YO! MTV’s 25
From the original VJs to freaky Jesse Camp, from the early ‘Real World’ shows to ‘TRL,’ our music critic’s 25 reasons why MTV matters. Even if you can’t find any music videos anymore.
By LESLIE GRAY STREETER
Palm Beach Post Music Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006
Twenty-five years ago, the Buggles catchily and prophetically heralded the advent of a quirky little cable channel featuring nothing but music.
Whether video killed the radio star is up for debate, but the art form, and MTV, certainly changed the way that radio star looked and performed when it debuted Aug. 1, 1981. Indeed, I’ve always credited Music Television with the eradication of funny-looking pop stars, much like televised presidential debates made politicians want to be prettier.
Alas, MTV is not the same proudly scruffy upstart of a quarter-century ago â€” for one thing, it hardly plays videos anymore (they’ve been largely shuttled to sister channels MTV2 or VH1). And several of its original shows are more concerned with the shenanigans of the young and the hooking up than with music. Still, I come not to dump on MTV but to praise it for its unmistakable place in American pop culture, and for the reasons that I have, and still do, want my MTV.
1. The five original VJs: Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn and the late J.J. Jackson were an intriguing collection of actors, veteran DJs and one cute-as-a-button lass with nearly no on-camera experience. Together, they were a fun, accessible (read: not model-perfect) conduit into the brave new world of MTV. I miss them.
2. ‘Remote Control’: Nothing with production values like this 1987-1990 show would ever get on the air now, but MTV’s first game show took place in a fake basement with a Bob Eubanks-obsessed host (Ken Ober), a goofy sidekick (Colin Quinn) and leather recliners that pulled contestants through a wall when eliminated. Its brilliance was in its cheesiness.
3. The first three seasons of ‘The Real World’: Back before the show became a clearinghouse of nearly indistinguishable college types (Drunk Girl, Drunker Guy, Well-Adjusted Girl With No Airtime), The Real World was an often shocking, often touching, social experiment about strangers who stopped being polite and started being real. And not just when they were hooking up with each other.
4. ‘Total Request Live’: Sort of a new-fangled American Bandstand, the show counts down the day’s most requested videos, features a glut of celebrity appearances (Tom Cruise, Will Smith, a cuckoo-bananas Mariah Carey in Daisy Dukes and an ice cream cart) and a mess of screaming children. Democracy, MTV style.
5. ‘Pimp My Ride’: Not a music show, but MTV’s weirdly sweet answer to the home redecoration show is hosted by a rapper (Xzibit), always features a bumpin’ sound system, and has solidly subversive sensibilities (Let’s take your pitiful junker and make it better by making it tacky!) Yay!
6. Pedro Zamora: The presence of the openly gay Real World San Francisco housemate opened a national dialogue about HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and handling your life and impending death with dignity. The Real World would later lose Dignity’s phone number and never tell her where the set was.
7. MTV Christmas videos: In the early days, the MTV staff would make goofy holiday videos basically waving at the camera and watching a rock star sing a Yuletide tune on the set. The best â€” Billy Squier’s Christmas is a Time to Say I Love You.
8. ‘Making The Band’: From O-Town to the current Danity Kane, the hopeful musical starlings confront competition, rejection and, in the case of Da Band’s Babs, the tragedy of not having your fake hair delivered to you.
9. The Live-Aid broadcast, 1985: The complete opposite of the misguided Live 8 broadcast last year, where the ninny VJs cut into once-in-a-life-time performances (Hello? Pink Floyd?), Live-Aid was a daylong international marathon of musical styles, personalities and compassion. Plus: Phil Collins on two continents? Score!
10. “Wubba Wubba Wubba”: We don’t know what the heck Downtown Julie Brown was talking about. But it seemed clever at the time.
11. ‘Next!’: Train-wreck TV at its finest, young hotties diss and date for not much cash and the prize of making out with someone almost as self-absorbed as themselves. Yet . . . I can not turn away!
12. Jesse Camp: Speaking of train wrecks, the bizarrely incoherent winner of the first I Wanna Be A VJ contest was proof that sometimes the weirdest stuff is the kind you don’t have to make up.
13. The discovery of Jenny McCarthy, Carmen Electra and Bill Bellamy: The first two were MTV game-show hostesses, the latter a VJ. None have set the world on fire creatively, but the fact that they continue to work proves the power of the network to launch stars.
14. ‘Yo! MTV Raps’: The network’s acknowledgement that hip-hop did exist, after years of shockingly lily-white programming. Ed Lover, we salute you.
15. The first ‘Video Music Awards,’ 1984: Can you imagine a time when MTV would let two stars in their 30s (Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd) host its premier event? Wouldn’t happen now. But it was cool then.
16. ‘Rock The Vote’: The network’s effort to get youngsters politically motivated, it’s credited, in part, with Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992 â€” he took MTV’s invitation to appear seriously, where George H.W. Bush didn’t until way too late.
17. Matt Pinfield: He’s chunky. He’s bald. He’s sorta scary-intense. And the 120 Minutes host gave MTV some serious cred in the 1990s, going strong even as it began to banish the non-pretty to the cutting room of history.
18. Headbangers Ball: It scared the mess out of me, but it was late-night, hard-rocking wonderful.
19. Making stars out of pretty British boys: Duran Duran. Kajagoogoo. Spandau freaking Ballet. They were beautiful, angsty and had a heck of a way with a pop hook. You know that much is true-ooh.
20. The original MTV theme song: Duh-duh-duh, duh-DUH-DUH-DUH!
21. ‘Daria’: The poster child for snarky awkward teens, and the still-awkward 20-somethings they grew into.
22. Heavy airtime for ‘Money for Nothing’ and ‘Freedom 90’: Both videos, by Dire Straits and George Michael, respectively, questioned the validity of video stardom and flirted with biting the hand that fed them. But MTV knew a hit when it saw one.
23. ‘Joe’s Apartment’: A very gross MTV-produced movie began as a still gross but really funny animated short about a single guy and his several hundred talking cockroach roommates. You see why this was funny in a small serving?
24. The Ben Stiller Show: The now big-time movie star had a very funny MTV sketch show that became a very funny Fox show that no one watched. But you can catch the Fox version on DVD and see the error of your ways.
25. The Courtney Love/Madonna compact-throwing incident of 1995: During a pre-VMA interview with crusty-cool MTV News anchor Kurt Loder, Madonna was dismayed by the increasingly desperate attempts of Love to get her attention and be part of the interview. It culminated in Courtney tossing her makeup compact up onto the interview platform so she could come retrieve it and hog the camera. Awesome.