Every self-respecting trivia junkie knows that the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first MTV video to air. Less well remembered is the fact that hardly anyone saw it: The network began broadcasting Aug. 1, 1981, 25 years ago, to a tiny sampling of homes in New Jersey, at a time when few neighborhoods were yet wired for cable.
Twenty-five years! If that doesn’t make you feel old, well, then you’re still using a sippy cup. Adults of all ages recognize MTV as the network that was going to do away with pop nostalgia by staying relentlessly on top of the very latest developments in music and the broader culture.
That’s pretty much what happened, with an odd residual effect. MTV, once home to such groundbreaking programming as “Yo! MTV Raps” and “The Real World,” is now, like everything else in America, a virtual museum of nostalgia. Those shows and others like them, which once helped unsettle tectonic plates of pop culture terrain (hip hop, reality TV), are now and forever bolted to their very specific places on the timeline.
And the network would rather not think about it, thank you very much. In a media-saturated land where every minor milestone is cause for major self-congratulation (have you preordered your copy of Dream Theater’s 20th anniversary DVD yet?), outside of a modest acknowledgment on mtv.com, no birthday cakes have been planned over at the home of “Unplugged” and “Beavis and Butt-head.” As the network prepares for the launch of Flux, its new interactive channel for the Myspace generation, there’s little room, it seems, for looking back. Like Satchel Paige said, something might be gaining on them.
In fact, something has been gaining on MTV almost from the beginning. Artists bemoaned the network’s newfound emphasis on visual imagery at the alleged expense of musical quality. Shows like “120 Minutes,” the network’s long-running Sunday-night ghetto for the alternative crowd, were often seen as token nods to the ill-defined subcultures bubbling under the vast mainstream.
And in recent years, as MTV withstood seemingly endless complaints about its move away from free-form video programming toward more traditional half-hour and hourlong series, its schedule started looking like little more than an ironic twist on black-and-white television conventions: The wacky dad (Ozzy)! The tribulations of high school kids (“Laguna Beach”)! The toppermost of the poppermost (“TRL”)!
“Turn it on, leave it on” was one of the less successful slogans from a media giant that has coined more than its share over the years. In hindsight, it represented a philosophy that proved to be impossible to maintain. These days, there’s a boundless source of attention-grabbing competition. With pay-per-view, satellite radio, the Internet, video gaming, etc., who stays loyal to one distraction anymore?
But the innovative minds at MTV spotted that trend, like all the others, early on. The company is now knee-deep in diversification, with sister networks, movie production and a rapidly expanding online presence.
Its infamous quick edits — the root of all ADD evil, to hear some tell it — have always been apparent not just within the context of stylish videos by Duran Duran or the White Stripes, but from one momentary zeitgeist to the next. MTV, the network that should have obliterated nostalgia by hurtling us forever forward, has in fact helped accelerate our appetite for it. Whether the network cares to take part or not, we’re now perfectly capable of reviving cultural phenomena that petered out just a few years ago. Y’all ready for the ‘N Sync reunion?
The old station ID — an astronaut planting an MTV flag on the moon — turned out to be a prophetic little slice of marketing genius. MTV may have gotten there first, but the place has since been colonized by countless moonwalkers and space cadets.
James Sullivan is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com. His new book, "Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon," comes out in August.