The XX Factor

MTV Turns 30 

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Happy birthday to MTV, which technically turns 30 years old today, though it might be argued that it actually died at a younger age even than the members of the 27 Club.  It did drop the word “music” from its logo a couple of years ago, a reflection of its sad decline from being radio-on-the-TV to a network devoted to documenting the screw-ups of young women and the scoldings from Dr. Drew that follow.  But I want to tip my hat to the MTV that was, the MTV that basically raised me (along with my sainted mother).  Sure, it’s strange to say that a channel that’s basically four years younger than I am–really more like six, because we didn’t get MTV on cable in El Paso, Texas, for at least a couple of years after it came out–raised me, but it’s the truth.  MTV was not only my constant companion throughout my entire youth, but arguably it had the single biggest impact on the aesthetics and pop cultural attitudes of Generation X, the irony-loving generation that has quietly receded into the background while our earnest and more populous younger sisters of Generation Y take the media spotlight.  Of course, we all like to front like we were too cool for that, but aging hipsters weren’t born in record stores, you know.  We were made, one Kajagoogoo and Run DMC video at a time.  Indeed, some of us are coming to terms with our history, as indicated by the room I was DJ-ing in the other night, labeled simply “120 Minutes.”

Growing up in Texas, first in El Paso and then in rural West Texas, I got a front row seat to the hysterical reactions of conservative Christians to MTV, which helped create an underground network of those of us with more tolerant parents smuggling copied cassettes of some of the more controversial artists into the homes of those banned from watching MTV.  Conservative Christians were concerned that MTV was encouraging Satan worship, stoking the sexual imaginations of youngsters, and that it was especially giving young women ideas.  Well, with the exception of Satan worship, I have to admit the religious folks had a point. I, for one, got a lot of ideas from MTV, and I remain incredibly grateful. 

(Get more stories like this one delivered to your inbox. Please sign up here for Slate’s daily newsletter.)

For the youth of America living outside the hip enclaves of New York and L.A., the world of rock music that was presented to us was bleak, especially for those of us of the female persuasion.  Rock ’n’ roll radio was aimed at the Baby Boomers, which meant heavy on the dude music, with only the occasional Heart or Fleetwood Mac to break it up.  As Nitsuh Abebe demonstrated, in the year before MTV dropped, the average artist charting at #1 was a 35-year-old man.  That’s fine, but it didn’t really speak to the young girls and women of my generation.

But MTV opened up a whole new world of possibilities. We didn’t just have Madonna; we also had Cyndi Lauper. Multiple options!  What a refreshing idea for young women being raised by a generation that married young and still hadn’t fully embraced the potential of feminism.  We also got a full dose of handsome young men preening onscreen in order to sell us records.  There were teen idols before, but nothing has really cemented the reality of the female gaze like Duran Duran, whose images created the wallpaper for a female relative of mine who is about seven years older.  The ‘70s did have social and gender subversion in music with punk and David Bowie, but that stuff didn’t really trickle down to middle America.  It took MTV to feed us images of men wearing make-up, butch-looking women in suits, and Prince.  Michael Jackson would have been a star without MTV, I’m sure, but MTV gave him the boost that made him what he is for my generation today, which is a surefire way to get all the girls on the dance floor.  

I still remember the sad days of the late ‘90s when it happened: I just stopped flipping on the TV and turning it to MTV as soon as I entered the house, even though that’s what my parents did when I was a kid and what I did for most of my young life as soon as I could operate the TV myself.  It was a combination of factors.  For one thing, MTV had really started to suck, playing pointless non-music programming for more and more hours of the day.  But also, I was living in Austin by that point, and it was the period where pirate radio and left-of-the-dial public radio stations were pumping a stream of underground rock music into the air.  MTV wasn’t playing the likes of Sleater-Kinney, and so I wasn’t playing MTV anymore.  But that doesn’t mean that I still don’t have much love for what the station meant to me in its heyday.