Twenty years ago, MTV was born with video broadcast of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Whether or not video killed radio, MTV’s version certainly put American pop culture on life support.
As a member of that first MTV generation, I loved watching videos of artists MTV rocketed to stardom: Van Halen, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, and The GoGos. My friends and I were mesmerized by the vivid colors, cool clothes, and unique hairstyles – eye candy to go with the songs we heard on the radio. We knew what it meant to say, “I want my MTV.”
But, this week, I won’t be celebrating with Kid Rock, Eminem, Britney, and MTV’s other creations. MTV’s two decades of marriage to American culture has degraded into a disaster. It’s time for divorce, not celebration.
From the beginning, MTV wasn’t satisfied in being a television version of a radio station, replete with VJs, made-for-TV hair bands and spandex. Tom Freston, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, told People about “the missionary belief everybody had in what we were doing.” That missionary belief included making MTV a force in politics, sexual mores, and just about anything else. John Sykes, MTV’s first director of promotions and now president of VH1, said that MTV was founded because “the suits were ultimately sold on MTV’s grand plan – to marry … ‘the greatest forces in American culture.'”
Soon, videos were not enough. After almost a decade of launching guys like Billy Idol and Boy George, MTV wanted to launch the careers of guys like Bill Clinton – and foil foes like Tipper Gore. And it succeeded. In 1990, MTV and recording industry forces launched Rock the Vote (RTV) to silence those who objected to the increasing violence, graphic sex
and attacks on women in rock and pop. In 1992, MTV and RTV – staffed by Clinton’s people – helped turn out the largest group of young voters since 1992, which resulted in a Clinton victory.
RTV’s first order of business was the National Voter Registration Reform Act, a.k.a. the “Motor Voter Bill,” which Clinton signed into law in 1993, crediting RTV for its passage at the White House signing ceremony. Motor Voter made it easier for pierced and tattooed 20-something MTV viewers to register to vote for MTV’s liberal agenda and re-elect Clinton. Today, RTV has been transformed into MTV’s “Choose or Lose” political campaign coverage – coverage, which included Clinton as the first U.S. presidential candidate to appear on the network. Remember his MTV appearances? He turned the presidency into a referendum on “boxers or briefs?” and described how he didn’t inhale, but wished he had.
In 1999, RTV honored Hillary Clinton with its first Rock the Nation Award, and recently honored Jesse Jackson, too. Republicans don’t get many kudos from “non-partisan” MTV – and never have. In its current incarnation, MTV’s politics have spilled over into its made-for-TV movies. Its original movie, “Anatomy of a Hate Crime,” shown in January, was the start of its “Take a Stand Against Discrimination” campaign to include gender, sexual orientation and disabilities in federal hate crimes legislation. No word on whether MTV’s favorite gay- and women-basher, Eminem, would be exempt under such legislation.
Unfortunately, MTV’s influence reaches the highest levels of government. During the 2000 Presidential election, John McCain said profane, misogynist “Nine Inch Nails” was his favorite rock group, just after he attended the MTV Video Music Awards. And now, MTV’s creation, left-wing Irish citizen Bono of U2 is lobbying the power elite – from Bush administration officials to Sen. Jesse Helms – for his preposterous plan to forgive billions in world debt, an idea that could tumble the banking system and interest rates.
Beyond politics, MTV’s negative influence on young America is definitive. The latest crop of MTV’s artists is a far cry from the ones I watched 20 years ago. Besides misogynist rappers like Eminem, pimp-wannabes like Kid Rock, and midriff-baring, risqu?-dressing sexuality-merchants like Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears (whose low-rise Jeans can’t go any lower), there are guys like “Limp Bizkit” frontman Fred Durst for MTVers to idolize. Durst, now also a record-label executive and film director, is known for harsh lyrics against women. But that’s not all. He’s credited with provoking violence and rape of
women at 1999’s MTV-sponsored Woodstock revisit. He brags he’s never read a book in his life.
MTV’s broken a lot of new ground that was better left unbroken. Like “Fear Factor” and “Temptation Island?” MTV started this genre with “The Real World,” sex-laden Spring Break shows, “Undressed,” and its reality specials on sexuality. Its latest reality offerings include “Jackass,” which resulted in serious injuries to and lawsuits by viewers copying dangerous moronic stunts, and “Dude, This Sucks,” in which a performer defecated on two 14-year-old girls. From the sick humor of Tom Green masturbating animals to the sluttiness of Madonna and Britney’s live striptease last year on the network, MTV created two decades of increasingly worse anti-role models for kids. MTV, you’ve come a long way, baby.
MTV’s gotten so bad that even original VJ Martha Quinn is shocked. “I’m a mom now – so when I watch the Spring Break coverage, I’m horrified.” Ditto for MTV original Nina Blackwood. “That Jackass show. You’d have to pay me to watch that,” she told People.
In two decades on the air, MTV has created a dangerous template for the values of America’s kids. MTV survived 20 years in America. Can America survive another 20 years of MTV?