- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006


No one knows how to throw a party like MTV. So there must be quite a bash planned for Tuesday to celebrate the cable network’s 25 years on the air. Right?

Sorry. MTV is staying in that night. There are no plans to even mention the birthday.

When your average viewer is 20 years old — too young to remember Martha Quinn, not even born when Madonna buckled on her “boy toy” belt — perhaps it’s wise not to mention you’re 25. MTV wants to be the perpetual adolescent.

On a relentless mission to stay hip, it casually discards generations. Yesterday, “Beavis and Butt-head.” Today, “Laguna Beach.”

And at each stop, MTV changes pop culture.

Without MTV, you might not have reality television. Commercials wouldn’t have vertigo-inducing quick cuts. Musicians wouldn’t need to look like models to survive. And only seamstresses would know about wardrobe malfunctions.

Our birthday present is a look back at 25 memorable MTV moments:

1. The debut: Aug. 1, 1981. The first video? The slyly prophetic “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the now-forgotten Buggles. Only a few thousand people on a single cable system in northern New Jersey could see it. Sometimes the screen would go black when someone at MTV inserted a tape into a VCR. Within a few years, millions of children demanded that their parents buy cable so they could see MTV. Along with CNN, it led TV’s transition out of the three-channel world. “This was the fuse that lit the cable explosion,” says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.

2. Beat it: March 31, 1983. Michael Jackson becomes the first black artist with a video on MTV. The segregation was MTV’s early shame, ironic considering its later role in popularizing rap.

3. Thriller: Dec. 2, 1983. Less a video than a 14-minute minimovie with Vincent Price, ghouls and goblins, the premiere of Mr. Jackson’s “Thriller” was an event. MTV gave it a set time on the schedule — several, even. It was the apotheosis of the idea of music videos as an art form. With director John Landis involved, it also was proof that Hollywood’s finest weren’t looking down upon what are essentially promo clips.

4. Madonna bursts out: Sept. 14, 1984. Performing “Like a Virgin” at the first Video Music Awards, Madonna popped out of a cake dressed in a wedding gown and writhed through her hit. At that moment, Madonna became a superstar, put the VMAs on the map and set an enduring tone.

5. Money for nothing: 1985. The Dire Straits song was about MTV, mocked MTV and became the band’s biggest hit because of MTV. It was one of the first videos to feature computer animation, and Sting made a clever cameo echoing his role in iconic “I want my MTV” ads. The rules for music stardom had changed. Being photogenic was now crucial; an eye-catching video made hits.

6. Bye-bye VJs: Original video jock J.J. Jackson’s contract expired in 1985. Nina Blackwood followed him out the next year — and so did Miss Quinn, breaking the hearts of countless teenage boys. Alan Hunter and Mark Goodman were next. Only Adam Curry lasted into the ‘90s. MTV refused to follow its aging first fans, courting teens instead. It also realized that airing videos was a dead end and began aggressively developing other programming. Those were probably the most important financial decisions MTV ever made.

7. Spring break: March 21, 1985: College students who couldn’t make it south in person could turn on MTV to catch the party. Each year it returns, a drunken bash with young, firm, scantily clad bodies oozing with sweat and undulating to the music. Stop us. We need a cold shower. MTV’s spring break coverage arguably gave rise to the “Girls Gone Wild” video series, where the breasts didn’t need to be pixelated.

8. Rap blasts off: Aug. 6, 1986. It’s no coincidence that “Yo! MTV Raps!” premiered about the same time rap started becoming the dominant music form for young America. Hip white young people like Rick Rubin or the Beastie Boys may have loved rap before, but “Yo! MTV Raps!” brought it into every suburban living room. “Going from the network that was called on the carpet for not having blacks to this was a huge leap, and it was the right one for MTV,” says Christina Norman, MTV’s first black president.

9. Pee-Wee’s return: Sept. 5, 1991. It was a hard fall for Pee-wee Herman (real name Paul Reubens), from star of one of television’s most popular children’s shows to a national punch line when an undercover officer saw him masturbating in a Sarasota, Fla. adult movie theater on July 26. Mr. Reubens went undercover himself for more than a month until creeping out onstage at the opening of that year’s Video Music Awards.

10. Enter grunge: Sept. 29, 1991: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video killed the hair metal scene and signaled the ascendancy of grunge. The images themselves were an arresting accent, with the tattooed cheerleaders and what seemed like an underwater pep rally in a dank gymnasium. “The band, the sound and the imagery in the video was sort of a breath of fresh air — or a scream,” said MTV series development guru Tony DiSanto.

11. Clapton unplugged: March 11, 1992. Only the most desperate of fading 1980s bands — Nuclear Valdez, Squeeze, the Alarm — responded to MTV’s first requests to show off their acoustic chops. But fans responded to the intimacy, and stars soon lined up: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen (who got nervous and insisted on an electric guitar) — and Eric Clapton, in his first performance since his son died after falling from a skyscraper window. Mr. Clapton had to be talked into releasing the show on CD, and it became his biggest-selling album.

