Don't Want My MTV

Don't Want My MTV

On August 1st, Usher rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. He was joined by Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks.The occasion? MTV’s thirtieth birthday. Toffler, when asked how it is that the network’s brand has stayed so “fresh,” replied:

“Well, we decided to not grow old with our audience from the very beginning of MTV. So, as our audience aged up we said goodbye to them, and we embraced everything that was new and innovative.”

Meanwhile, MTV’s message boards featured comments like these:

“What does the M in MTV stand for if it no longer plays music?”

“I understand we are in the era of reality TV but we need a break from it. Bring back some of the old segments from time to time!”

“I regret to inform you that MTV never made it to its 30th birthday. It actually died many years ago. I was born the same year as MTV and it has been difficult to watch as it deteriorated before my eyes. Tragically heartbreaking. MTV has been sorely missed by many RIP MTV.”

Rather a stark contrast, no? Seems that while the higher ups were celebrating, those who actually watch the network had more than a few gripes. Lord knows where exactly Toffler’s innovation is, but it doesn’t appear to be anywhere near where young folks are at.

Few can remember the days when MTV was actually worthy of the name “Music Television,” let alone considered on the cutting edge of pop-culture. The days when you could turn on MTV and find something both aesthetically and culturally controversial--Devo, the Clash, Fishbone--are long gone. Back then, not too many big names took video seriously, and so it fell to the fringes to keep the upstart network going.

My own musical awakening took place well after these years, but even in the early-to-mid ‘90s there was still a fascinating interplay between mainstream and underground. I heartily imbibed shows like “Alternative Nation,” “Yo! MTV Raps” and “120 Minutes.” It was MTV that first exposed me to grunge and hip-hop, sending me down a rabbit hole I have yet to emerge (and probably never will).

And so, much like these young ‘uns posting on the MTV message board, I find myself so often asking: “what the hell happened?” How the hell do you go from Devo to Debbie Gibson, from Slick Rick to Soulja Boy, from Pearl Jam to Paramore? How the hell do you go from honestly proclaiming “I want my MTV!” to flipping the channel just so you don’t have to hear “gym, tan, laundry” recited one more agonizing time?

The most obvious answer is that the execs lost their spine, but really, it runs a lot deeper. It seems oddly symbolic that MTV was launched the same week as air traffic controllers across the US went on strike, only to be crushed by Reagan a year later. As the political radicalism of the ‘70s gave way to the “greed is good” ‘80s, it makes sense that MTV’s whole aesthetic get sucked back into the mall. In the early days, the fledgling network had to rely on the avant-garde because the big labels didn’t take them seriously. But as it grew up, it had to “hit with the big boys” and make deals with the very same music industry that was beginning to wield unprecedented power over artists’ output. Nowadays, MTV and its subsidiaries are an irrevocable part of that industry. And like every other industry, it’s in the business of making money.  

This isn’t to say that the network can’t still be caught off-guard. The upsurge of alternative culture and hip-hop in the ‘90s ran hand-in-hand with a wide disaffection of young people toward the system. Most kids sympathized with the LA uprising and the protests against the Gulf War. The angry sounds of NWA and Nirvana just made more sense, and MTV, along with the whole industry, struggled to play catch-up.

Now it seems like the big-wigs more resolute than ever at keeping control. On one hand, it’s an easier task now; the record industry is more consolidated than it’s ever been. On the other, kids are simply voting with their feet--or, more to the point, their keyboards. The formula is simple: when the mainstream is unsatisfactory, kids will look elsewhere for music that inspires them.

It happened in the ‘60s in the switch from AM to FM, when the latter set itself apart by allowing more artistic and political leeway. Within a couple years, FM was the preference of the counterculture; AM was for conservative fogies. When “video killed the radio star,” it was a similar shift, when the edge was pushed to the middle.

Now it’s the ‘Net, which the industry may still yet find a way to get under its control. For some reason, MTV still keeps up the charade, but nobody really buys it. While Usher rang the opening bell of the Stock Exchange, MTV’s target demographic struggles with joblessness and debt. “Out of touch” seems an understatement.

Maybe for its 30th birthday, MTV can do what all “respectable” thirty-somethings are expected to do--and what most of its execs did a long time ago: take out the piercings, cover up the tatts, sell off their music collection and once and for all give up the pretense of being cool.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies, and is a columnist for SOCIARTS. He can be reached at