MTV's 20th Birthday
July 29, 2001
BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic
I want my MTV--not! Generally lost in the self-congratulatory cacophony marking the
cable music station's two-decade anniversary is the hard-to-dispute dissenting notion that
holds that no other force in the 50-year history of rock has had such an insidious effect
on the music.
''You talk to kids now, and rather than being an adjunct to the song, the video is the
song--that's the damage that MTV has done,'' says Los Angeles critic Marc Weingarten,
author of Station to Station: The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television.
''The people that created MTV were not exactly musicians, they were marketers,''
Weingarten says. ''So the fact that it would turn music into a commodity was an
inevitability. MTV is the end of rock history--or at least the end of rock on
television--because TV does not allow for maverick voices. It's wholly corporatized.''
|Despite its fundamental flaws, over
20 years of broadcasting, it was inevitable that MTV would produce some moments of genuine
merit and rock 'n' roll spirit.
Unfortunately, these have rarely ranked with the
moments that the network is happiest to hype, and they have been far, far outnumbered by
the cable giant's more overrated and annoying offerings.
My choices for MTV's finest hours:
1. Nirvana's gripping appearance on ''MTV Unplugged'' (though the network played the
show to the point of nausea following Kurt Cobain's suicide, and it's interesting to note
that ''Unplugged'' has now been relegated to MTV2, with the live performance outlet no
longer ranking as a priority in the era of ''Total Request Live'').
2. The network's coverage of the riots at Woodstock '99. Revealing and entertaining in
a way that MTV may not have intended; I especially liked how the terror in Kurt Loder's
voice matched that in Dan Rather's during the '68 Democratic convention. ''They're beating
people on the convention floor!'' ''They're trashing the ATM's!'' Alright!
3. ''Daria''--the coolest female role model on TV this side of the Powerpuff Girls.
Beavis and Butt-head were also amusing for five minutes, exposing the idiocy of MTV even
as they sat there glued to it. Unfortunately, they had already overstayed their welcome by
the time they graduated from ''Liquid Video'' to a show of their own, and they grew
increasingly soft on their employers as time went on. Fame and fortune will do that to
you, even if you're an animated buffoon.
4. ''Yo! MTV Raps,'' with Dre and Ed Lover. Rap's Abbott and Costello occasionally
mixed some great hip-hop into the steady flood of poppy mainstream product and gangsta
rap. Those sounds have pretty much dominated MTV's hip-hop diet ever since, at the expense
of smarter, edgier and more political sounds.
5. Matt Pinfield. The only VJ who ever knew anything about music (his roots were in New
Jersey's college radio/fanzine/indie-rock club scene), who fought to get good stuff
played, and who wasn't super-model-attractive. He lasted a little longer than Jesse Camp,
but a fraction of the time that Carson Daly has thrived.
Compare this to MTV's Hall of Shame (a list that could be 20 times longer):
1. The flood of inane, brainless, and pandering non-music programming, with special
demerits for the tedious if trendy ''Real World.''
2. The channel's embrace of Michael Jackson. Hailed by apologists as evidence that
early MTV wasn't racist, the network was simply endorsing glitz and Hollywood production
over music. Or did you think that ''Thriller'' aired all the time because of the song? The
tune didn't even start for more than five minutes into the clip!
3. The Video Music Awards, an annual orgy of gratuitous self-promotion in which the
network mostly honors itself for the videos it has chosen to play.
4. The rest of the bubble-brained VJs. I still have nightmares involving J.J. Jackson
5. The trendy rush to endorse ''righteous'' causes, from Live Aid (later exposed by
Spin magazine as more of a hype than a genuine help to Africa's starving masses) to
attacking homophobia (a pet cause of late intended to ''balance'' the station's equally
enthusiastic support of the gay-bashing Eminem).
6. MTV News--all too often a contradiction in terms. (''Madonna announced that she'll
begin filming a new video, and MTV was there!'').
7. Tom Green. Sure, gross-out humor can be funny. But Green is simply sickening.
8. ''Jackass.'' See Tom Green.
