MTV will host its annual movie awards this Sunday, April 13, seemingly the end of the heralded awards season. It’s almost an afterthought for Hollywood and certainly doesn’t have as much impact on the culture at large. Recent years have seen the network’s profile decline significantly with an ill-advised format change.
In the interest of journalistic integrity and disclosure, I’ll admit I grew up when MTV aired music videos and not much else. I rushed home from middle school to watch “Total Request Live,” aka “TRL,” at a time when 90s alternative music was engaged in commercial combat with the resurgence of bubblegum pop.
I was rocking out to Weezer, The Offspring, Smashing Pumpkins and Alanis Morrisette at the backend of that decade while I lived in innocence and peace in the South Jersey suburbs.
We had rappers like Coolio and Mase on the Top 40. The convergence of styles and diversity of enjoyment was made possible because of the unifying force of MTV. Yeah, I’m an old fart.
I remember the explosive beat of Britney Spears’ first single was amplified by the image of her bare midrift in the video. It was a wake-up call for many senses.
No one gave the Backstreet Boys credit until we saw the creativity and footwork they boasted in the music video for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” although we couldn’t figure out where they had supposedly been all along. The network that ruled the 80s and fueled the explosion of cable was alive and well and we were all better for it.
However, something changed when I went off to college. NBC pulled away genial host Carson Daly from “TRL” and put him on two hours after “The Tonight Show” ended. Although I watched MTV far less than I did at home, something was noticeably missing: the music.
People were taking note of the format change, notably the musicians themselves. When Justin Timberlake accepted his multiple MTV Video Music Awards in 2007 (because they still exist, despite no longer showing music videos), he beseeched the station to play more videos.
As opposed to being the sole overarching network of the music industry, appealing to all audiences with content for everyone, MTV divided its following into a series of networks: MTV2, mtv U, MTV Hits, Jams and Tres.
The hub network, MTV, seeks to appeal to the 12- to 25-year-old demographic, as it incorporates shifting trends and ideals associated with the age group via reality series and an abundant presence of teen angst. It’s as if the station has blindly given up on its fan base, having evolved over decades, preferring to inculcate a younger generation.
Owned by media conglomerate Viacom, MTV began following other networks with more demographic-specific formats. The station continues to shy away from its original mission and identity of airing music videos and now shows more original programming. The shows aren’t eccentric and original, like “Daria” or “Clone High,” either.
I began to realize this unfortunate turn when the young women raising children out of wedlock on “Teen Mom” became tabloid darlings. I watched a couple episodes and thought it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen on television. It was a salacious combination of exploitation and voyeurism, throwing traditional morality on the grill and burning it to a crisp.
“Jersey Shore” is perhaps the worst thing to happen to my home state, a leech that won’t peel away. I find myself having to explain to people how the show is not a true depiction of the actual Jersey Shore. It’s an unjust and unfair labeling of our culture that makes the argument for why the scripted series on MTV are adding little to no value to its following.
The network also acquired BBC’s critically acclaimed “Skins,” stripped it of its edginess and truly controversial aspects, and threw in teenage garbage and bad acting. Additionally, the new “Teen Wolf” looks like a cross between “Twilight” and tired writing.
The one decent show MTV managed to air was a quirky laugh riot: “I Just Want My Pants Back.” The show received critical acclaim but apparently not enough viewership to keep it around; MTV axed it after one season. If you didn’t catch it, imagine “Girls” with a less naked Lena Dunham and more comedy.
Despite the removal of the MTV powerhouse from its pedestal, music videos are in continuous production and the industry churns forward. I now watch videos on my phone, thanks to YouTube and Vevo. Some are still brilliant; All are missing a common marketplace for consumption and discussion.
Consider if clothing designers were to lose business from department stores: They would continue designing new clothing lines and manufacturing the products, but how would they grow their brands in a crowded marketplace without an avenue through which to sell? It’s not as easy without a central convergence.
Bringing it back to the music industry, MTV’s abandonment of music videos is hurting the artists. Take Kanye West, for example. He’s trying to reinvent himself from a musical to visual artist.
The set designs for his Yeezus tour were powerful and symbolic. The show was a journey of imagination and he willed it to life. Although he received some criticism for this sudden change of focus, it’s a change that looks good on him.
Imagine if we watched Kanye’s videos on MTV every day after school, finding patterns in his work like Monet’s water lilies or Titian’s red. His concerts would be living embodiments of what we saw on television, like Michael Jackson’s moonwalking before massive arenas in the 80s brought “Billie Jean” from the small screen to life.
Yeezus shows challenged viewers to step outside their comfort zones and experience the music, rather than be transported into the videos they may or may not have seen. How else would he have successfully engaged the audience and left a lasting memory of his music? Not through exploitation on MTV, that’s for sure.
As opposed to promoting artists and avant-garde expression like it did in the 80s and 90s, MTV now promotes abandonment of traditional motives and infuses this new, manufactured brand of “cool” to the needy masses.
When the network originated, rockstars implored fans to demand the station be carried and their parents sign up for service with a timeless tagline: “I want my MTV!”
After decades of transference from its original wonder, we ask: Does anyone want MTV anymore?
Photo via MTV