There are a lot of generational categories that get flung around in the media — Baby Boomer, Generation X, Generation Y, Millennial, Pod People. The categories are mostly arbitrary ways for capitalism to sell us things, because there’s just no way an entire generation of Westerners has the same likes, dislikes, and experiences. However, someone on Twitter recently said that there’s a specific split between Millennials — those of us that remember the sound of a dial tone and those of us that don’t. We’d like to put forth a more specific argument for the fissure between Millennials — those of us that remember when MTV was actually all about music videos and those of us that only remember it as a reality TV source. (It goes without saying that this also means we probably watched MTV as a channel, on an actual, physical television.)
MTV first launched on August 1, 1981, with its first music video ever — appropriately, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
For the next 11 years, MTV would be exactly what it stood for — Music Television. MTV would play music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and by doing so, became the voice of an entire generation (Generation X, and subsequently early Millennials, if you want to be aggressive and split hairs about it). Singles were highlighted and launched with essentially mini-movies — in 1983, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” clocking in at 14 minutes, would become MTV’s first world premiere video.
In 1992, everything changed, for both MTV and for American television culture. That year, MTV launched The Real World. While it wasn’t the first slice of reality television ever, The Real World is largely credited with the rise of the genre. It seemed like a drastic and intense idea at the time, we’re just awash in this stuff now. Producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray decided they wanted to make a drama/sitcom for MTV much like Melrose Place and 90210, but didn’t want to pay for the costs associated with such an ordeal. Inspired by those hip shows, and the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family, essentially a proto-reality-television reality TV series, the two decided to recreate the feel of a teen drama with real people and thus, The Real World was born.
The show was a hit success. Success is great, but we live in a world where capitalism and creativity don’t mix, so we were all overexposed to The Real World, and subsequently, to reality television in general. We’re drowning in game shows, cross country road trips, bake offs, museum challenges, teen moms, drag queens, costume designers, even tattoo artists — all “real people” doing “real things” that are heavily edited into 22-minute segments for us to digest easily, simply, and without much of a challenging thought. But it isn’t just the dwindling music on MTV that is killing the network — that theory is at least 10 years old, one of the earlier claims made about MTV’s relevance. While the foundational loss of focusing on music and being the heartbeat of the music scene has definitely eroded due to MTV’s uneven programming, the bigger issue at hand right now is at the heart of their news division.
The big shock came a few months ago, when MTV hired some high profile journalists to make some more long-form content for their news platform and then proceeded to fire all of them, to... focus on video. Now a critique of this might seem surprising, because isn’t that what we’ve always wanted? Our videos back? Except that this is a complete video pivot, to short-form video content geared towards “younger viewers,” and the truth is, a healthy dose of all forms of content is the way to go.
MTV and its subsidiaries aren’t as relevant as they were 30 years ago because our media landscape has changed so, so much, partially because of MTV’s influence on our culture at large. Whether you loved them as a music video outlet, as a reality TV outlet, or as a modern-day YouTube reality star outlet, MTV’s influence will still be felt for decades to come — so let’s honor their potential demise with MTV tattoos. MTV might not stand for Music Television anymore, but we don’t care. Fire up your VHS player and pop your Walkman headphones on — MTV tattoos are here to stay, forever.