"Gross." That was the reaction my high school friends and I had to one of the very first music videos we ever watched on MTV. It was the 1984 debut of Madonna's "Like a Virgin." We gasped in disbelief as she writhed on the ground and panted shamelessly about being "touched for the very first time."
Madonna repeated her solo porn act during an MTV concert in which she sang -- well, moaned -- "Like a Virgin" while simulating masturbation on a bed. The most horrifying Madonna-inspired spectacle, though, was not on TV. It was at the mall, where our teen-age peers paraded half-naked in Madonna garb, lip-synched to her crude lyrics, and imitated every self-gratifying bump and grind of her trashy videos.
Such were the toddler years of MTV.
Now, the cable network -- No. 1 among Americans aged 12 to 24 -- is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The week leading up to the official party on Aug. 1 has been an endless bacchanal of self-congratulation ("Which MTV VJ rocked your world?" "Watch celebrities wish MTV a happy birthday!").
Like Madonna, whose recent hit video features the aging star groping female strippers, MTV has grown older -- but has yet to grow up. I admit to being a fan of the network's dour cartoon comedy "Daria." And MTV celebrities like the clean-cut Carson Daly and saccharine Mandy Moore are annoyingly harmless. But the channel's main fare is a corrosive, constant and instantly accessible mix of sex, drugs, violence and vulgarity laced with hypocritical political correctness.
Take the network's countdown of its "Most Outrageous Moments" over the past 20 years. Among the cherished cultural milestones being toasted by MTV:
-- Cadaverous crotch-grabber Michael Jackson denying allegations of child molestation in 1993 from his Neverland Valley Ranch.
-- Canadian "comedian" Tom Green drinking milk directly from a cow's udder.
-- Singer Diana Ross "copping a feel" of rapper Lil' Kim's exposed breast at the 1999 Video Music Awards.
-- A spring break special hosted by bottom-of-the-barrel talk-show host Jerry Springer, in which "three couples take it all off (except for some decorative whipped cream) and strut their stuff."
-- Rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard riding in a limousine with an MTV camera crew in tow to cash a welfare check. (The Wu-Tang Clan rapper, a convicted felon who has fathered 13 illegitimate children, was imprisoned two weeks ago for possession of crack cocaine.)
-- And joining this stellar pantheon of MTV's favorite freaks: Bill Clinton chortling like a class clown when a member of the MTV generation asked, "If you had to do it over again, would you inhale?"
High-minded MTV execs will point to the network's "Choose or Lose" election coverage as one of their most positive contributions to youth culture. But the endeavor is poisoned by the partisan Democrat leanings of MTV's news division and "boxers-or-briefs?" vacuity. It doesn't help matters when the channel's election reports -- with their constant lament that politicians don't take young people seriously -- air between dancing condom ads and Beavis and Butthead reruns.
MTV cheerleaders also tout the awareness-raising agenda of some of its prime-time programming. "MTV's 'Real World' offers a positive social message," pop-culture professor Robert Thompson of Syracuse University says. The reality show's most famous alumnus, homosexual activist Pedro Zamora who died of AIDS in 1994, used the airwaves to incessantly promote tolerance and "safe sex." Earlier this year, MTV again lectured its audience about homophobia with a made-for-TV movie about murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard and a day-long lobbying campaign for hate crimes laws.
This from the entertainment conglomerate that made foul-mouthed gay-basher Eminem filthy rich and famous.
The ultimate sanctimony of MTV's purveyors of perversity was summed up nicely by two of the original hosts, Mark Goodman and Alan Hunter, who were interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning America" this week. While reminiscing about the wondrous cultural impact the network has had over the past two decades, the men admitted that they don't allow their own teen-age kids to watch MTV.
"Are you kidding?" Goodman guffawed. "Have you seen what they put on the air?"