Essay

On Wanting My MTV

As an elder millennial. I was raised by a cable channel that played music videos.

I don't remember the night MTV went on the air. I was three. And yet, I do remember it the way most of us remember our favorite babysitter. I recall pushing "27 enter" on the big, fake woodgrain cable converter box and the immediate dopamine hit of loud music and bright colors that would follow. I remember the bumpers, the spaceman, Billy Idol and Sting demanding their MTV.

My love of music was planted, like a seed, by my siblings; but it bloomed into an obsession only when watered by MTV. In large part, this had to do with the narrative arc that was applied to every artist or group. I was too young ever to have read Creem magazine or to have experienced first-hand what music journalism was like. Only later, reading "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" by Lester Bangs, did any of it really make sense. A new seed was planted in my brain, one that has grown slowly over decades: musicians were people. It was one thing to know the names and favorite movies of your musical idols, it was something else entirely to know that touring sucked, or that making an album is more like having a straight job than anyone would really like to know.

All throughout the '80s, MTV was there for me. Before media became a science, and every fractious fandom had its own acreage on the landscape, watching MTV meant literally watching MTV. Regardless of genre or musical style, I would watch—six hours a day on the weekends, and only slightly less during the week. Whatever came on was what I liked. Like a nascent painter sent into the world's biggest art museum to learn the ropes by copying the masters, I just wanted to see and hear whatever there was. Sitting in front of the TV, guitar in hand, I would echo every lick. My early understanding of graphic design and film was shaped by the references in music videos. My sister, passing through the living room, would casually say something like, "Oh, that's just like that scene in North by Northwest". Now I knew twonew things.

Without focus groups or media studies majors to shape and edit its content, MTV was essentially a ray gun shooting fifty years of alternative culture directly into the retinas of New Jersey mall kids. Public Enemy, Ren & Stimpy, Monty Python, Led Zeppelin, death metal, Rock the Vote, the unwitting birth of reality TV, grunge, boy bands, punk rock, New York hip hop culture, Prince. The good, the bad, the stupid, the profound. For me, in love with rock music and all its trappings, it was everything. I wanted to take on the contrarian attitudes and sundry gripes and disdains of all my favorite bands as my personality. I, too, wanted to be the son of no one, a bastard of young.

It was the grunge era that made MTV look into the mirror. After a decade or so of seeing itself as part of the counterculture—or at least as nothing to be taken seriously—MTV was now a Viacom property, a big business with offices in Manhattan crammed with the types of people who simultaneously wear expensive suits but hang Sex Pistols posters in their offices. Every self-respecting band took turns decrying its corporateness, its lameness, how it had become the place to go when you wanted to sell out fast.

MTV made the transition a lot of people that love and espouse music do—from affable introducer of bands you might never have heard otherwise, to self-serious gatekeeper and snob. The '90s were a time for sniffing out the poseurs, the inauthentic hacks. MTV hustled night and day for street cred, borrowing the unquestioned authenticity of a Thurston Moore or a Henry Rollins whenever possible. And there was MTV Unplugged, a high concept attempt at goading bands into doing the party trick of playing messy post-punk songs on $3500 Martin acoustic guitars. A few episodes amounted to more than that, but not many. Nothing says "please acknowledge our eccentricity and authenticity" like LL Cool J doing "Mama Said Knock You Out" with a backing band of mid-'90s Brooklyn hipsters sent from central casting.

I was in my 20's by this time. I didn't need MTV to tell me what was cool. But I wouldn't have said no. Even now, I still miss the way MTV could neatly introduce an artist and what they were about. A&R is sort of a lost art, and not every band is good at doing it for themselves. There's something warm about getting a music recommendation from another human being, followed up with a carefully concocted story about how the band came to be or the barn where the record got made. I'm still attracted to the apocrypha of the music business, and prone to launching into tales about how a song came to be. I've long ago given up fighting the fact that I am what Nick Hornby called a "professional appreciator".

MTV has, like most cable networks, outlived its usefulness. In a world where something called "The History Channel" never shows programs about history, music television is an oxymoron. The internet generally and Napster specifically blew up the music business with the same impish glee MTV displayed when it blew up FM radio, and it changed everything about bands and their relationship with the public. The MTV of the '80s, that rolling katamari ball of pop culture, was gone—replaced by shows about attractive people making out in rental properties.

I know kids don't need this now. Stardom has changed. Celebrity has mutated, in precisely the ways all those killjoy Seattle bands said it would. Nothing is fun anymore. Every moment is scripted, but in an obvious way that is meant to signal that both parties know scripted things are stupid. Music is mannered and mostly sounds alike, for reasons of survival in a world ruled by streaming. Bands are people on laptops. I get it. But I miss sitting on my parent's couch in the den at 3am in Bill Clinton's America watching Siouxsie and the Banshees on MTV. Or maybe what I miss is a firehose of pop culture to drink from, or a recommendation engine that isn't a computer algorithm.

I don't know if MTV would pass muster these days. It was obviously and overtly sexist, as the music business was and is. Its attempts to appeal to marginalized communities were often pandering or, more often, non-existent. Like almost everything we admire or look back on fondly, it seems that this, too, is deeply flawed.

Still, MTV was like a national radio station. Watching it implied there were others watching, too. I think that's what I miss; the notion of enjoying something and wondering who else might like it, too, with no view count or like button to help me know for sure. There are hours of MTV programming that felt as though they were designed just for me, an insomniac sixteen year old weathering the storms of late adolescence. Like so many things we cherish, those memories are worthless to anyone but me.

Last Updated January 26, 2022 @ 5:29 PM

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