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 and Kennedy.

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 just passed?

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 copies.

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 mega-corporation.

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 country-themed CMT.

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 themselves.''

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, hands down.

MTV Timeline

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.''

March 1982
''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.

December 1983
MTV scores another coup, debuting Michael Jackson's 14-minute video for ''Thriller.''

September 1984

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 Think.''

July 1985
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.

March 1986
MTV first airs live coverage from spring break.

May 1986
''Downtown'' Julie Brown is named VJ, the first since the original five in 1981.

October 1987
MTV ventures into news coverage with ''The Week in Rock.''

December 1987
MTV airs its first game show, ''Remote Control'' testing contestants' TV knowledge.

February 1988
Kurt Loder, a former editor of Rolling Stone magazine, joins the MTV news department, bringing with him a healthy dose of journalistic credibility.

June, 1988
''MTV Internacional,'' a weekly hourlong version of MTV in Spanish, begins airing on Telemundo.

August 1988
''YO! MTV Raps'' airs as a weekly show featuring rap music. It is so popular, it soon begins airing Monday through Friday.

March 1989
Madonna's video for ''Like A Prayer'' has its world premiere. The controversial images end up costing Madonna her gig as a Pepsi spokesperson.

November 1989
MTV is there to broadcast the first live feed from East Berlin as the Communist government and the Berlin Wall both crumble.

January 1990
The acoustic music series ''MTV Unplugged'' premieres.

June 1991
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.

June 1992
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.

October-November 1992

Vice Presidential nominee Al Gore, President George Bush and presidential nominee Ross Perot all appear on the network at some point.

January 1993

MTV sponsors an inaugural ball for President Clinton. Both the Clintons and the Gores attend.

March 1993

Beavis and Butt-head get their own show, highlights include Beavis waxing apathetically ''This sucks more than anything that has ever sucked before.'' XXXX

May 1994

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.

August 1994

MTV denotes a weekend to live coverage from the Woodstock '94 Festival.

June 1995

Chicago native Jenny McCarthy jump starts her career when she co-hosts ''Singled Out,'' a new twist on the old dating game.

July 1995
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.

June 1996
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.''

July 1986
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

December 1996
''Loveline,'' a late night call-in show about love, sex and intimacy premieres, making television stars of hosts Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Pinsky.

January 1997
Paris. New York. Milan. Lawndale: ''Daria,'' a cartoon about a smart, sarcastic and cynical teenager premieres.

May 1997
Fleetwood Mac reunite to tape an exclusive concert for MTV.

September 1997
MTV opens its new studios in Times Square.

November 1997
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.

January 1998
''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.

September 1998
Carson Daly hosts MTV's newest show, ''TRL (Total Requests Live).''

January 1999
MTV unleashes Canadian comedian Tom Green onto the world with ''The Tom Green Show.''

July 1999
MTV premieres ''Undressed,'' a ''Sex and the City'' type soap opera for the teen set.

June 1999
MTV takes viewers behind the scenes with its new show, ''Making the Video.''

February 2000
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.

May 2000
MTV shows graphic footage of Tom Green's surgery for testicular cancer.

September 2000
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 jackasses.''

January 2001
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.

May 2001
MTV airs a hip-hop version of Carmen, setting the classic opera in a contemporary setting.

August 2001
''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 sometimes.

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 Pinfield!''?

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.

Jim DeRogatis