Yes, haha, that’s a joke. Of course you know the “M” in MTV stands for “music,” just as you know that MTV and music are almost entirely divorced from one another at this point. That’s the joke. Haha.
Anyway, a couple days ago, it was announced that Universal Music Group—home to pretty much every big star in the pop-music world (Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber)—would pull all its music video content from MTV.com, and air it exclusively online at Vevo.com. Do you care about this news? I can’t see why you would. If we’ve already agreed that MTV has nothing to do with music, and MTV.com is merely an extension of MTV, then why should this matter? If you want to see the new Rihanna video, you’ll go to Vevo. It’s really not a big deal.
And, in fairness, it shouldn’t be. The powers that be at MTV long ago realized they could make a lot more money with consistent blocks of structured programming rather than by showing music videos. That’s perfectly understandable. Furthermore, as bad as some MTV programming can be, some of it is also pretty great—for example, I sincerely love Jersey Shore; I think True Life is intelligent, compelling and generous. I would much rather watch either of those shows than Cobra Starship videos.
Still, as the network drifts further from its roots, I find myself looking back on its golden days and wondering how much it impacted and aided the evolution of popular music. It certainly impacted and aided the evolution of a generation of pop-culture consumers. Personally, MTV introduced me to not only countless new bands that would go on to impact my life, but it provided me with a cultural center, an understanding of myself in relation to others. It also provided me opportunities to grow as a person. Understand, that’s because I defined myself very strictly in terms of the music I listened to, but isn’t that what all teenagers do? (I still do it, so it’s not necessarily exclusive to teenagers.)
This is what I mean: When I was a high school metalhead, I would watch Headbangers Ball, to see videos from obscure bands I loved (I remember the shock and excitement I felt in first seeing a Kreator video on TV), and in turn, discover new bands to love. In doing this, I found bands like Pantera, Voivod, Faith No More, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam… And as I found these new bands, my personal horizons expanded.
Of course, it helps that I was at Ground Zero when grunge exploded—as grunge was a new thing at the crossroads of heavy metal and modern rock (or Headbangers Ball and 120 Minutes)—but MTV provided the setting for that explosion. Without MTV, would we have had “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Would Nirvana have mattered? (For what it’s worth, I’m of the mind that music was forever altered by Nirvana, maybe more so than any band since the Beatles, to the extent that nothing today would look the way it does had Nirvana not mattered. It bears mentioning that I was 17 in 1991, when the band’s breakthrough Nevermind was released, so I may have a slightly distorted view.)
My point is, I don’t think we would have had the phenomenon of Nirvana had MTV not been there to endlessly replay that video—but we needed more than just MTV; or, really, we needed MTV and nothing more. We needed to focus our undivided attention on one channel, one source, so that we as a culture were sharing this moment, so that we all knew who Nirvana was, and why they looked and sounded different than anything else we were seeing and hearing. Only MTV could have provided this. Or, more generally, only a source like MTV could have provided this. In this sense, 1991 offered the exact ingredients necessary for a perfect storm of cultural tectonic shift.
And, next year will be the 20th anniversary of Nevermind and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and 1991.
In other words, that was a long, long time ago. That is ancient history.
I don’t hear many people decrying the demise of MTV. Sure, lots of people make that joke, that obvious joke, that I made at the top of this column—pointing out the irony to be found in the network’s name—but not many people seem to recognize what MTV meant and why it mattered. Or if they do, they don’t seem to care. And I can’t say we’re stronger or wiser or happier because we had MTV—nor even that I am a more interesting or more well-rounded person because of it—but I don’t think anything would have been the same without it, and I don’t think another generation will have anything quite like it. And in some ways I envy them this, and in other ways, I think the generation of which I was a part—the MTV generation, if you will—I think we were around at the moment of something very special, something magical, something that was, in its way, revolutionary.