It’s become an easy joke, poking fun at MTV and what makes for the majority of its content. So easy, in fact, that Justin Timberlake can do it. “I challenge MTV right now,” he said, accepting the “Quadrulple Threat” award at the Video Music Awards Sunday night, “to play more videos.” (I assume the “yo!” was implied.)
It’s an easy call, of course, to say that MTV won’t rise to Timberlake’s challenge. No one in MTV upper management is watching Justin Timberlake, or the VMAs, or most of what the network programs, for that matter. The difference is this: MTV used to understand how to market itself.
MTV, when it began, was punk. MTV was cutting-edge. The slogan “I Want My MTV” was one of the most successful in the 80s. Musicians from all over embraced it, participated in it. It was new, it was fresh, it was the perfect network for young audiences. And then, sometime in the 90s, right around the time that The Real World was in its second season, MTV started to suck. It started to take itself seriously. It started, in other words, to grow up.
Now, MTV is unmistakably an adult. It’s completely sold out. It doesn’t get its guitar out of the closet very often, because it’s just too busy. It doesn’t really hang out with friends much anymore, because it has a job, for pete’s sake, and a mortgage to pay. It listens to NPR when its in the car. It wears suits most of the time, and when it does wear shorts and that old 1984 Van Halen tee-shirt (you know, to mow the lawn), it just looks silly. Oh, it pretends to be still young; it’s thinking of buying a motorcycle and a leather jacket, and it keeps up on “the slang” so it can pretend not to be “the man”, but seriously, it’s not fooling anyone.
So yeah, MTV has committed the cardinal sin of the youth-culture that it helped to create: it got old. But what’s more tragic isn’t the getting old; it’s the getting insignificant. And that’s not age showing—that’s bad marketing.
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Can MTV mount a comeback? (Hopefully better than Britney Spears apparently can?) Maybe. But it’ll have to embrace what youth are already talking about, instead of always trying to create what youth are talking about. Early MTV did both; MTV today does only the latter.
Of course, even if MTV does reinvent itself, I probably won’t know. I’ll be outside in my Van Halen tee, mowing the lawn, and listening to my podcast of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
For another take on the MTV Video Music Awards, click here.-- Teague Bohlen