30 years ago today, on August 1, 1981 – MTV made it’s debut on the country’s cable systems. It was destined to change the face of popular music. I was a spry ten years old at the time and had the fortune to spend the entirety of my musically formative years as part of the first MTV generation. I don’t watch much MTV these days (have segued as so many others into the VH1 and/or CMT generation), but it still holds a special place in my life. So – to celebrate its 30th birthday (just a month after my 40th), I thought I would take a few moments to look back at a few of my favorite MTV memories.
- I don’t remember exactly when MTV finally made it’s way into my house. Getting cable TV was still a big deal in the early 80’s, but my parents were always good about being on the front of tech advances (I come by it honestly…). I do know for sure that we had cable and MTV by 1983. How do I know? 1983 was the year Michael Jackson released his video for “Thriller”. The premiere was truly must-see TV. A few friends from down the street came over to my house and we breathlessly waited for the first airing of Jackson’s cinematic masterpiece on December 2, 1983. To say that we were blown away would be an understatement. This took music video to an entirely different level as an art form. It was scary, it was funny, it was epic – it was incredible. Without MTV, none of that would have been possible, and millions of people would not be able do the Michael Jackson zombie shuffle at weddings, bar mitzvah’s, and birthday parties everywhere.
- “Live Aid” was a massive, intercontinental concert event pulled together by Bob Geldof to raise money for Ethiopian famine relief. (As an aside, it was because Geldof became a recognizable name to me that I rented “Pink Floyd’s The Wall”, to see his turn as Pink). Thanks to MTV, I was able to see much of it, including Queen’s blistering greatest hits set, a reunion of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osborne with Black Sabbath, and USA for Africa performing “We are the World”. In the video driven world MTV was rapidly creating, it was a pointed reminder of the power of live music as well as the reach of MTV itself.
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- Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora single handedly created the “MTV Unplugged” phenomenon with their acoustic performance of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead Or Alive” at the VMA’s. “Unplugged” was a show that pushed boundaries at the time and turned in some truly amazing performances. “Mama Said Knock You Out” by L.L. Cool J is still one of my all time favorite unplugged performances.
- The late 80’s was when I developed what has become my ongoing love of Hair Metal. MTV was there to lead the way. “Headbanger’s Ball” was required viewing each week, and the airwaves where blanketed with Poison, Motely Crue, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Extreme, Winger, – the list goes on. It was a crash course in how rock stars looked, how they talked, how they dressed, and gave me a yardstick against which to measure my ever lengthening head of heavy metal hair. I watched it all unfold in real time, day after day; then watched it all implode when Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
- “Remote Control” was one of MTV’s first forays into game shows and one of my favorites. It pelted contestants with questions about pop culture, music, and all things television. It featured Ken Ober, Colin Quin, a revolving door of comedy guest (including Adam Sandler) – and my personal favorite, hostess Kari Wuhrer. I can only say now, for my teenaged self – thank you MTV for introducing me to Kari Wuhrer. She’s still one of my great crushes from high school.
- Every afternoon after school, we would park ourselves on the couch and watch “Dial MTV” with Adam Curry. It was the people’s chance to program the channel for an hour and vote for our top videos day after day. When it was released, Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” was number one for what felt like 4 months. I could only aspire to having ripped jeans as cool as Joe Elliott.
- I can trace my addiction to reality TV back to “The Real World”. With it’s debut, MTV began it’s transformation from a purely music driven channel to one more immersed in pop culture. I’ll admit, I didn’t watch the first season of “The Real World”, but with the second season, set in LA, the show grabbed my attention and refused to let go for the next 7 years. Jon, Puck, Pedro, Judd, Jacinda – I spent quality time with them all and got to know them. From LA, to San Francisco, to London – I stuck with the show until they made their way back to New York in season 10. By that time, “Big Brother” was on the air and I began to spend my time seeing was really, really happens when “people stop being polite, and start getting real”.
- My “Real World” viewing led me (and everyone else) to more and more reality shows on MTV. I faithfully watched “Road Rules”, “Real World/Road Rules Challenge”, “Jackass”, “Viva La Bam”, “MTV’s Fear”, “Punk’d”, “Newlyweds”, ”MTV Cribs” and the granddaddy of them all – “The Osbournes”. More than any of the other shows, “The Osbournes” became a true cultural phenomenon and accomplished what many thought impossible – it made Ozzy Osbourne America’s new dad. I could not get enough reality programming during the 2000’s – an appetite MTV satisfied quite nicely.
As I said, I don’t watch MTV that much anymore. (I couldn’t tell you the channel number on my current cable system – it was channel 47 when I was in high school.) Still, it’s been a valuable barometer of the musical and cultural evolution of American society over the last 30 years. It’s been controversial, it’s been groundbreaking, and it’s been reflective of our times. I’m not really the target demo anymore and it’s not the MTV I grew up with, but that’s okay – we all change and grow. I’ll always have great memories and I can always say I was there when it all started. Happy Birthday MTV! You don’t look a day over 29.
© 2011, The Word Zombie. All rights reserved.