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MTV has lost its ‘M’

The Arts & Life staff takes on Music Television, justifying why we love to hate the cable channel

When Kansas City cable networks started carrying MTV in August of 1981, playing videos like (not surprisingly) The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” people thought it would be a miracle if it caught on.

Solely devoting a channel to music videos was stepping into treacherous, untested waters.

But soon the channel gained steam in major markets, serving a niche people didn’t know they needed filled. Add in blockbusters like “Thriller” or “Like a Virgin” and you’ve got a trailblazing network that could make Michael Jackson’s or Madonna’s stars burn brighter and brighter — and it continued to devote itself to music until reality television proved things other than music brought in ratings too.

Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s new book, “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” details the beginnings of MTV to the dawn of reality television. That’s when, as the authors said in an interview with National Public Radio, the original MTV began to die.

Even five or 10 years ago, people took heart in what happened at MTV’s movie or video music awards. The network held a pop culture relevance that meant something to the youth, something that stood as a barometer of cool.

It’s clear MTV can’t ever be what it used to be — and more importantly, it shouldn’t try to be. It’s unreasonable to expect MTV to go back to what made it necessary in the first place. There’s no place for a station that acts as bad pop radio with pictures, especially when Spotify, Pandora or good old YouTube can bring us the music we want without the hassle of, well, dealing with the whole MTV package.

Playing music videos all day won’t bring people back to TV sets en masse, to see what a VJ deems as cool but there’s something that will — quality.

MTV’s biggest problem now is learning to let things die rather than relying on the Cosmopolitan magazine treatment of repurposing the same basic idea and packaging it with a pretty new teaser. Reality TV isn’t the devil, but trash passed off as entertainment is.

In its fourth season, “Jersey Shore” continued to be an abomination of all things Italian, orange and fun, as people running themselves into walls and Sammi Giancola straightening her hair on air for the millionth time was deemed airable material. “Ridiculousness” took an already successful show and plunked in a skateboarder riding into his third gig with the network, trying to capitalize on what “Rob & Big” did for ratings.

But most of all, the raw material that could draw people in, the caliber of music (and cooresponding videos) that could rivet someone to sit through a dozen minutes of a mini-music video movie, has vaporized.

Tupac has been replaced by watered-down mixtape artists grasping at chopped and screwed and Auto-Tuned straws to stay relevant. Madonna’s reincarnations consider meat, eggs and most other parts of a complete breakfast worthy of wearing to a red-carpet event. Plus, good luck at finding more than a handful of song not about drinking, partying, dancing or a lurid and lusty combination of the three.

Is it fair to blame MTV for nixing much of the music? Maybe, but only in part. Really, we’re all to blame.

Terrible music and poorly produced reality television are cable TV crack — and we’ve been letting MTV steal money out of our collective purse to feed its habit while we turn a blind eye. Until we hold an intervention, it will keep stealing … and until we stop letting it, MTV will keep thinking no one’s noticing.

— Jazmine Woodberry is the Arts & Life editor. She can be reached at arts@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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