9. Madonna mania. MTV should just go ahead and name her an honorary vice-president. She
has always had the network exactly where she wants it--even its sanctimonious bannings of
''Justify My Love'' and ''What It Feels Like for a Girl'' were more of a boon for the diva
than a bane.
10. Video never did kill the radio star--but MTV's success at pushing product has
certainly had a negative influence on several radio formats, including alternative, pop,
and R&B. It has reduced hundreds of independent players in the medium that once led
the music world into slavish followers of the boob tube, aping the decisions of the
programming wizards behind MTV's curtain instead of actually listening to music.
July 27, 2001
I'll confess: I didn't always feel this way. I was about to enter my senior year in
high school when the network premiered 20 years ago on Wednesday. At the time, the concept
of music-on-television, 24 hours a day, seven days a week seemed like a ravenous young
rock fan's dream come true.
FM radio had already started its long and sorry downward spiral toward increasingly
narrow genre boundaries and restrictive playlists. Post-punk and pre-hip-hop, the
mainstream music scene was in one of its periodic artistic lulls--a time very much like
today--when MTV flickered onto the screens of a mere 1 million cable TV subscribers at the
stroke of midnight on Aug. 1, 1981.
Today, MTV is the No. 1 cable network for the influential age group of 12- to
24-year-olds, and it's viewed in 342 million households worldwide. But back in the day, a
group of us had to gather at the house of the one lucky friend who had cable. We'd watch
MTV for hours, even though we hated 90 percent of the music it played, simply because we
loved the idea of it, and there was always the hope that a good video might be
coming up next.
In retrospect, this sounds like my grandparents talking about standing in front of the
appliance store to watch television shortly after its inception, or my parents gawking
over the wonders of color TV a generation later. Soon enough, we all realized that
we were just being sold the same old crap in a bright, shiny new package.
With MTV, my friends and I quickly realized that what seemed like a radical new
medium--this revolution would be televised!--was in fact a carefully crafted facade, the
brainchild of a group of marketing pros who built on the AM-radio model of creating hits
through saturation airplay (MTV's vice-tight roster makes Top 40 seem expansive) while
pioneering the vaguely sinister concept of ''cross-promotional synergy'' (wherein MTV
gives constant airplay to a video that features Sting and Dire Straits plugging MTV, to
mention just the first of a thousand examples since).
The ingenious twist that founders Bob Pittman and John Lack built into MTV was the illusion
of constant change and evolution. A lot of focus is being spent in the 20th anniversary
hype on the ever-rotating cast of well-coiffed VJs (is there anything sadder than ''Where
Are They Now?'' profiles of Kennedy, Adam Curry and Julie Brown?), as well as on the
station's periodic reinventions, from all-Madonna and Michael Jackson, all the time; to
hair metal, alternative, and hip-hop, to all-'N Sync and Britney Spears, all the time.
Through it all, the essential product of MTV has never changed: MTV is designed to sell
MTV. Via its ability to become an indispensable part of young viewers' lives, it can sell
almost anything else--from zit cream and tennis shoes, to the idea of rocking the vote, to
the latest mediocre creation of the corporate music machine.
''Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n' roll!'' Lack intoned during the station's first few
seconds on the air. But MTV has always been more about ''pop'' (as in mass popularity,
massive sales, and catering to mainstream tastes) than ''rock'' (traditionally the music
of excitement, rebellion, and individualism).
Just look at the list of signature artists that the station takes pride in
breaking--from the Gloved One and Ms. Ciccone, through Milli Vanilli and George Michael,
into the present era of boy bands, Lolitaesque divas, and ''Total Request Live.''
Now, ask yourself: How many of these qualify as great rock 'n' roll and/or enduring
art, and how many linger in our consciousness along the same lines as the pet rock,
streaking, the Lambada, the California Raisins, name your favorite fad of the 15 minutes
Lack's introductory boast was famously followed by the network's first video, the
Buggles' ''Video Killed the Radio Star.'' The clip was already two years old when MTV
started playing it, though before, it had been only been viewed on Britain's ''Top of the
Pops'' and at a handful of hip dance clubs. MTV propelled the single to sales of 5 million
Forget for a moment that the Buggles' song is bemoaning, not celebrating, the death of
the radio star--note the melancholy emotion in Trevor Horn's vocals, which are treated to
sound as if they're coming from a tinny transistor radio, as he sings, ''We can't rewind,
we've gone too far.'' There's also the fact that at the end of the video, the band blows
up a television set.
