The Real World
When it comes to cultural rot, MTV has tons of blood on its hands, perhaps most of all for the current dominance of cheap to produce, soul-crushing reality television.
Reality television came to be on PBS, of all places, in 1971. That show, An American Family, had all the seeds of the modern reality show right from the beginning: a married couple about to split up as well as a homosexual cast member about to come out on national television. Nevertheless, reality television didn't catch on in bulk until MTV's The Real World premiered in 1992.
Oddly enough, the first season of the show was pretty terrific. The concept of throwing a bunch of diverse young people into a New York apartment yielded surprisingly articulate discussions/fights on the subjects of race, politics, and sexuality.
The show's relevance for me lasted until the third season, which was significant for both its portrayal of a homosexual man dying of AIDS (Pedro Zamora) as well as the seeds of the genre's doom (Puck). In David "Puck" Rainey, an obnoxious, dirty, egotistical twit, reality television had it's first "I'm aware that this is going out on the air" a**hole, a fairly unrewarding thing to film and a masthead finally perfected to no one's great benefit by Spencer Pratt, of MTV's later "scripted" reality show The Hills.
I stopped watching The Real World after its third season, but like rap videos, the once electric concept seemed to fall apart the second everyone immediately started stripping and running for the hot tub.
If The Real World sparked the beginning of reality television, The Osbournes cemented the genre's place in our country. Who needs to hear people discussing relevant issues when you can watch an amiable rock and roll drug casualty wrestle with the impossibility of operating household appliances?
The nadir for the genre in my mind has come with the airing of the recent show Teen Cribs.
I can sort of see the appeal of watching some rapper, who earned his own money, showing off his collection of 747 pairs of Air Jordans, but the idea of some rich guy's kids flaunting the ten million dollar estate that they were born into just curdles my stomach. Frankly, I'd rather argue that Jersey Shore is an intellectual work of documentary art than be forced to justify Teen Cribs to my maker.
Shockingly or not, for a station that was once sort of known to be "Music Television," MTV doesn't really have a ton of magical live moments of real music to its credit. Aside from some electric Video Music Award performances like Madonna rolling around the stage floor in a wedding dress, MTV's highest claim to musical art was MTV Unplugged, where musicians would actually play their own instruments and sing without the benefit of a backstage tape deck.
The show, which was initially thought to be a haven for singer-songwriter types, actually had its high points generated by a rapper and a punk rocker.
Early live rap performances on MTV were usually less than successful, but LL Cool J's performance of "Mama Said Knock You Out" was so electric that you could forgive the rapper for the white Speed Stick remnants on his armpits.
This performance was only topped once on the show, by Kurt Cobain, who threw his own funeral in December of 1993. Nirvana Unplugged remains perhaps the most haunting rock and roll concert of all time.
As for the despicable Unplugged performances, nothing for me tops Eric Clapton's lite FM destruction of his greatest song, "Layla." I once heard Pete Townshend refer to it as "cabaret" and though it sold 18 billion copies, it continues to appall me. The original version of the song is an electric letting out of the demons of desire. "Layla" unplugged is merely a limp desecration of something that was once beautifully haunted by a man who once supposedly quit the Yardbirds because their first single, "For Your Love," was too "pop."
Every once in a while, MTV strove for the likeness of journalistic integrity, and it was usually in the guise of its own Walter Cronkite figure, the unflappable Kurt Loder. If Madonna had something earth-shattering to share, it was Loder to whom she would spill it.
Oddly enough Tabitha Soren somehow never became the next Barbara Walters.
Here's the amazing thing to me about Madonna and MTV and they were perhaps the greatest bit of joint synergy in pop history. I consider myself to be a pretty knowledgeable music aficionado, but somehow I don't think I can name a single Madonna song that didn't have a video. Are there any?
Those Original MTV VJs
Around 1995, I was in Los Angeles visiting a friend. He took me to the Hollywood restaurant Jones and was excitedly assuring me that we were sure to see some celebrities. After about ten minutes he pointed to two men a couple tables over and said, "Look those guys are famous."
Barely looking, I responded that sure, they were original MTV VJs J.J. Jackson and Alan Hunter. Excited, my friend assured me that I was correct and said, "Wouldn't it be awesome if in five seconds Mark Goodman walked in?" Five seconds later - Mark Goodman walked in. I would have traded all three of them for just one sighting of super cute Martha Quinn.
Billy Squier: "Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You"
MTV today is a behemoth that has little to do with music, but for the innocence of what was (if it ever was truly there) I leave you with this charming Christmas performance featuring Billy Squier and those original VJs.
We all wanted our MTV and, for better or for worse, we all got it.