When MTV first aired 20 years ago, on Aug. 1, 1981, I was a geeky 12-year-old poised to enter eighth grade, with glasses, long stringy hair and one eyebrow. Two years after MTV pierced my preteen soul, I had a short-in-back, long-on-top hairdo a la the Human League; fingerless lace gloves like Madonna; a Walkman on my head to better listen to video-friendly artists like Billy Idol, Duran Duran and ABC; as well as (thank God) contact lenses and tweezers.
Twenty years and supposedly more than a million videos later, I am 32, married and still an MTV addict. I know where videos rank on "Total Request Live" and I can tell you what happened last week on "The Real World." I watch "Making the Video," "Cribs" and "Diary."
I think MTV news anchor Gideon Yago is kind of a hottie. But a couple of years ago (coinciding with the trauma of my 30th birthday), I realized I had become a graying video voyeur. No longer is MTV part of my generation--X--but it is squarely in the zone of Generation Y and Z. The booty-dancing kids, the crazy coeds stripping naked at "Spring Break," the cheesy boy bands, the ever-present navels--none of it speaks to the adult me.
So why do I continue to watch? Because I'm a music lover and a pop culture fanatic. Because I'm young at heart. Because although I may be older and MTV may not relate as much to my daily life, I still love the style, the glamour, the fashionable music mayhem that have been the network's draw since the early, heady days of its history. Video was a new frontier then, music was going New Wave and this nice Jewish girl from Long Island thought life couldn't possibly get any more exciting.
I watched then because I wanted to see cute boys lip-syncing in tight leather pants with wiggling hips. I watch now because--well, has anything really changed in 20 years?
It so happens that I wasn't watching that fateful day MTV aired its first video, the prescient Buggles tune "Video Killed the Radio Star." But about a month after MTV's classic rocket blastoff, I was sitting on the sectional leather couch at the home of my regular Saturday-night baby-sitting job--the great gig where I got to watch a big-screen TV with cable and eat all the junk food my mother banned in my house. The kids were long asleep, and I was flipping channels. Suddenly, there it was on the screen: nonstop music "videos"--complete with adorable English rockers, moody electronica and simple, often silly yet futuristic sets. It rocked my world, and I definitely wanted my MTV.
I couldn't get enough of those early, cheesy clips that had no pretensions and no budget: The Go-Go's' "Our Lips Are Sealed," the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town," the Vapors' "I Think I'm Turning Japanese" and Toni Basil's "Mickey" turned me on. And when the videos got ever-so-slightly more complex and colorful (Madonna's vamp in "Borderline," Duran Duran's romp in "Rio," David Bowie's come-on in "Let's Dance"), I was hooked--on the pouting and preening, the shiny lips and fishnet stockings, the hair-sprayed hair and the sexual innuendo that I didn't quite understand but kept me awake at night.
It didn't take long for my own musical transformation to take place in response to this onslaught upon my youthful sensibilities. My middle-of-the-road childhood music collection--Air Supply, Abba, Chicago, Journey, Supertramp, Styx--was abandoned. A band's appearance on MTV was enough to make me rush to the record store for a music make-over: Men at Work, the Fixx, Thompson Twins, U2, Prince, Talking Heads--these were the early '80s music-video staples whose albums soon took up new space on my bedroom shelf.
By the time I graduated from college in 1989, MTV had become a television icon and an emblem of my generation: It was part of my life, something I participated in, that the older folks didn't quite get, but if you got it, you were cool. I wanted to be Martha Quinn and I wanted to make it with Alan Hunter. I danced to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" in front of the television. I waited in line for hours in the freezing cold in Manhattan to get tickets to MTV's 1990 New Year's Eve bash, where I stood in the front row and sang along to the B-52's, Richard Marx and few-hit wonders like Neneh Cherry and Young MC. I responded to a local newspaper ad and auditioned for Downtown Julie Brown's "Club MTV" in 1991, where I boogied to C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat." I didn't make the cut, but hey, it didn't take long for Downtown Julie Brown to get the boot either.
Over the years, I have continued to appreciate the occasional jaw-dropping MTV moment, when a new video sonically and visually blows me away: Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U." Guns N' Roses "Welcome to the Jungle." Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Pearl Jam's "Jeremy." Puff Daddy's "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." Busta Rhymes' "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See." Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)."
The chance to hear a great new song, to sense the beginning of a trend, to witness the changing of a musical tide continues to keep me tuned in to the video age. But as MTV began to play fewer and fewer videos in the mid-'90s, replaced by more original programming--"The Real World," "Beavis & Butt-head," "Undressed," among others--my age began to show. It wasn't by accident--the MTV brass made a clear business decision to target the younger, larger, more moneyed generation behind mine. Grunge was finished, Lollapalooza was over, Lilith Fair was ending. Gen-Xers, once slacker darlings, were aging up and out, and the baby boomers' braces-wearing offspring were now MTV's target audience.
And why not? Somewhere between Adam Curry and Carson Daly, I'd said "I do," gone through the requisite years of therapy, and dealt with mundane grown-up concerns such as getting a mortgage, taking my dog to the vet and covering the gray hairs beginning to sprout at my temple. Who could blame MTV for passing me by?
And yet I still watch. Even as I roll my eyes at every self-absorbed, immature, drama-queen, spoiled-brat moment on the latest installment of "The Real World," I am still drawn to the young, chain-smoking, body-pierced innocents trying to make their way in the new millennium.
Even as boy bands woo their preteen fans and Britney Spears (oops!) does it again, I feel left out but can still sit back and enjoy the show. Even the chirpy countdown of "TRL" keeps me tuned in with its infectious sense of fun and fandom (although one look at the screaming infants outside 'TRL's' Times Square studios made me cringe with the terrifying thought, "I could almost be their mother").
As MTV turns 20, I feel I have finally passed the torch to the next generation of video lovers. I no longer harbor fantasies of winning the "I Wanna Be a VJ" contest. I restrain myself from e-mailing my own "TRL" shout-out ("Oh my God, I chose the Backstreet Boys because Nick is soooo hot in this video!"). I recognize that even as I make catty remarks about Britney's bellybutton and J. Lo's booty, it would take a six-days-a-week personal trainer to get me into their low-cut jeans and bra tops.
I know that I can converse easily with the average 12-year-old about the latest 'N Sync video, but I refrain, because the average 12-year-old looks at me as if I'm invading some sacred generational space.
But I'll probably still be watching MTV even when I have my own stringy-haired, braces-wearing, self-absorbed teen to contend with. She'll roll her eyes, lift her one eyebrow and hide me from her friends, but she won't be able to stop me: Once an MTV junkie, always an MTV junkie. *