The group is clearly saying that music matters more than image. But through the
contorted looking glass of MTV, the video came to mean exactly the opposite. Bye-bye radio
and music, hello video. And image uber alles. Whoo-hoo!
The network has operated in this black-is-white Orwellian fashion ever since, proudly
boasting that it is the epitome of the musical cutting edge while operating in a fashion
that is as reactionary, conservative, and self-serving as any other global
According to Newsweek, MTV's revenues topped $3 billion last year--almost triple what
it earned in 1995. Owned by an even bigger media giant, Viacom, MTV Networks controls the
more music-intensive MTV2 (which recently took over the Box), Baby-Boomer-oriented VH1 and
With the exception of the African-American-focused BET, there is no other national
cable alternative for music on television. MTV is the 800-pound gorilla, and as with
Ticketmaster and the radio and concert giant Clear Channel Communications (formerly SFX
Entertainment), artists and record companies have to deal with it because there's nowhere
else to turn.
Meanwhile, fans can either buy what MTV is selling, dig deep into the underground in
search of an alternative, or tune out entirely.
Some music lovers think that the network is a tragic lost opportunity--that a station
which actually practiced everything that MTV preaches could be a dynamic and unifying
force in rock, similar to free-form FM radio in the '70s. Why can't there be programming
that mixes vintage footage of great '60s and '70s rockers with the most inventive new
videos, giving us everything from James Brown live at the Apollo to coverage of the Roots
on Moby's Area: One festival, and broadcasting to America's hippest cities as well as the
heart of North Dakota?
This is a nice idea, in theory. But it ignores several problems inherent with the
entire concept of rock on television.
The debate continues between academics and critics on one side and the industry on the
other over whether television is our-lowest-common-denominator mass anesthetic or the
ultimate democratic entertainment medium. I'll stay out of the fray on that one, except to
note that the very ubiquity and accessibility of the images in our living room has a
tendency to devalue them as art.
Is a movie ever as good on television as it was in the theaters? And think of how
cartoons seemed so much more important to those of us who lived to watch them every
Saturday morning, in contrast to kids today, who get them on demand whenever they want via
videos, Nickelodeon, and TV Land (two more Viacom/MTV properties).
It's the same with rock on television. Having it all the time somehow cheapens it--even
though MTV has dramatically shifted its primary focus in recent years from music videos to
programming ranging from the laughably awful ''real-life'' soap opera, ''The Real World,''
to the laughably awful fictional soap opera, ''Undressed.''
Rock has always been most effective when it has appeared on the tube unexpectedly, in a
setting that has underscored its anything-can-happen, live-in-the-moment immediacy. In Station
to Station, Weingarten recounts an impressive list of galvanizing rock-on-TV moments:
the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on ''The Ed Sullivan Show,'' Elvis Presley's '68
comeback special, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon on ''The Dick Cavett Show,'' Elvis
Costello, Devo and Sinead O'Connor on ''Saturday Night Live,'' Nirvana on ''MTV
Unplugged,'' and so on.
In every instance, the artist shocked, surprised or thrilled us while performing live,
as opposed to acting and lip-synching in some methodically plotted mini-movie that cost
upwards of a half a million dollars to make. It's important to remember that the average
video is really just a commercial, something designed to sell the artist, his or her
single and album, and any number of ancillary products, from a related movie, to the
featured fashions, to the beverage that the star is seen slurping.
In many cases, the video isn't even remotely connected to the music or lyrics. And even
when it is, it doesn't mean that the musicians had anything to do with it.
Nirvana's ''Smells Like Teen Spirit'' is the rare example of a good rock video, one
that matches the basic emotion of the music with memorable images. But the band hated
director Sam Bayer--they nicknamed him ''Jethro Napoleon,'' according to Michael Azerrad's
biography, Come As You Are--resenting the way he hijacked their vision of a spoof
of the Ramones' ''Rock and Roll High School,'' dumbed it down, prettied it up (Nirvana
wanted cheerleaders, but really ugly ones), and made it all palatable for MTV.
