Tuned In

MTV Too Old for Self

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It had to happen eventually: MTV has aged out of the MTV demographic. The used-to-be-music channel hits the big 2-5 today, putting it outside the 12-to-24 age group that is its chief marketing draw for advertisers. A quarter century after the moon man planted that multicolored flag on its air, MTV could run for Congress today. It can get a better rate on car insurance. When MTV watches TV now, it will have to watch VH1.

I come to praise the old geezer, tho, not to bury it. It’s hard to underestimate how staggering an accomplishment MTV has made. Its business is serving the most notoriously fickle segment of the entertainment market–not just serving it, but actively promoting its fickleness, its boredom, its agitation to move on to the next thing. By all rights, MTV should have been over in a few years, superseded by something else, tainted with the embarrassing cologne stench of somebody’s skeevy older brother, still trying to hang out at high school dances and mack on cheerleaders. 25 years later, MTV had no business appealing to any young person. 25 years on, how relevant was Saturday Night Live? How relevant was Woodstock II?

Yet it stayed relevant, not by retaining the same audience–then it would be VH1 by now–but with a ruthless sense of self-reinvention. It realized that its audience a few years from any given point would be an entirely new one. So it remorselessly shed viewers, personnel and programs–even popular programs–knowing that once something was no longer white-hot, it was no longer MTV. It shed and regenerated viewers and personalities like a snake molting its skin. It was the video network, the Real World network, the Beavis & Butt-Head network, the Jackass network, the Osbournes network, the Laguna Beach network. It was the pop network, the metal network, the hip-hop network, the boy-band network, the emo network.

It’s easy to criticize MTV by saying that it is no longer a music network, but that’s not entirely right: it’s a music network in the sense that, for a teenager, music is not just music but the sum total of noises and influences that simmer in the background of your important experiences and get you through your long, boring days. What ever young people want MTV to be at the moment–or rather, whatever MTV anticipates they will want it to be five seconds from now–that’s what it is, and it’s never fussed too much about the implications for its sense of identity. MTV, ergo sum.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that no pop-cultural force has influenced as many young people as much and for as long than MTV. In fact, what truly frightening about it is that, if anything, it seems to have gotten more influential over time. There used to be–Cranky Old Man alert!–at least a certain kind of indie cred to spurning MTV. The Dead Kennedys sang "MTV Get Off the Air"; The Replacements and The Pixies made videos so intentionally dull as to defy MTV ever to play them. (The videos from The Replacements’ album Tim consisted of one long shot of a stereo speaker playing the song.) Conversely, there was a long time when MTV basically shunned hip-hop, which was indefensible but at least made the genre seem legitimately dangerous for a while. Now everyone from Panic! at the Disco to 50 Cent is swept up in the same catholic embrace, and returns it. There may still be a youth counterculture in opposition to MTV, but the channel’s big tent is so wide now that you could mistake it for the sky.

So congratulations, MTV, and enjoy your entry into ever-youthful, Botoxed middle age. Take yourself out for a nice dinner. I hear you get a free salad with the early bird special.