It's been 20 years, and our little MTV
is all grown up.
It was once the new cable network that a 45-word article in the Wall Street Journal said would "feature tapes of contemporary musical groups singing or acting out their songs," (untitled, March 4, 1981). Today, MTV Networks has become a conglomeration of MTV, MTV2, VH1, Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite.
Much more than just a corporate growth, MTV's increasing popularity has left a mark on popular culture. Few would have guessed the station's future influence as they saw The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," the first video aired on MTV, flicker onto their televisions.
From documenting great moments in musical history to delving into politics to creating national pop culture phenomena, MTV has become the icon of youth culture.
It all started in 1981 when the station played only music videos, all the music was rock and pop, and the artists were white. This state didn't last though. Before long, TV series began to dominate the programming, Michael Jackson broke into rotation, and several years later hip-hop and rap groups made their debut on the MTV scene.
After a few years, in 1984, the first of the long-lasting phenomena was born: the Video Music Awards. The show's highlight came when Madonna performed "Like a Virgin" in a wedding dress.
In the years that followed, this event would come to UCLA's Pauley Pavilion once, in 1992, a mistake that apparently MTV does not intend to repeat.
Objections from the music industry about parking and difficulty seeing the stage were so strong that MTV was forced to move the event back to Universal the next year.
"This year (1993), because of all the ramifications of the music industry being upset, and some of the informality we lost, I agreed to try it again at the Amphitheater," said the event's producer Joel Gallen, as reported in the Los Angeles Times ("MTV Video Music Awards; 10 Years of Heavy Rotation; a Bash that Puts the Rock in Raucous," Sept. 2, 1993).
The annual, out-of-control "Spring Break" show began in 1986, taking college students to Daytona Beach, Fla. for a party, the details of which their parents would probably rather not know.
Another MTV show that was not scoring points with parents was "Beavis and Butt-head." Episodes featured the animated duo sitting around in their AC/DC and Metallica T-shirts burning things, abusing animals and coming to the epiphany that a music video they were watching "sucks."
"They're so politically incorrect in a politically correct time that I thought it would be a breath of fresh air," said executive producer Abby Terkuhle, as quoted in Newsday ("Rude, Crude... and Cool," July 25, 1993).
A more recent phenomenon is "Total Request Live." With an emphasis on viewer participation, the show has become a marker of who is hot in pop music.
Even though many of the series focus on what could be called "MTV culture," taking a look at the viewers rather than the artists, there were also those shows that provided a new perspective of bands that had previously been seen only in their videos.
One such series of shows was "Unplugged." Featuring acoustic performances from bands like Nirvana and R.E.M., the show proved that bands could sing and play, as well as rock.
Not to limit itself to just the musical world, MTV started getting involved in politics. "Rock the Vote," a non-profit organization made up of members of the recording industry, started running public service announcements urging 18- to 25-year-olds to register to vote.
"Young people feel the candidates don't speak to the issues they care about," said Becky Cain, president of the National League of Women Voters, as quoted in USA Today ("Rock the Vote pulls the MTV generation to the polls," Nov. 3, 1992).
This may have been the thinking behind then-governor Bill Clinton's appearance on the station in June of '92. He met with 200 young people and answered any questions they had.
This move was unique both for presidential candidates and for MTV.
"It's smart of MTV to cover politics, but it's even smarter of Bill Clinton to use MTV to reach young voters," said Howard Polskin on a CNN report on June 26, 1992.
Not everyone was as impressed with MTV's move toward politics, however. A USA Today article ("You shouldn't want your MTV News," Aug. 8, 1991) accused the station of being too leftist.
"The 10th anniversary revelry continues, culminating in a November ABC special. We are asked to join in celebrating a message to children that conservatives are evil, abortion is acceptable and religion should be dismissed. Parents should ask themselves: Do we really want our MTV?" the article read.
MTV also led the way into reality programming with "The Real World," which premiered in 1992, and influenced the influx of shows like "Survivor" and "Big Brother."
Along with the decision to increase programs rather than videos, there was a shift in the types of videos that were made.
In general, they have become more expensive, showier and laden with special effects.
"It has forced us to raise our budgets and ... that ... affects which artists' videos we make and don't make," said Wendy Griffiths, vice president of video promotion for Reprise Records.
Overall, the videos have placed increasing pressure on bands to have an image. From boy bands to metal bands, the way the groups look in their videos influence their success.
"It did become form over substance and I think it affected the credibility of pop music," said Dave Wakeling of the 1980s bands The English Beat and General Public.
Taking another perspective, Romeo Dejai, of the KPWR afternoon show "Goodfellas and Tito," sees it as an opportunity for artists to show their unique style.
"It means so much in music," he said. "I think MTV allows artists to be trend-setters."
When that first video played on MTV, no one could have anticipated the way the station would grow and change, from a music video outlet to an icon.