MTV famously claimed its first casualty with its premiere video, aired August 1, 1981. But since video killed the radio star, what has the network accomplished? You know, besides forever changing youth culture and foisting Carson Daly on the world. Here, on the occasion of MTV’s 25th anniversary, we look at some of the more notable accomplishments for which the network can be thanked—or blamed.
Gave everyone A.D.D.
“The MTV style” of quick cuts and whipsaw cameras—known among veteran film editors as “frame-fucking”—is now the de facto visual language of American culture, from Michael Bay summer blockbusters to commercials for Sunny Delight.
Made Madonna possible
Without a medium in which to enact her famous image reinventions, Madonna would have remained just another vocally challenged sexpot leaking from the radio. Instead, she’s the quintessential pop star of the age.
Made Jessica Simpson possible
Before MTV’s Newlyweds rescued her, Simpson was just another floundering ersatz Britney Spears. MTV allowed her to reinvent herself as a dizzy Gen-Y Charo—and thus become the poster girl for a fizzy culture in which talent and celebrity are permanently cleavaged, er, cleaved.
Invented reality TV
In 1992, eight years before Survivor, a do-gooder documentarian (Jonathan Murray) and a soap-opera veteran (Mary-Ellis Bunim) launched a docu-soap called The Real World. By the time the rest of the planet caught up, MTV had already forged ahead, creating hypercompelling pseudo-reality hybrids like Laguna Beach.
Showed it was okay to be gay
Long before Brokeback, there was the aforementioned Real World, which has featured gay cast members in twelve of its seventeen seasons—from the wacky, alcoholic bisexual Ruthie to the sympathetic AIDS activist Pedro, who married his boyfriend on the show.
From the September 1991 debut of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it was a short slide to the national hegemony of flannel shirts, ennui, and a Seattle-born coffee franchise. The flannel’s disappeared, the ennui’s come and gone (and come again), but the macchiato addiction is holding steady.
Put a gag on horny midgets
The MTV-produced halftime show at Super Bowl XXXVIII—a fumbled effort to lure “the kids”—led to Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” which led to a national hysteria, which led to the FCC crackdown on Howard Stern, which led him to defect to Sirius. So, in a sense, MTV made the satellite-radio star.
With the Run-DMC–Aerosmith “Walk This Way” video in 1986, rap crossed the color barrier for good, colonizing the suburbs and transmuting the genre from a potent protest movement (Public Enemy, N.W.A) to a Diddy-fied venue for TV-friendly gangsta clichés.
Corrupted your daughter and called it empowerment
Sure, MTV’s Spring Break, pimping wasted, bikini-clad girls and their amateur stripper moves since 1985, is merely a ribald update of American Bandstand. Then again, by that logic, Girls Gone Wild is merely a ribald update of MTV’s Spring Break.
Legitimized talking heads
No, not the Talking Heads—rather, the network’s parade of nattering, disposable veejays. MTV almost single-handedly debased the idea that people on TV should have some idea of what they’re talking about. Fast-forward to our current cable-news punditocracy, where half the commentators make Regis Philbin sound like Walter Cronkite.
Nurtured an art form
The past decade’s most visually inventive film directors, from Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), all cut their teeth on these strange, rule-busting, three-minute waking dreams—with MTV serving as their 24-hour televised gallery.
Satellites started beaming MTV Europe into East Berlin on November 7, 1989; two days later, the Eastern Bloc was history. Coincidence? Okay, maybe. But two decades ago, MTV was as compelling a symbol of Western society as Levi’s or Coca-Cola.
Killed the music video
Try to find videos on MTV now, and you’ll run into a wall of shows like Yo Momma or Date My Mom. But don’t bother pining wistfully for bygone days when MTV played Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” every hour on the hour. It only makes you seem old. About as old as MTV, actually.