MTV Turns 25: A Look Back on the Pre-Trashy Good Times

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Aug 04, 2006 10:02 AM

MTV turns 25 this week, but it's not making a big deal, mostly because all of its viewers are so young, they'd see 25 as downright crotchety. Crotchety is not the image MTV is looking to embrace.So they're being quiet about it.  The WSJ isn't, though:

All those infamous MTV moments, such as the Madonna-Britney Spears kiss on the "Music Video Awards" show, are nothing compared with the casual, everyday salaciousness on view, and the constant bleeping of still-obvious dirty words. You can turn it off at home, but not at the gym or retail stores or other households, where flickering images of undulating women and rapacious men are as common as wallpaper.Yes, MTV has other programs, too. Even parents enjoy some of its reality shows, such as the car-makeover program "Pimp My Ride." Twenty-five years on, though, it's dismaying to know that no child of the MTV generation ever needs to ask: "Daddy, what's a pimp?"

This is the standard, conservative line on MTV. It's been said so many times before, it's kinda worn out. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that it's true. I've been watching MTV for as long as I can remember. Back when it was in its infancy, it was fairly safe to let a young child watch MTV. And, my parents let me.

I remember Tina Turner and "We Are the World," Richard Marx, and Martha Quinn. About the most iffy thing on the channel was the zombies in "Thriller," and they're way less scary than the actual Michael Jackson is now.

MTV was a lot of fun back then. MSN is listing the top moments in MTV's 25-year run. I'm remembering the good times--before the channel descended into Spring-Break-body-shots and disengenuous "Rock the Vote" efforts-- and pulling out a couple of my favorites:

3. THRILLER: Dec. 2, 1983. Less a video than a 14-minute mini-movie with Vincent Price, ghouls and goblins, the premiere of Jackson's "Thriller" was an event.

The break-the-mold music video, it sat atop the Top 100 video countdown for years until it was robbed of its rightful position by "Vogue," of all things. I was always bitter about that. "Vogue"?!? Those were better times, before we knew what the effeminate but absolutely adorable Michael would one day become. That ridiculous, red leather jacket, those high-water pants, that dance so oft and so badly imitated by white kids at high-school dances. I prefer to remember MJ like that.

5. MONEY FOR NOTHING: 1985. The Dire Straits song "Money for Nothing" was about MTV, mocked MTV and became the band's biggest hit because of MTV. It was one of the first videos to feature computer animation, and Sting made a clever cameo echoing his role in iconic "I want my MTV" ads. The rules for music stardom had changed. Being photogenic was now crucial; an eye-catching video made hits. "It was America's first national radio network," says record executive Phil Quartararo.

Isn't computer animation cool? It's the newest thing, so sophisticated.

8. RAP BLASTS OFF: Aug. 6, 1986. It's no coincidence that "Yo! MTV Raps!" premiered about the same time rap started becoming the dominant music form for young America. Hip white kids like Rick Rubin or the Beastie Boys may have loved rap before, but "Yo! MTV Raps!" brought it into every suburban living room. "Going from the network that was called on the carpet for not having blacks to this was a huge leap, and it was the right one for MTV," says Christina Norman, MTV's first black president.
I always thought they should just call it, "Yo! MTV Attempts With Very Little Subtlety to Appeal to an Emerging Minority Audience and the Suburban White Audience Wishing to Emulate It." Ahh, but that was back when rap was about parents just not understanding. Parents, referenced in a rap, without "baby" in front of the references. Different times, I tell ya.
14. REALITY BITES: June 23, 1994. It's hard to recall a time when setting up a group of strangers in a camera-filled home was a new idea. But the 1992 debut of "The Real World" "invented reality TV," says Thompson. "It's absolutely ground zero." And the inclusion of Pedro Zamora, who was gay and soon to die of AIDS, in the 1994 season did more to promote tolerance than hundreds of public service announcements. "It was probably the most riveting piece of television I had ever seen," says Brian Graden, then a young, gay man and now an MTV programming exec. "I had never seen someone like myself reflected back to me ... it really changed things for a whole generation of gay people."

Eh, I don't care so much about the 1994 season. I thought it got too overtly messagy by that point. But the first season-- the first season did exactly what the show was supposed to do. It put seven very different people in one loft in New York, and the result was some really interesting cultural clashes, some great conversation, and some close friendships between the "cast" members.

After that, the show became a preach-fest for a couple years, always representing as many oppressed minorities in each cast as possible and always casting a Southern, white male as their foil (though most of those Southern men did not play to type and proved themselves to be quite sweet, much to the chagrin of producers, I'm sure).

Now, it's pretty much about getting seven people in a house to get drunk and have sex. But back when it started, for better or worse, it was an innovation, and it was the predecessor to all the reality TV we see today (once again, you must decide whether this is a good or a bad thing).

23. CHICKEN OR TUNA?: Aug. 19, 2003. "Newlyweds" followed the telegenic Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey as they navigated marital bliss. They truly became famous when cameras caught Simpson confused by whether a can of Chicken of the Sea contained tuna. Presto! America had a new favorite dim blonde.

Finally, y'all know I love Jessica and Nick. I can't help it. Plus, there are Jessica's considerable political skills, which I've noted on this blog before. Admirable, indeed. When this show started, I was actually encouraged that MTV thought a traditional marriage was worthy of a reality show. Of course, Nick and Jessica's precipitous and public fall from marital grace pretty much canceled out any of positive messages the show might have left with MTV's young audience.

But there were some good times on MTV. I enjoyed many of them. But nothin' lasts forever, and we both know hearts can change.