The other day I found myself in a room of people watching MTV’s Silent Library, which seems to be aired for two hours straight on weekday afternoons. The two hours felt like two days. This show is ridiculous, but not in a fun way. Silent Library is a game show in which six participants are made to participate in wacky and occasionally sick acts while trying to stifle their adolescent laughter in a library. If they make too much sound, they fail and do not collect money for the activity. This is the latest after school viewing offered by MTV. It makes my history with TRL feel somehow more acceptable.
MTV has always had a history of disdain. Music videos were thought to dilute the importance of music itself, and the in-your-face editing that the station had to use to match the rest of the station with the constant rotation of 3 minute videos was said to be ADD inducing. The criticism it has faced in the past decade has been based around the jarring lack of music videos on Music Television. MTV remedied this by changing its name from MTV: Music Television to simply MTV. This essentially changes the M’s meaning from music to just M. It is more honest than clinging to music, anyway.
When I think about MTV, I force my way back through my memories to when MTV was a cultural force. It used to be the main way people found their music, easily besting the more ubiquitous radio stations. Radio hits were passive consumption, but an MTV hit was a sensation. Ignoring the irony of the situation, the stripped back grunge culture became what it was because of its proliferation by MTV. In fact, the MTV corporation was the fuel for the (supposedly) anti-corporate Generation X.
When I think about MTV, I think about the station as a cultural force. Despite its early days playing only what was considered white music, Yo MTV Raps and other shows were given timeslots to promote more than just rock hits. Despite the outsider status of true heavy metal, Headbangers Ball offered a place for the loud and proud to display their talents. Whereas country music did not find a place on the station, aside from the more subversive acts who hid behind the face of pop, MTV was accepting of everyone. I will not dwell on the time slots for the content. The important thing is that there was acceptance.
It was not just about the music, though. The Week in Rock brought us the best accessible music news before the internet infiltrated our daily lives. During the commercial breaks of our favorite shows, we awaited short clips of Kurt Loder or Tabitha Soren to find out what was going on in our world of music. (On another note, I did not realize that The Week in Rock became MTV News, and Loder is still there today.) It was where the world first learned of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Try not to diminish the value of the network’s history.
The cultural force of MTV cannot because without its non-music programming, which is difficult to bring up amidst complaints of its current dearth of music. But game shows like Remote Control and Singled Out were fun for all the right reasons, with the latter a few hairs short of allegory for the competitive nature of dating. Come to think of it, keeping the potential date veiled while an individual only learns tidbits of personality makes it almost a live-action version of internet dating.
But the less said about The Real World and Road Rules the better, as those reality shows were the predecessors for the downfall of American culture.
The most important factor in MTV’s programming for Generation X and early Gen Y was in the animated content. Most people think of Beavis and Butt-head when MTV and animation come up, but that show and its understated social criticism (that was missed by almost everyone) are just the tip of the iceberg. Daria is probably the most prized of MTV’s animated works, with its recent DVD release being all but celebrated. Daria’s attitude and outlook were pretty much the embodiment of Generation X. It was not that she was necessarily mean or even at all off-putting. She just did not want to be forced to conform to every else’s expectations and become another number. She had an individualistic outlook and was not afraid to express it. I remember this was followed on Monday nights by MTV’s Oddities, which featured The Head and the comic book-based The Maxx. Both were incredibly weird. The Head was about an average joe whose head was occupied by a space alien trying to stop an invasion. The Maxx was about a psychologically damaged person but in the guise of a trippy superhero story featuring an alternate world.
But my favorite was Liquid Television, an animated series featuring very short animations – often recurring. This is where Aeon Flux originated. She dies in every installment, which added to the mystery about her character and made her so intriguing. Most of the sequences presented were just as obtuse and interesting. I do not know of anyone who has really made sense out of things, but that was hardly the point. This was the crux of my MTV viewing experience because so much of it was indefinable.
That seemed to be the whole point to me. There is no true meaning behind what you see. If you are fine with that, then you can move forward without hesitation. If there must be a meaning, it is the meaning you attribute to it. No matter what anyone else may say, your view is the most important one to you. It is just as valid and important as anyone else’s. Never hesitate to be different. This is the cultural message I took from MTV during my development. It disappoints me to find that message potentially destroyed by reality television’s perversely elevated drama and a show where one can sit in a rowboat and have fish thrown at him for money if we can keep the laughter stifled.