When I was growing up, I remember MTV being the absolute shit. Probably part of that was due to the fact that my house didn’t get cable, but I can guarantee you that even if we had, I wouldn’t have been allowed to watch MTV. The music videos on there were like an illicit substance — all the bright 90s colors and gyrating 90s pelvises. The boy bands were so deliciously synchronized; the girl bands so tastefully slutty. But in an empowering way. I can’t explain it, but I was addicted. I’d go to sleepovers and hope against hope that someone would leave the TV on all night so I could catch up on all the coolness I’d been missing. Because that’s what MTV was: cool. Most of the time I was lucky to recognize the name of a band when someone brought it up to me in conversation. You have to remember, this was a time before YouTube, so you either saw it on MTV, or you didn’t see it. If you missed the premier of a new video, you were living on borrowed coolness time until somebody asked you about it and you promptly shit your pants in fear of exposing your ignorance in front of your fellow horrible teenagers.
I never even got as far as embarrassing myself, though, because I didn’t even have a foundation of knowledge to stand on. I was desperately, devastatingly uncool, and everyone knew it. So for me, MTV was like…that cousin you had growing up who was maybe five years older than you and knew everything. They’d send you a CD for Christmas with that studied nonchalance, “Hey, here, you might like this. I’m already totally over it,” and a week later it’s all anyone would be talking about. That was MTV for me. Any glimpse I got of it was an opportunity to impress the popular kids about my knowledge of contemporary music. Which would lead to them wanting to be my friends, straight into a make-over montage, and proceeding directly to a making-out montage under a disco ball at a middle school dance. Yes, it always went that way in my head, no, it never went that way in person. But I don’t blame MTV. Because it was my cool cousin; it did what it could.
Lights up on today. MTV is turning 31 this year, and it has become as desperately, devastatingly uncool as I was in middle school. And you know why? Because it’s trying as hard as I was. Instead of being your cool cousin, now it’s your out-of-date uncle who sent you the new Linkin Park CD. In 2012. (Oh god, I so desperately hope that fact is wrong and they don’t have a new CD out in 2012.) The long hair that was edgy and rebellious on your cousin is a lame, balding ponytail on your uncle. He doesn’t know anything about up-and-coming music anymore because MTV stopped showing music videos. Are we serious? That was the best part about my cousin! He knew things before I did! I needed him to be cool! I was never sitting around thinking, “I wish this network had more shows about sad people doing sad things, like getting pregnant in their teens, or getting shit-wasted in their thirties.” Never did that happen, but for some reason I opened up my Christmas box this year and it was full of Teen Mom, 16 and Pregnant, and JWoww & Snooki. And don’t get me wrong — I love me some shitty reality TV. But in no world is it cool. If I could trade all this mindless entertainment for the opportunity of going back in time before I knew what a Snooki was, I would take it in a second.
The point is, there’s not one single show on MTV now that’s not a guilty pleasure. There’s nothing you can admit to watching…that you have to watch if you want to be cool and popular and funny and the prom queen. There are a few scripted shows, but it’s mostly a collection of reality shows that are more cautionary tales than actual forms of entertainment. When I make trips home these days, things have changed, but only a little — we do have MTV now, but I still have to watch it in secret. It’s not that I’m not allowed to watch it, just that whenever I, a college-educated 24-year old, admit that I’m gonna catch up on the episode of Jersey Shore that I DVR-ed, the way my dad shakes his head tells me that I’ve made a wrong choice. And not wrong like hitchhiking through Europe like my cousin MTV would’ve done…wrong like getting shit-faced at a wedding and throwing up on the dance floor and all the pregnant teenage bridesmaids like my 31-year old uncle MTV would’ve done.
To be fair, he wasn’t trying to ruin any kind of party. He thought everyone else was gonna be wasted and he was just trying to go along with what we wanted. But we’re like, “No, MTV, pull yourself together. This is a wedding, you’re at a wedding. So let’s do wedding things, that’s why everybody came here.”