When video killed the radio star

You’d think the twenty-fifth anniversary of MTV would warrant more attention than it’s getting today, especially from MTV itself. Flipping past the channel a couple of times today reveals no mention of the anniversary though, and numerous articles confirm that MTV has no plans to celebrate its birthday. I guess 25 is a scary number for the network; after all, we’re at a point where some kids watching the network today actually have parents who watched it when the network launched.

If nothing else, the profound cultural impact it’s had over the last quarter century is worth noting today. From it’s debut with the prophetic “Video Killed the Radio Star”, MTV has systematically changed the shape of music (not necessarily for the better) by putting a premium on marketability and making it more important that artists look good than have talent. Additionally, MTV was the network that was the reason to get cable TV when the technology was still new. Reality TV, adult cartoons, and “audience participation” were all essentially invented (or at least popularized) by the network. It’s also been a source of a steady stream of moral panics, between slut fashion, rap music, Beavis and Butthead, Madonna’s open mouth kiss with Britney, and Janet Jackson’s nipple. And most importantly, MTV almost single handedly defined what was “cool” during the 80’s and 90’s.

Of course, MTV’s history and past impact is far less interesting than it’s immediate future, and whether we’ll still be talking about it in another twenty-five years. The most interesting thing I notice about it, and what inspired this post, is that MTV represents the ultimate form of old media. It’s a top-down network with which an elite few decide what’s worthy of attention and push that out to the masses. Despite all the ways in which it’s led teenage culture over the previous two decades, at it’s core it’s nothing more than a marketing vehicle. The culture MTV promotes is far from natural. Rather, it’s a carefully controlled stage show with men in business suits working behind the curtain, hoping you’ll pay no attention to them. Its content is shallow, it’s programming symbolizes short attention spans and the lowest common denominator, and the cultural value it promotes above all is rampant consumerism. It’s amazing how often what’s “cool” turns out to be a product some advertiser is pushing. Far from being a part of rebellious youth culture, MTV is a tool of the machine that’s used to feed Viacom’s bottom line.

An like all old media, MTV is dying. In an odd sort of way, the network is noting it’s anniversary. It’s using today to launch Flux, a social networking/video sharing site that carries the MTV brand – the clearest signal yet that this generation’s MTV isn’t MTV at all… it’s MySpace. Which is so radically different from what the people behind MTV are used to that I wonder if they’ll be able to keep up.

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