Yes, the final video was entertaining, and even powerful in its own way. But the song
was infinitely more potent and complex than the simplistic film clip, simultaneously
calling for and rejecting anarchic action/rock 'n' roll rebellion (''a denial!'') while
wondering how the whole idea even fits in an era where marketing is inescapable (the tune
was named for Teen Spirit brand deodorant) and everything is reduced to just another
pleasant diversion (''Here we are now, entertain us!'').
Even before Elvis' famous not-seen-on-TV pelvis, rock has been in part about powerful
visual images. But MTV makes the images everything.
Whenever I'm listening to an album that I really love or losing myself in the midst of
a great live performance, I like to sit down and close my eyes--the better to block out
everything but the music and the emotions it stirs in me. MTV seeks to burn its chosen
images on the video screens of our minds at the expense of the far more poignant movies
that we can create for ourselves.
I pity any music lover who has lost that ability.
As Weingarten says, ''MTV is the death of the imagination. It has impoverished kids'
critical faculties and blunted their abilities to interpret music in a meaningful way for
For that alone, it is the enemy of great rock 'n' roll, and the exact opposite of
everything that it has ever claimed to be. Happy birthday, MTV--and good riddance.
JBTV airs another view of rock video
July 29, 2001
Yes, Virginia, there is an alternative: Meet the ''JB'' of JBTV.
Jerry Bryant is the Bizarro World version of Carson Daly. If you've ever spent any time
channel-surfing Chicago-area television, you've encountered the hyperactive Jerry Garcia
lookalike as he enthusiastically thrusts his boom mike in the face of some hapless young
rocker. And you've probably lingered on JBTV long enough to see some cool video that would
never be played anywhere else.
Bryant's hourlong music video show airs every Wednesday at 11 p.m. on WJYS-Ch. 52, as
well as at various other times on several local cable systems. Humble though its resources
may be, for lovers of quality rock, there is simply no contest: JBTV beats MTV every time,
July 29, 2001
By Misha Davenport
August 1, 1981, 12:01 a.m.
Music Television-or MTV-begins broadcasting from a temporary studio in New Jersey with the
video ''Video Killed the Radio Star,'' by the British duo The Buggles. Nina Blackwood,
Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn are the first VJ's.
December 31, 1981
MTV broadcasts its first "New Year's Eve Rock 'N' Roll Ball.''
''I Want My MTV'' television ad campaign debuts, urging viewers to request the channel
from their local cable company. David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Cyndi Lauper are among the
musical celebrities to appear in the ads.
March 31, 1983
Michael Jackson's video ''Beat It'' has its world premiere.
MTV scores another coup, debuting Michael Jackson's 14-minute video for ''Thriller.''
MTV Video Awards come into existence. Madonna, Tina Turner and ZZ Top are just a few of
the artists who perform. The Cars take home the video of the year award for ''You Might
MTV's 17 hours of coverage of LIVE AID, a concert with proceeds going toward African
famine relieve, includes both the Led Zepplin and The Who reunions.
MTV first airs live coverage from spring break.
''Downtown'' Julie Brown is named VJ, the first since the original five in 1981.
MTV ventures into news coverage with ''The Week in Rock.''
MTV airs its first game show, ''Remote Control'' testing contestants' TV knowledge.
Kurt Loder, a former editor of Rolling Stone magazine, joins the MTV news department,
bringing with him a healthy dose of journalistic credibility.
''MTV Internacional,'' a weekly hourlong version of MTV in Spanish, begins airing on
''YO! MTV Raps'' airs as a weekly show featuring rap music. It is so popular, it soon
begins airing Monday through Friday.
Madonna's video for ''Like A Prayer'' has its world premiere. The controversial images end
up costing Madonna her gig as a Pepsi spokesperson.
MTV is there to broadcast the first live feed from East Berlin as the Communist government
and the Berlin Wall both crumble.
The acoustic music series ''MTV Unplugged'' premieres.
