists, so I put a list in your list so you can be nostalgic while you’re being nostalgic. Pimp My Ride was one of MTV’s more entertaining reality outings, simply because it was so useless. Sure, having a crappy car is a drag, but the flame-covered, flashy-rimmed monstrosities that Xzibit assembled were hardly a better alternative. Still, more reality shows could use this type of self-aware mockery. There’s no reason to treat anything on reality TV as deathly serious.
The Tom Green Show
Handing over a television show to Tom Green was like opening the airwaves to an warmongering extraterrestrial. You weren’t sure what exactly the alien wanted or how he would accomplish his goals, but in the end, you fully expected the assault to devastate the world population.
Green’s non-comedy comedy was the opposite of everything late night was about. Forget monologues—it’s much funnier for Tom to rampage through a grocery store and hijack the PA system for his own psychotic wrong-doings. Unlike the Carson/McMahon relationship, Green spent most of his shows sadistically torturing his sidekick Glenn. Nothing was off limits with Green and his legacy of bewildering acts continue to ripple through today’s comedy scene.
Super Sweet Sixteen
There’s a great drinking game that goes along with Super Sweet Sixteen—take a drink any time someone does something that could be a justifiable reason for homicide. You’ll either get liver disease or pass out. My Super Sweet Sixteen if one of the funniest—and most rage-inducing—shows on MTV’s lineup, and a textbook example of everything that’s wrong with the world. Where else can you see a 15-year-old throwing a temper-tantrum after receiving a brand-new Lexus? Unless you live in California, I suppose.
Even a rambunctious group like metalheads had a show of its own on MTV at one point in the channel’s 30-year history. Headbanger’s Ball was once one of the channel’s flagship programs: airing three hours of the hardest and heaviest tunes along with interviews with the bands that rocked the planet in the late 80s and early 90s. Abruptly cancelled in 1995 due to the decreasing popularity of the genre in favor of punk, grunge and alternative rock, the Ball is fondly remembered for its passionate pursuit of ass-kicking, bone-crunching, bowel loosening songs.
There’s nothing better than a good spin-off show. It worked great with Frasier after Cheers, so why shouldn’t it work for reality shows as well? MTV spun its convtroversial Teen Mom off from their equally as controversial 16 and Pregnant, and continued to balance the “wow” factor with biting docu-drama. The show’s been chastised for promoting pregnancy and teen sex, but a few minutes into Teen Mom and one quickly realizes it might be the best birth control on television.
Carmen the Hip-Hopera
Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Beyonce Knowles’ gallop to the apex of spectaculation began in the valley with MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera, which, as even those only slightly familiar with the English language could surmise, is a hip hop songsation based on the Bizet opera Carmen.
You might ask yourself, “Has this expedition of the contemporary sounds of urbanity amalgamated with lavish storytelling of Italy’s yore truly substantiated any gravity?” You’d better believe it. A retelling so authentic in style and vivacity, you’d think someone saw the movie, invented a time machine, and then went back to 1875 to write the opera. Trust this, if nothing else: MTV planted a standard to this day insuperable with Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Instilled in each of us on the film’s inception was the sort of whimsy you’d read about in Miguel de Cervantes. So cherish every moment of this post-Carmen generation, for we can all ruminate our good fortune in not having had to culminate our lives in the unspeakable hell that was a Hip Hopera-less world.
Making the Video
You ever watch a music video and think, “I’d like to know more about the lighting decisions?” No, you didn’t. But you did want to see the band members palling around and exemplifying the very idea of glamour so that you could feel like you had the inside look at what it’s like to be a real star. And maybe, someday, someone would be watching you up there…
Before there was Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, the place to find bizarre animation late at night was MTV. Japanese import Aeon Flux, the hodgepodge of underground cartoons stringed together to make Liquid Television, The MAXX, an adaptation of a independent comic…all blowing our Saturday Morning Cartoon-trained minds. And reigning above them all? Possibly the oddest of the batch, The Head.
The Head concerned a college student who wakes up one day to find a purple alien living in his head. Simple premise, insane execution and one of the shows we keep dreaming MTV will one day resurrect. For now, we’ll keep watching clips of this long lost animation great.
Now here is reality TV at its finest. All reality shows have been working their way up to this holy grail. Think Big Brother meets Bigger Attitude. Eight housemates all living together under one roof….big mouths, big opinions, big boobs, big bumps—what could be better? The show provided you with offensive stereotypes, but also the impression that if you can get famous by doing absolutely nothing. Talk about appealing to the underdog. This show gives hope that even the most drama-filled, binge-drinking, sex crazed losers can make a name for themselves and become headline worthy. Some people might call that inspiring.
MTV’s youth-centric thinking was never more apparent then their choice of hiring a bunch of college seniors to write and produce their own sketch comedy show. The result was The State, a show which bred some of the biggest names in comedy, even to this day. The crew from Kerri Kenney, Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant of Reno 911, Ken Marino of Party Down, David Wain, the director of Role Models, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Joe Lo Truglio and more, all spawned from the show.
The comedy itself…isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t make it any less smart, perverse or inspiring.
Shocking VMA Moments
The MTV Video Music Awards are as famous for the drama that surrounds them as they are for their actual performances. There are boxing rings that have been home to fewer fistfights than the VMAs, with musicians from Bret Michaels to Kid Rock throwing the punches. And even when celebrities aren’t fighting, there are other ways to start a feud, like Kanye West’s infamous Taylor Swift interruption. Of course, the VMAs are technically about the music, including legendary acts from Nirvana (and their infamous ‘Rape Me’ fakeout), Madonna, and Britney Spears.
Where would we be in society today without our critical, judgmental ways? Next is a prime example as to how first impressions can make or break a relationship. “I don’t like the color of your hair: Next!” “You say Pop instead of Soda: Next!” “I don’t agree with your views on who should win American Idol: Next!” The show made a simple dream come true: the idea of a “next button”. If you didn’t like what you saw in a man or woman, you could tell his ass to leave that instant. No need for pleasantries or general common courtesy. The American Dream.
Total Request Live
TRL was MTV’s flagship show for the early 2000’s, and many young people’s first exposure to pop musicians. The show notably put choice in the hands of the audience, which largely proved to be screaming teenagers with enough time on their hands to flood voting polls. That explains the rampant popularity of boy bands like *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys on the show, as well as teen stars Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Simpson. While oddly iconic host Carson Daly left the show in 2002, and the show itself closed down in 2008, it remained one of the last holdovers of MTV’s initial emphasis on music.
Pulling musicians out of their normal settings and challenging them acoustic sets was already a powerful premise for MTV Unplugged, but Nirvana’s 1993 episode is one for the history books. Aired only four months before the suicide of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana Unplugged delivers one of the most emotional live sessions every captured on tape—a startling mix of cover songs and little known Nirvana hits. MTV may not exist in a world where the experience could ever be replicated, but they’ll forever have this concert as representation of what they’re capable of achieving.
Beavis and Butthead
Fred Flintstone & Barney Rubble. Ralph Kramden & Ed Norton. Luke & Bo Duke. These are just a handful of TV’s most memorable duos, but none are quite as sensational as Mike Judge’s crowning achievement – Beavis and Butthead. The pair of pubescent punks polluted MTV’s airwaves with suggestive language and behavior between 1993-1997, and became movie stars and cultural icons along the way. In my book they’ll always be best remembered for their music video commentary, which was a makeshift Mystery Science Theater 3000 for metalheads.