MTV turned 25 this month - but with uncharacteristic modesty, the cable channel isn’t doing much celebrating. It’s been left mostly to the news media to honor MTV’s many accomplishments.
“Without MTV,” the Associated Press points out, “you might not have reality television. Commercials wouldn’t have vertigo-inducing quick cuts. Musicians wouldn’t need to look like models to survive. Kelly Osbourne [of the reality show The Osbournes] wouldn’t have gotten near a recording studio. And only seamstresses would know about wardrobe malfunctions.”
If that were my legacy, I’m not sure I’d want to call attention to it either. But that’s not really the reason MTV is playing down its anniversary. As the Associated Press says, “When your average viewer is 20 years old . . . perhaps it’s wise not to mention you’re 25. MTV wants to be the perpetual adolescent.” The Washington Post puts it more succinctly: “At MTV, it is always about the now.”
Perpetual adolescence and living only for the moment are just a couple of the twisted values that MTV has foisted upon us over the past twenty-five years. There’s also exhibitionism, voyeurism, promiscuity, greed, and a host of other vices. Through its style as well as its content, MTV has done all it can to promote the cheap, the vulgar, and the flashy over the good, the true, and the beautiful.
I’m not saying that MTV has added anything to the culture that wasn’t already present. All these elements have always been part of sinful human nature. Where MTV distinguished itself was in glorifying these things - moreover, glorifying them for a young audience.
We certainly can’t place all the blame for our coarsened and desensitized culture on MTV. But it deserves a significant share of the blame for a culture in which our children - at younger and younger ages - are surrounded on all sides by twisted views of sexuality. And I do mean “surrounded on all sides.” Even kids who aren’t MTV viewers come up against its culture-shaping influences from their peers, from advertisers, even from their teachers, or from its host of affiliated networks ranging from Nickelodeon to LOGO, the new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered channel. MTV has forced parents to work harder than ever to protect and shape their kids’ minds, while giving them less of a chance of doing so successfully.
Only in a culture shaped by MTV’s kind of values, for example, could Madonna’s latest stage act—hanging on a mirrored cross while singing—draw little more than yawns and “Oh, there she goes again.” Madonna and her onstage antics are a perfect expression of the channel and the culture that helped create her. Or take that infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl. As the AP implied, what shocked an audience full of adults was old hat to many of their kids, who had seen far worse in MTV’s videos and reality shows.
It’s not many people who can look back and say that they changed a culture. That can be pretty awe-inspiring. But when you change it in the way that MTV did, you don’t celebrate: You hang your head in shame.