MTV ventures into original animated programming with ''Liquid Television.'' The show
features animated shorts, including a pair of teenagers named ''Beavis and Butt-head.''
When an original soap opera proves to be cost prohibitive, the channel has seven strangers
share a New York apartment for three months and films their every move. ''The Real World''
creates both a sensation and a lucrative new genre-reality television.
The first annual ''MTV Movie Awards'' airs, featuring unusual categories like ''Best
Kiss'' and ''Most Desirable Male.''
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton fields questions from two hundred 18-24 year-olds
in the first of several election forums.
Vice Presidential nominee Al Gore, President George Bush and presidential nominee Ross
Perot all appear on the network at some point.
MTV sponsors an inaugural ball for President Clinton. Both the Clintons and the Gores
Beavis and Butt-head get their own show, highlights include Beavis waxing apathetically
''This sucks more than anything that has ever sucked before.'' XXXX
In the wake of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain's suicide, MTV airs special programming
with rare performances, videos and fan reactions from around the world.
MTV denotes a weekend to live coverage from the Woodstock '94 Festival.
Chicago native Jenny McCarthy jump starts her career when she co-hosts ''Singled Out,''
a new twist on the old dating game.
It's ''The Real World'' in a motor home! ''Road Rules'' has five strangers traveling
across the country, tackling a series of adventures and winning fabulous prizes.
The MTV Movie Awards hit a high note with parodies of movies in the Best Movie category.
Highlights include the cast of ''The Bob Newhart Show'' performing scenes from
''Braveheart'' and ''The Golden Girls'' taking on scenes from ''Clueless.''
MTV Productions' first feature film, ''Joe's Apartment,'' opens in theaters. Made for $13
million, it grosses a mere $4.6 million domestically. August 1996
MTV gets back into the business of actually showing videos with the launch of its
sister station, MTV2
''Loveline,'' a late night call-in show about love, sex and intimacy premieres, making
television stars of hosts Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Pinsky.
Paris. New York. Milan. Lawndale: ''Daria,'' a cartoon about a smart, sarcastic and
cynical teenager premieres.
Fleetwood Mac reunite to tape an exclusive concert for MTV.
MTV opens its new studios in Times Square.
Parents across the country breath a collective sigh of relief as MTV airs ''Beavis and
Butt-Head Are Dead,'' the final new episode of the much maligned series.
''Celebrity Deathmatch,'' a program that pits clay versions of celebrities in a fight to
the death, airs during the superbowl. It will become a weekly series in May.
Carson Daly hosts MTV's newest show, ''TRL (Total Requests Live).''
MTV unleashes Canadian comedian Tom Green onto the world with ''The Tom Green Show.''
MTV premieres ''Undressed,'' a ''Sex and the City'' type soap opera for the teen set.
MTV takes viewers behind the scenes with its new show, ''Making the Video.''
MTV bites the hand that feeds it with the television movie ''2gether,'' a spoof of boy
bands and the pop music world. It later becomes a series.
MTV shows graphic footage of Tom Green's surgery for testicular cancer.
And you thought ''Beavis and Butt-head'' were bad, they have nothing on ''Jackass,'' a
show which features, per MTV, ''silly pranks and ridiculous stunts performed by total
For a 17 hour period, programming consists of the scrolling names of hundreds of victims
of hate crimes, shown without commercial interruption.
MTV closes out the month with a bang, producing the Super Bowl XXXV Halftime Show.
MTV airs a hip-hop version of Carmen, setting the classic opera in a contemporary setting.
''The Real World'' finally hits Chicago as MTV celebrates its 20th birthday in style.
I spoke with Bryant and his producer, Armando Zapata, to get their reactions to MTV's
20th birthday hoopla.
Q. Do you see JBTV as an alternative to the MTV monolith? With too few exceptions,
if you want music on TV, you have to go to one of the stations they control.
Zapata: I think the record labels like and appreciate what we do, but we're never going
to be able to have the millions of viewers that MTV has. So it's not like every day,
they're the enemy and we're trying to knock them down. But I know that what Jerry does, he
thinks that JBTV is like a great radio station, and he picks the songs not because they've
been researched or anything else, but because they're great music and he wants to play
something that you're not going to hear anywhere else.
