I spent most of Sunday watching old clips of MTV programming on VH1 Classic, in honor of the 30th anniversary of MTV's first broadcast. It was amazing and sad. That's right folks, another "whatever happened to MTV" article! Calm down. It won't be 1,000 words about how it's all whores and morons now. While accurate, that argument is tired and unproductive. There's a bigger picture to examine here.
Bias disclosure: the 90s will forever be my decade. I will shove it down my kid's throat, and he will hate it til he grows up. I've accepted this as fact. I will be a sad old man listening to grunge, Guns N Roses, & early-to-mid-Radiohead, watching True Romance, and bemoaning the slick production values of the modern era's movies and music. The graphic capabilities of today's video games are fantastic, and I love them, but not quite as much as those sweet 16-bit pixels.
The main thing I was reminded of yesterday is how wonderfully weird MTV used to be. From the animated bumpers going to and from commercials to the Denis Leary junkyard rants to a short film with a young Steve Buscemi sweet-talking a model with pop song quotes, I have to imagine MTV was a haven for ambitious young filmmakers in the 80s and early 90s. And other than a sort of brand affirmation, what purpose did these things serve for MTV? What benefit could they have gained from randomly showing Joe's Apartment a few times a day? And how awesome was Donal Logue as that greasy cabdriver?
When MTV got rolling in the 80s, it was the thing kids watched to piss off their parents. It was a counterculture, and like all countercultures it celebrated the weird. It could get dirty and raw and stay fun, like a Remote Control clip we saw where the Red Hot Chili Peppers broke up the show in progress to become contestants, barely letting Ken Oberg get a word in edgewise. Sure, it was planned, and sure, they had an album to promote or something, but these were guys who went on stage with nothing but gym socks over their dicks! Rock stars used to get banned from the VMAs! Madonna's performances then are STILL racier than anything we see today. Bieber. Miley. Nothing has killed entertainment more swiftly than the realization that there's money in tweens.
MTV has always been a business, to be sure. That's what impresses me the most. Since it was a child of media giant Viacom, that means there were real Business People in Suits saying OK to Liquid Television. LIQUID TV! That show exploded my head. It showed me a whole weird world that had absolutely nothing to do with the Cosbys or Tim Allen or Roseanne. I couldn't tell if I was coming into stories halfway through, or they were going to give us backstory later, or who Aeon Flux was really fighting for. And I loved it.
The window for weird on TV has shrunk considerably. I believe its main tenant now is Adult Swim, which you can bet your sweet bippy I'm watching regularly. Otherwise, we now have the internet. If you want weird, give me five seconds and I can probably find a video that will make you reconsider everything you've assumed as fact about humanity to this point. Or, you know, Nyan Cat. And that's good. I'm glad kids have an outlet to realize not everything is as the corporations tell us. But when something like Liquid TV can pass through budget meetings and test audiences and end up in your home, that means a little more than some idiot in his garage uploading a video of himself dressed as Sonic the Hedgehog dancing to the Spin Doctors.
Ultimately, MTV became its own worst enemy. It created in the Real World a Frankenstein's monster which eventually turned on its master. Once groundbreaking television, the show has morphed into trust-fund kids getting drunk and fighting about nothing. And of course, I'm sure there's a valid argument for the Real World eventually giving us Jersey Shore. So yes, the channel is largely populated by whores and morons. But let's be honest, old MTV had Tawny Kitaen dancing on the hood of a car. It had Jenny McCarthy screaming at drunk frat boys. It had Pauly Shore.
But it also had Radiohead playing "Creep" poolside on MTV Spring Break. Which gave the line "I don't belong here" profound meaning. That song alone is one of the best anthems for the people we all become from 12-18. NO ONE belongs then. Anywhere. And we need someone to tell us that's OK, we're not alone. We don't need someone elevating talentless morons to celebrity millionaire level. We don't need kids getting pregnant to get on TV. We don't need Ke$ha.
Don't celebrate stupid. Celebrate weird.