12. Boxers or briefs?: April 19, 1994. Two years in office, President Bill Clinton submitted to 90 minutes of questions on complex policy issues by 16-to-20-year-olds before a live MTV audience. Everything else was forgotten when 17-year-old Laetitia Thompson of Potomac, Md., asked: “Mr. President, the world’s dying to know. Is it boxers or briefs?” “Usually briefs,” the president replied, looking slightly nonplused. Today, most presidential candidates use MTV to reach first-time voters.

13. Heh-heh, cool: March 24, 1994: Who’d have thunk that “Beavis and Butt-head” would make the cover of Rolling Stone? When Van Toffler, president of MTV’s music services, received a pilot tape of two adolescent cartoon characters playing baseball with a frog, he watched it nearly 100 times. “You have a feeling in your bones that there’s something different about it that’s unique and it will either flop miserably or succeed brilliantly.” It was stupid, gross-out humor — but many older people secretly wished they could act that way.

14. Reality bites: June 23, 1994. It’s hard to recall a time when setting up a group of strangers in a camera-filled home was a new idea. But the 1992 debut of “The Real World” “invented reality TV,” says Mr. Thompson. And the inclusion of Pedro Zamora, who was homosexual and soon to die of AIDS, in the 1994 season did more to promote tolerance than hundreds of public service announcements. “It was probably the most riveting piece of television I had ever seen,” says Brian Graden, then a young homosexual man and now an MTV programming exec.

15. Feedback loop: April 14, 1998: Jesse Camp wins the network’s first “I Wanna Be a VJ” contest. Stuck in a rut, MTV was searching for some way to make its audience feel

connected to the network. The wild-haired, willfully outrageous Mr. Camp seemed sent from central casting — and it was the audience doing the casting.

16. Times Square live: Oct. 22, 1998. The Backstreet Boys shut down Times Square during a “Total Request Live” appearance. The ruckus cemented “TRL’s” role as pop culture’s home page, with Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears as king and queen of the new scene.

17. Jiggle it: Sept. 9, 1999. When Lil’ Kim presented a VMA with a pasty-clad breast, Diana Ross couldn’t resist a playful fondle. Lucky Miss Ross wasn’t there eight years earlier, when Prince performed wearing pants with the butt cut out. A year later, Howard Stern parodied that look by descending from the sky as “Fartman.”

18. Tipsy: Oct. 1, 2000. Thinking about “Jackass” Johnny Knoxville getting tipped over in the port-a-potty still makes you hold your nose. Mr. Knoxville specialized in painful on-camera tricks, and “Jackass” quickly became MTV’s most popular show. Unfortunately for MTV — or maybe fortunately if there’s no such thing as bad publicity — many stunts were copied by viewers.

19. Mariah’s meltdown: July 19, 2001. No one knew quite how to react when Miss Carey made a surprise appearance on “TRL” pushing an ice cream cart filled with popsicles. A nervous Carson Daly kept trying to cut to a commercial, but Miss Carey wouldn’t stop talking. She said she had a gift for him — then took off her oversized T-shirt to reveal a tight tank top and skimpy shorts. A week later Miss Carey was checked into a hospital for “extreme exhaustion.”

20. $X&#: March 5, 2002: Sharrrr-rronnnn. The first bleeped-out swear word on “The Osbournes” premiere was followed by 58 others. For a while, the foggy-headed rocker, his type-A wife and self-involved kids became America’s first family, if only for the sheer weirdness of their lives. They quickly wore thin — and were responsible for a rash of dull has-beens who thought their lives would make great television — but not before Sharon Osbourne got her own talk show, daughter Kelly a recording contract and son Jack a stint in rehab.

21. Dogging Eminem: Aug. 29, 2002: The rap star was in no mood to hear Triumph the Insult Comic Dog chew over his feud with Moby. So when approached by the puppet on the VMAs, Eminem delivered a sucker punch and then flew into a rage backstage. “He was really furious,” said MTV Executive Vice President Dave Sirulnick, “which was startling because here was this guy who built his career on dissing and dishing. And this was a puppet.”

22. Ashton punks Justin: March 17, 2003. “Candid Camera” with an edge, the debut of Mr. Kutcher’s series “Punk’d” had a crew posing as the “Tax Enforcement Agency” seizing Justin Timberlake’s possessions after saying he owed $900,000 in back taxes. The title is now ensconced in the popular lexicon.

23. Chicken or tuna?: Aug. 19, 2003. “Newlyweds” followed the telegenic Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey as they navigated marital bliss. They truly became famous when cameras caught Miss Simpson confused by whether a can of Chicken of the Sea contained tuna. Presto. America had a new favorite dim blond.

24. The kiss: Aug. 28, 2003. It was MTV’s idea to bring back Madonna for a reprise of “Like a Virgin” for the 20th Video Music Awards, and MTV’s idea to pair her with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The open-mouthed kiss that she planted on the two young stars? That was pure Madonna, and it outranked the creepy Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley for most memorable kiss.

25. Stephen & LC: Nov. 26, 2004. Viewers were gripped by the love triangle on the new MTV hit “Laguna Beach,” and Kristin’s partying on spring break in this episode temporarily cost her her boyfriend. MTV’s original idea was a reality version of “Beverly Hills 90210,” but they ended up with a reality version of “The O.C.” instead. The real-life soap opera breaks convention by unfolding slowly, with none of the reality TV cliches like confessional interviews. “Again,” Mr. Thompson says, “MTV is two steps ahead.”

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