The day the music died on MTV

Hannah Misner

An alien walks into a U.S. hotel room. He sits on the flowery comforter and gingerly grasps the channel guide from the bed stand. After a long journey, he wishes to unwind with some music and immediately pushes the appropriate number to reach the Music Television station. But there is no music. There are only a handful of spoiled, adolescent girls babbling over who-knows-what. He pushes the numbers again, more carefully this time, just to be sure. Again he stumbles upon the same girls but in slightly different outfits.

Later he tries again, but he is further confused when he sees a high school football team in its locker room. The alien is convinced that he has misinterpreted the word “music.”

Is his assumption warranted? Although shows such as “The Hills,” “Juvies” and “True Life: I’m Addicted to Crystal Meth” could certainly be linked to some of today’s music stars, there is little music left on MTV. In fact, more music could sometimes be found in an episode of “The O.C.” than an episode of “Total Request Live.” With reality and dating shows dominating its time slots, perhaps Music Television should reestablish its bond with music videos or change its name.

MTV first aired on Aug. 1, 1981, with the appropriate music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. The network’s original purpose was strictly to air music videos; it was revolutionary, it was exciting and it was all music. But in 1987, MTV began a series of music news programs with the premiere of “The Week in Rock.” Though these programs broke the steady stream of music videos, they still focused on music. MTV began its retreat from music in 1992 when it premiered its first reality show, “The Real World.” Its success inspired all major networks to create their own reality-TV shows and has spawned 17 sequels of its own. Its next major success was the high school reality drama “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” in 2003. Today, reality dramas team up with reality dating shows to overshadow any music that remains on MTV.

The one show that holds a glimmer of hope for MTV’s musical base is “Total Request Live,” which counts down the top 10 requested videos every weekday. When today’s college students think back to middle school, they can recall seeing the whole music video they requested. But since its premiere in 1998, it has grown increasingly preoccupied with celebrity interviews, MTV news, promos for shows and the occasional audience competition. After all this, there is hardly room for more than 30-second clips of music videos. The network’s only other display of music videos rolls in the background of 10-second credits at the end of the very shows that replaced it. Music literally takes a backseat to reality and dating shows.

Of course, most shows include theme songs and musical interludes, but this hardly distinguishes them from other shows on other networks. Instead of seeing themselves mirrored in the lyrics, beats and aesthetics of visual music, today’s generation yearns to identify with warped versions of reality presented in shows like “The Hills” and “Parental Control.”

The MTV enterprise now includes MTV2, a station that presently plays substantially more music videos than the original. The original MTV essentially passed on the music to another, less popular station but kept its now-misleading name.

When Music Television is no longer music television, it should not keep that name. What is now MTV2 should be renamed as Music Television, and the reality and dating shows should become their own suitably named network.