Monday, July 31, 2006

Still want your MTV?

The network is 25 years old, and its world is getting more and more surreal.

Aidin Vaziri
San Franscisco Chronicle Pop Music Critic

Pauly Shore. Teenage sex. Nipplegate. It hasn't been easy living with MTV for the past 25 years. For better and sometimes not so much, the MTV moonman has made one giant footstep on popular culture. On the occasion of the cable network's big birthday today, 25 years after its first broadcast, it would be a shame not to take a look back at some of the best and worst things it has given us.

MTV didn't invent reality TV but did set off the current craze with the 1992 premiere of "The Real World," in which seven strangers shared a New York apartment for three months with a film crew. In the years since, the longest running program on the network has evolved from an intense forum wherein the cast gets real with prickly issues like racism and sexuality to a racy forum in which hot twenty-somethings get intensely drunk and have sex.

MTV loves to cause a ruckus, especially at its annual Video Music Awards, which are best remembered not for the irreverent prizes handed out but the moments that the self-congratulating comedians over on VH1 won't stop yapping about. Over the years, the network has given us such infamous pop culture moments as 1) Courtney Love hurling her compact at Madonna during a 1996 on-air interview with Kurt Loder (oooh!), 2) Diana Ross paddling Lil' Kim's exposed breast onstage in 1999 (aaaaaah!), and 3) Michael Jackson's 1994 open-mouth kiss with new bride Lisa Marie Presley (yuuuucccccccccccccccccck!).

MTV's quest for controversy isn't entirely self-contained. The network produced that wonderful Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show involving Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and a certain "wardrobe malfunction." On the bright side, sales of sun-shaped nipple shields went through the roof.

Shortly after relocating its studios to Times Square in 1998, the station combined two of its fledgling music shows into an exciting new fan-controlled daily countdown called "Total Request Live." "TRL" became MTV's signature program and an express line to the pop charts for the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Blink-182. Hooray! But there was a tragic side effect: Carson Daly.

In 1983, MTV put an end to its all-white programming with the world premiere of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video. In the same year, the cable channel also aired the singer's 14-minute clip for "Thriller" and basically played it nonstop for the rest of the decade, helping the soon-to-be superfreak score the best-selling album of all time. As a sign of his gratitude, Jackson later actually turned white.

Bleep bleep Black Sabbath bleep Ozzy Osbourne bleep bleep dysfunctional family bleep Sharon, Jack and bleep Kelly. Bleep bleep Emmy Award bleep bleep reality show bleep bleep bleep bleep Pat Boone. Bleep bleep, bleep.

Before MTV, the charts were ruled by ugly men like Bruce Springsteen, members of Pink Floyd and John Lennon. Some of them even had beards! Fortunately, the channel ensured that our pop stars looked as good as they sounded by ushering in a new era of genius in the form of Human League, Soft Cell and Culture Club. The tradition continues to this very day.

In 1985, the network covered all 17 hours of Live Aid, a concert held to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia, with uninterrupted reunion sets by the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Who. Twenty years later, MTV covered the Live 8 concert, to eliminate Third World poverty, by cutting away from once-in-a-lifetime sets by Pink Floyd and U2 with Paul McCartney to make time for inane VJ banter and commercial breaks. World poverty quadrupled by the end of the day.

At best, Madonna is an average singer with below-average material. But thanks to MTV her music has taken a back seat to her superstar-making antics: Singing "Like A Virgin" at the first Video Music Awards while rolling around the stage in a wedding dress; filming the "Like A Prayer" in front of a row of burning crosses; and, best of all, sticking her tongue down both Britney Spears' and Christina Aguilera's throats at the 2003 awards ceremony.

What did people ever do before "Cribs," the program that offers fast-cut tours of the houses of famous celebrities? Not know that Tommy Lee has a stripper's pole in his living room? Not know "where all the action happens" in Master P's mansion? Think Andy Dick lived in a box behind Albertson's? Those were the dark ages.

Why wait 30 years for the next David Bowie? With mind-numbing reality series such as 2004's "The Ashlee Simpson Show," 2005's "There And Back," starring former O-Town member Ashley Parker Angel, and this year's "Cheyenne," the network showed the world how easy it is to turn talentless, personality-free blondes into overnight pop stars. Disposable pop stars.

In 1987, MTV introduced "Headbangers Ball," a show that took heavy metal out of high school parking lots and into the living rooms of America, making household names out of makeup- and spandex-clad bands such as Winger, Slaughter and Poison. That wasn't necessarily a good thing.

