In the years since August 1, 1981, when MTV first went on air by broadcasting a song presciently called “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the cable channel has helped to turn musicians as different as Duran Duran, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Tupac Shakur, Marilyn Manson, and Britney Spears into cultural touchstones.
MTV helped to mainstream rap music and to pioneer the trend toward reality television with shows like The Real World. And the channel has been at the center of any number of pop culture brouhahas, whether involving cartoon bad boys Beavis and Butt-head, sexually provocative and spiritually outrageous videos by Madonna, or the cringe-inducing antics of the low-brow stunt artists on Jackass.
MTV has become nothing less than a pop culture juggernaut: According to the folks at Nielsen, it’s available in some 75 million U.S. households and is the most-watched cable channel for the 12-to-24 year-old crowd. Its properties now include the popular, adult-oriented VH-1 and two channels that play nothing but music videos, MTV2 and VH-1 Classic. There are spin-off channels in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere around the globe.
Most rock-and-roll purists have never liked MTV, arguing that the channel is relentlessly, blandly commercial and that the music-video form inevitably swings the spotlight away from uncompromising artistes and shines it on good-looking posers whose only musical bona fides are perfect hair and teeth. On MTV, goes this line of thinking, strategically coifed divas like Christina Aguilera rule and raw punk priestesses like Ani DiFranco need not apply.
Such critics make some valid points. MTV has certainly never been avant garde and much of its programming is mediocre and unmemorable (anyone remember Austin Stories?). But these critics miss the larger contribution that the cable channel has made, both to pop music and to pop culture: MTV has been an exceptionally vital force in the growth of the wide variety of new and ever-shifting identities that characterize our times. It has been perhaps the premier showcase-in the nation’s living rooms no less-for what anthropologist Grant McCracken calls “plenitude,” or the “quickening speciation@ of social groups, gender types, and lifestyles that characterizes our times.
From the start, MTV has been an unending and gloriously attractive parade of freaks, gender-benders, and weirdos who push the boundaries of good taste and break down whatever vestiges of mainstream sensibilities remain. Can anyone forget just how awesomely odd bands like Devo, Eurythmics, and Culture Club seemed to us once upon a time? Or how totally normal they now look?
In the years since video killed the radio star, America has become a much looser place. We’re less uptight with difference and we’re more interested in customized experiences, whether we’re talking about 50 types of coffee, special-blend whiskeys-or highly individualized ways of dress, sexuality, and being in the world.
That trend may bother some, but for most of us, it has been both liberating and exciting.
To the extent that MTV has contributed to it, may its next 20 years be as rich as its first two decades.