August 1 marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of MTV. Since its inception in 1981, the channel has grown and transformed into a powerful vechicle that shook up the music industry in ways that even its creators’ could never have dreamed of. From its humble beginnings when the shows’ hosts would have to travel to certain states just to be able to watch their own programmes, through to its pinnacle of popularity in the late 90s, MTV unquestionably changed the face of music in a time when its image and structure drastically needed reinventing.
Yet it’s often hard to remember this legacy as a lasting concept when you watch the channel today: the sad fact remains that 30 years down the line the music network certainly doesn’t live up to its initialled title of Music Television any longer.
The concept was simple, if radical at the time: MTV would be an outlet where music videos would be played 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all hosted by the channel’s self-styled versions of ‘VJs’ rather than DJs. Their tagline was “You’ll never look at music in the same way again.” And they were right. The opening footage of MTV’s launch at 12.01am on August 1, 1981 is absolutely iconic: the visions of the Apollo 11 mission and moon landing – complete with the MTV flag – were quickly followed by the Buggles’ video for ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, both of which soon became synonymous with the MTV brand and the sense of sonic shakeup.
So what went wrong? A quick flick through MTV and its associated channels today and you’ll be hard pressed to actually find many music videos at all. Instead you’re likely to be confronted by an episode of Jersey Shore, or some equally banal reality programme. These programmes, counting Teen Mom, Geordie Shore, The Hills, My Super Sweet 16 amongst them, have become the normal money-making fodder for MTV rather than choosing to broadcast anything to do with music.
MTV Is 30: Top-30 Music Videos From The Last 30 Years
Early reality show The Real World was first aired on MTV in 1992, and has continued to run ever since, with its 28th season due to be shown later this year. As a formative version of Big Brother, what originally began as a social experiment that would test and question the morals and preconceptions of MTV’s core audience of 18-25-year-olds, soon spiralled into the cold reality show crammed with in-house arguments and sexual exploits that it encompasses today, paving the way for hundreds of similarly vapid shows in its wake.
At least shows like The Osbournes, Punk’d and Cribs, which all began to appear on MTV in the early-2000s, were remotely related to music, whether it was by featuring an artist’s vast, palatial home, or allowing MTV's audiences access to the unravelling of a rock legend’s family, or by simply showing pranks that were played on unassuming musicians. Yet even with the inclusion of these reality shows ten years ago it was guaranteed that there would be slots of music videos, interviews with bands and other music news and content either side of the programme. Now it’s almost the exact opposite.
Meanwhile MTV Unplugged was another hugely influencing show, where music fans could see their favourite artists and bands take on a new lease of life. Total Request Live and its unforgettable Times Square backdrop was another arena for music fanatics to get their fix, requesting exactly what videos they wanted to watch and finally being able to have a say in influencing the choices of which music videos were selected. Neither of these shows exist in their original – that is broadcasted – forms today, even though MTV’s Nirvana Unplugged session is arguably on of the channel’s finest moments. And despite TRL’s short lived revival in 2008, there certainly seems to be a backlash, if not a boycott, from viewers who actually want to watch music videos, and not some pseudo-scripted, faux-reality show.
But it’s not just music fans who are clearly angered by the iconic channel’s overt u-turn, as several bands have made clear at the VMAs over the years – another of MTV’s early musical initiatives that is still celebrated today as they were in 1984, albeit with a slightly different approach (i.e. the present inclusion of an award for ‘Best Kiss’.) Justin Timberlake is one of the more recent artists to express concern towards MTV's new incarnation, and joined a host of other annoyed acts when receiving his VMA in 2007 by exclaiming, “Play more damn videos!” during his acceptance speech.
MTV Is 30: Top-30 Music Videos From The Last 30 Years
And herein lies the very problem. While it could be argued that with the abundance of TV channels dedicated to music, and all its many genres, the fact is that not many of them are soley dedicated to just music videos, or at least ones that are not in the current Top 40. Before the days of access to the internet, I would anxiously await the next issue of my favourite monthly music magazines, while MTV and the various music video channels that followed in its footsteps – particularly VH1, the short-lived but hugely influencing MTV 2 and Kerrang! – helped to fill the void in between and became my main source of access to new music and a visual connection to the artists and bands that I was listening to on my sticker-covered cassette player.
Today, while going online and actively searching YouTube for new and old music videos alike might be convenient and give you a degree of choice, it just doesn’t hold the same appeal, or the same excitement, as enthusiastically waiting for something new to appear on the TV screen and take your ears – and eyes – by surprise.
With this week's news that people in Britain want to see the return of Top Of The Pops, or at least an equivilent, it's apparent that it's not just me who's sick of flicking through endless reality shows in order to find musical gems, old band interviews or live concert footage. Here's hoping that MTV realise this as they inevitably search through their vast archive of wonderful footage as their 30th anniversary approaches.
Do you still watch MTV? What are your favourite memories and moments from MTV's 30-year legacy? Let us know and share your thoughts using the comment box below.