In the third season of "The Real World," filmed in San Francisco, MTV helped raise awareness of safe sex by introducing viewers to Pedro Zamora, a roommate living with AIDS. Then in 2001, the network dramatized the Matthew Shepard murder with the documentary, "Anatomy of a Hate Crime," and followed it by scrolling the names of hundreds of hate crime victims uninterrupted for 17 hours.

Worried that people might actually start taking it seriously, the station later reversed all its hard work with nonstop programs targeted at date-rapists such as "Singled Out," "Next" and basically every video ever by Eminem.

Not satisfied with all of Madonna's effort nor the annual awards show shockers, MTV decided to add a bunch of gross-out programs to its regular lineup such as "The Tom Green Show," which climaxed with cameras following the Canadian comedian into the operating room as he had surgery for testicular cancer; "Jackass," which featured Johnny Knoxville and friends repetitively slamming things onto their genitals; and "Celebrity Deathmatch," in which clay figurines of stars like Marilyn Manson and Garth Brooks fight to a gruesome death in a wrestling ring. Classy!

On the flipside of "Headbangers Ball," there was "120 Minutes," a haven for new music by cool underground acts (well, underground back then) such as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode. The only problem was that it usually aired at midnight on Sunday and was hosted by some creepy goth dude.

The network tried its hand at original animated programming with 1991's "Liquid Television," a series most notable for spawning Mike Judge's "Beavis and Butt-head." Running from 1993-1997, the two badly drawn adolescents would make fun of music videos and offer riveting dialogue such as, Beavis: "What's a bunghole?" Butt-head: "A bunghole is what you are, bunghole!"

Famous in Europe for years, MTV finally embraced New Kids on the Block inspiring second-generation (or was it fifth?) boy bands the Backstreet Boys and 'NSYNC in the late '90s. The network even introduced a show called "Making the Band," in which Florida svengali Lou Pearlman assembled his latest proteges, O-Town. The groups became so insufferable that they were parodied on TV shows such as "South Park," "The Simpsons" and, er, MTV's own "2gether."

"Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica," made superstars out of C-list pop singers Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson by documenting the first three years of their marriage. The show's appeal can be condensed down to one bit of conversation: "Is this chicken, what I have? Or is this fish? I know it's tuna, but it says 'Chicken by the Sea' ". The couple filed for divorce in December 2005, eight months after the series ended.

As a rule of thumb, if you let MTV's cameras into your wedding and home, you are going to get divorced. See: Nick and Jessica (above). Dave and Carmen. And if you have a crystal ball handy -- Travis and Shanna.

Hosted by Fab 5 Freddy, Ed Lover and Doctor Dre (not to be confused with Eminem's pal, Dr. Dre), between 1988 and 1995, this two-hour program took hip-hop to the suburbs with its kinetic mix of videos, interviews and in-studio performances. The show was pulled off the air around the same time Puff Daddy made his rap debut. Coincidence?

In 1992, the network launched its politically aggressive "Choose or Lose" campaign with Tabitha Soren. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton met 200 viewers face-to-face in one of many election forums, revealing that he prefers briefs to boxers. Vice presidential nominee Al Gore, President George Bush and presidential nominee Ross Perot also made time in their schedules to appear on the network -- but sadly none were as candid about their preferences in underwear.

After spending the '80s playing overproduced synthesizer bands to death (ours, naturally), the network did an about-face in 1989 by unveiling "MTV Unplugged," a series that showcased big-name acts stripping down with acoustic guitars and scented candles. Some of the most memorable performances were delivered by Nirvana, R.E.M. and, yes, the four original members of KISS.

There was a time when all teenagers had to do to be cool was throw on a pair of Converse sneakers and shredded jeans. But, as MTV has gone to pains to point out, those kids are stupid. Over the years, the station has used a combination of flashy hip-hop videos and advice shows such as "Pimp My Ride," "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" and "My Super Sweet 16" to show young, impressionable kids that the only way to be even remotely cool is to put your parents into blinding debt.

MTV debuted on 12:01 a.m., Aug. 1, 1981, with "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. The first VJs were Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn. Jackson passed away in 2004. The rest now host the Big '80s channel on -- wait for it -- Sirius Satellite Radio. Oh, the irony.


  1. I've never cared much for MTV. But I did go on their website yesterday and watched clips of their first hour on the air back in '81. They even had the original commercials which made it wonderful.

  2. I liked MTV better when they actually showed videos. Someimes, simpler is better.

  3. MTV has changed over the years and so have I. Neither one of us is very much fun these days.


  4. You make a fair assessment of MTV, but I think you're selling yourself short.