As far as I can tell, the first printed joke about MTV no longer playing music videos was made on August 3, 1986. Writer Keith L. Thomas opened a column about new videos on MTV with this line: “With MTV turning 5 years old this month, people like to ask the ultimate question: ‘So, er, are music videos dead or what?’” (MTV’s top video at the time, per the story, was “Invisible Touch” by Genesis.)
Thomas disagreed with that assumption, but it was definitely a time of change for MTV. He’d written a story on MTV’s fifth anniversary the previous month that was headlined, “Is MTV in dire straits?” His story about MTV’s changes in December was headlined: “Might the ‘V’ in MTV now mean ‘variety’?”
The impetus for all of this was, ostensibly, a shift in direction for MTV. In 1985 the network had began its first non-musical programming, showing episodes of the BBC 2 sitcom The Young Ones in 1985. (Here’s a promo video.) The next year, old episodes of The Monkees started airing. (Here are some promo bumpers.)
Per Thomas’ “dire straits” article, MTV was undergoing several changes on its fifth birthday. Two original video jockeys left the channel. Ratings had fallen, per Nielsen, although MTV disputed their numbers, as channels still do. MTV had opened in just two million homes. Five years later, it was in 40 million homes.
The greater reach changed things. In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, the oral history of the channel’s origins by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, channel staffers said this changed everything. “We had broken through to 40 million households,” VJ Adam Curry said. “That was huge. And it brought about a complete clampdown. You weren’t allowed to say ‘VMAs’; you had to say ‘Video Music Awards.’ I called MTV ‘the big M.‘ Nope, can’t say that. I thought that was genius of me. After I did a take, the director would say, ‘That’s truly funny, man, but you mentioned pubic hair. That’s a burn.’ Burn meant we roll back the tape and tape over that segment. It was very annoying. It was television being made poorly, with a lot of politics involved.”
It has been a long time since those changes in the mid-1980s. Specifically, yesterday was 40 years since MTV came on the air. And though the channel is a couple of years older than I am, I have been feeling nostalgic for it all the same. I didn’t have cable when I was a little kid. The first time I watched MTV was when the motel we went to in Wildwood had cable. The first video I can remember watching was Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance,” which would mean I first watched MTV in June 1990. I liked it. If I remember correctly, my dad liked it too. It was a bond.
A few years later down the shore, my entire family became obsessed with Beavis & Butthead. This must’ve been June 1993, a few months after the show premiered. We’d keep track of the time while on the beach so we could get back to watch the show. My mom’s favorite moment was the duo watching “Hey Mickey” by Toni Basil. I don’t remember my favorite one, though on recent rewatch I really liked Beavis realizing that he and Daryl Hall have the same haircut during “Maneater.” More bonding.
I can only imagine that Beavis & Butthead was what convinced my mom to finally get cable, beginning a 25-year-run of a member of the McQuade family giving a bunch of money to Comcast. (I worked at Comcast for three and a half years; I was a permalancer so I did not get the free cable benefit employees receive.) We did not get the “black box” that all the cops in my neighborhood had that allowed you to watch all the PPV channels for free. (Maybe if my mom knew Comcast would one day screw me over as a worker—giving me no vacation, forcing me to falsify timesheets so I had to work unpaid hours, et cetera—she would’ve been into the cable theft.)
But no matter. Our cable box got MTV, and that was soon my favorite channel. I loved Beavis & Butthead. (I still do.) I loved MTV Unplugged specials. I loved Singled Out with Jenny McCarthy and, later, Carmen Electra. (Did you know there was a reboot of this show on Quibi? I didn’t until just now.) But mostly I loved watching music videos. My friends and I would take on the roles of Beavis and Butthead, watching videos and deciding if they sucked, heh heh. My parents and I would watch the top-20 countdown to see what music we liked together. MTV, which originally didn’t play many videos by black artists, became the station where I learned about hip-hop. Friends and I would even sit around and watch lesser versions of MTV: VH1, which was for old people, and The Box, a request channel that would play videos MTV would not. I never called the 900 number to order, but we’d sit and hope that Sir Mix A Lot’s “Put Em On The Glass” came on. (The act of a woman pressing her breasts up against a car window is no longer a turn-on for me, but when I was 12 I guess it was.)