Bryant: Remember FM radio when it first came on? A new piece of music would come in
that day and they'd get it on the air--not one cut but maybe a couple of cuts--because it
meant something to the audience. Now, the average program director is too afraid of losing
their job in these corporate companies to make any kind of decisions.
The problem with television now is that if you just play music videos, you get not the
greatest ratings. Even my show, if I do a show that's got a lot of talk and not much
music, it will get a better rating than a show that's 99 percent music. My show is all
about the music, and I refuse to change that. But we just re-ran the show with Joey
Ramone, and he talked for like 30 minutes straight. More people have told me over the last
week that they liked that show, but it had maybe six songs over the course of the whole
hour, and normally I like to do 12 to 15 songs.
Q. Do you ever have a hard time getting videos from the music industry because it
wants to avoid ticking off MTV?
Bryant: I haven't found any problems with that. But a good example of something else is
Incubus. They had the song ''Certain Shade of Green,'' their first video, and MTV didn't
really play it, but we did. The second video that came out, MTV got it first, despite [our
support]. Or the Moby song, ''That's When I Reach for My Revolver''--MTV demanded that he
re-record that and change the lyrics. He came on our show and was complaining about it,
and within a week, MTV had him on all the time.
Zapata: We just think it's funny that they don't touch certain artists, and all the
sudden it's like they've discovered them after we've been playing them for months and
months. We find it amusing.
Q. Do you think that MTV is a monopolistic force in the music world?
Bryant: It's just like radio stations now--like Clear Channel owns venues and concert
promotions and stuff like that. It's all part of the corporate thing, and it's what
America has turned into. But I think the individual shows, the individual people
throughout the country are going to still make it happen. There are plenty of local shows
in this city and throughout the whole country.
Zapata: Another thing we find amusing, though, is that people who do have access shows
still play the mainstream stuff--the same stuff that MTV is playing.
Bryant: We've even seen some access shows copy our playlist. I'm going, ''Why don't
they play other stuff? There's plenty out there!'' We get like 50 or 60 videos a week here
Q. How do you choose what you play?
Bryant: First, I take away the boy groups and the pop stuff, and I try to play the
bands that are alternative, modern-rock, in the middle there. Sometimes I'll play
something like the new Cowboy Junkies video because [singer] Margot [Timmons] is a good
friend of ours, and though it's a little slower and a little out of our format now, she's
an artist that deserves airplay, and I don't know if VH1 or any of the other stations are
going to bother with it.
Q. It seems to me that the whole concept of rock videos is flawed--that these
three-minute commercials have taken away something powerful in rock. The stuff that I like
best on JBTV tends to be the concert footage that you shoot live. Would you agree?
Bryant: Absolutely! Most bands aren't crazy about making videos to begin with, but the
spontaneity of the live thing. What's nice about a live concert is that things happen in
concerts. They're not technically perfect, and those little things that happen are what
makes them magic. Again, it gets down to the music.
Zapata: A lot of it too is that the record companies hire directors who they know will
get on MTV, whether it's Wayne Isham or someone like that. You're hiring someone who isn't
a musician, someone who isn't totally into the scene, someone who's trying to win an award
instead of going for the gut. All those live things--I was watching the Beatles'
''Anthology'' tape over the weekend, and all that stuff back then was live and raw, it
came from the gut, which is where music should come from.
Bryant: I think bands could do songs that have six different videos, but a lot of times
they spend so much money that they're afraid to experiment. I don't think videos have to
cost that much. It's funny, we just shot for MTV's 20th anniversary celebration the
Blink-182 concert at the Tweeter Center. We had six cameras and it was Chicago's first
HDTV video shoot, and it still cost a fraction of the average MTV video. I was doing that
for the record company, though, so it wasn't like working for the competition.
Q. What if MTV came to you and said, ''Jerry, we want you to be the next Matt
Bryant: No way! And what happened to Matt Pinfield, anyway? He was one of the few
people who had integrity, who knew music, and who really cared. It's just hard to do that
kind of stuff in these narrow formats.