I kept watching into high school. Total Request Live became an event. One time some friends even went to Times Square and got invited up to the studio. (They were cute girls. Somehow I don’t think I would’ve been allowed up.) By the mid-1990s, though, the “MTV doesn’t play videos anymore” was a massive joke seemingly everywhere. This was about 15 years into the channel’s existence. Today, MTV no longer shows music videos at all. On its 40th birthday, MTV aired 48 thirty-minute episodes of Ridiculousness. On July 30, MTV aired the 700th episode of the show, which came over 22 seasons since it premiered in 2011.
This show is basically all MTV airs anymore. In a week it will air hundreds of episodes of Ridiculousness, maybe a few movies, and a few original shows like Catfish or whatever it is that the Jersey Shore crew is up to now. But Ridiculousness is basically what MTV is in 2021. I have never seen this show, but I am aware that it is an America’s Funniest Home Videos ripoff starring Rob Dyrdek, one of those skateboarders who is not really known for skateboarding; Google labels him an “American entrepreneur,” which doesn’t quite seem right, either. I know all this because in “Snowflake Regatta Carnage,” one of my favorite YouTube videos, a parent near the camera says near the end: “I hope you got this. You got it all?! Oh, good! You need to send that to Ridiculousness.”
Last year, in The Ringer, John Gonzalez tried to suss out just why MTV airs nothing but Ridiculousness all day, every day. The answer seems to be: In lieu of trying to make another hit show, MTV has chosen to shoot for the middle. It airs a show that’s cheap to make, that it owns the rights to distribute, and that can readily be run in large blocks for mindless watching. (Tanya Giles, a ViacomCBS executive, told Gonzo that the channel “increased our time spent viewing by 21 percent with our stacks of Ridiculousness.”) You’ve no doubt seen this strategy before with Pawn Stars or Hardcore Pawn or Cajun Pawn Stars or Pawn Stars UK, although it presumably works with non-pawn shop related shows as well. With fewer cable subscribers nowadays, some channels are increasingly going for cheap, simple-to-produce content.
The old MTV isn’t coming back. But I miss it! In the words of David Thorpe, “anyone with a computer and half a brain can listen to practically any track in existence, instantly and for free.” That’s true! And I’ve discovered a ton of music on YouTube and music streaming sites, and also on online forums and through tweets and whatever else comes my way. But somehow it is not the same as watching blocks of videos on MTV with friends, making fun of the videos or discovering a new group.
I realize there is a lot of this type of thing in other ways. People (including DeRay Mckesson) use Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature to find new music. Songs go viral due to TikTok or other youth-oriented social media platforms. (My wife teaches high school. This year her students informed her of a new song to check out: “Creep,” by Radiohead. I told her to play them “Idioteque” and blow their minds.) But I liked the communal aspect of watching videos.
There is still some of this, of course. MTV has a channel called MTV Classic, which just runs blocks of old music videos. My wife and I have watched this. There’s also MTV Live, which often shows blocks of new music videos. My wife and I have also watched this. And credit where it’s due: Those channels do work as methadone for my MTV withdrawal. But it’s just not the same, and it never will be. It couldn’t be. I won’t be a kid again. MTV will never have the cultural cachet that it had when people would tune in to see if Backstreet Boys or N*SYNC would have the top video that day.
My friends and I have come up with a similar tradition, though it took me some time to realize that it was scratching that old MTV itch. For the past few years, our New Year’s Eve party has featured a YouTube playlist of music videos that came out 20 or 25 or however many years ago. We watch videos, remember them, maybe even discover some ones we hadn’t seen before. It is a great way to ring in a new year. Sometime we need to get together to watch old recordings of MTV, though. I think it’d be a great party. “I’m so sad that MTV doesn’t play videos all the time,” Stevie Nicks said in I Want My MTV. “It breaks my heart. I do, I want it back.”