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 turnable.fm 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.
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.
Thirty years ago today, MTV launched, and indeed, video killed the radio star.
The network birthed a breed of celebrity far cooler than the conventional disc jockey: the video jockey, better known as the veejay. While those terms may now seem as antiquated as a VHS deck and a bottle of Aqua Net, before Snooki and co. ruled MTV, veejays were the face of the network.
Downtown Julie Brown and Kennedy became household names as veejays in MTV's 1990s golden age. Jesse Camp famously (and inexplicably, given his inability to complete sentences) joined the club after winning MTV's first Wanna Be a VJ contest. Then there were the auxiliary veejays, the news reporters like Tabitha Soren and Kurt Loder who lent an air of gravitas to a network known for its shenanigans.
But before all of them, there were the original five. Check out what MTV's first veejays -- Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, J.J. Jackson and Nina Blackwood -- have been up to since they signed off.
Quinn was one of MTV's most loved veejays. She won over viewers with her bubbly, girl-next-door persona and was named "MTV's Best-Ever VJ" by the readers of Rolling Stone. After 10 years with the network, she moved on to other TV projects, appearing on the fleeting "Brady Brunch" sequel "The Bradys," scoring a recurring role on the sitcom "Full House," and starring in a series of Neutrogena commercials in the '90s.
These days, Quinn, 52, hosts '80s music programs on SiriusXM radio along with many of her former veejays.
Hunter was an actor before he landed at MTV, but he dabbled in music videos too. He appeared in the video for David Bowie's "Fashion" two months before getting hired by the network.
On MTV, Hunter became the class clown of the original veejays. He did accents. He did cartwheels. He went on the road for "MTV Spring Break" and other specials. "You break stuff and you don't read the script," he told CNN about his MTV tenure in 2001. "That's the key. That was really kind of MTV's whole thing."
Today, Hunter serves as a host on SiriusXM's Big80s on 8 channel and co-owns a film production company, Hunter Films, with his brother.
Before intro-ing videos, Goodman rocked the airwaves as a deejay for New York City rock station WPLJ. He quickly became one of MTV's top-notch hosts after joining the network, helming "The Week In Rock", "120 Minutes" and "The Top 20 Video Countdown."
Goodman left the network in 1987 to launch an acting career (highlights include "Don't Be a Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood" and "Police Academy 6: City Under Siege"). He returned to his former stomping ground in the mid 2000s to host interviews and specials on VH-1.
Now, he hosts SiriusXM's '80s programming along with his former MTV buds.
Blackwood had her first stint in the spotlight a few years before going on MTV, when she posed nude for the August 1978 issue of Playboy. With her wild mop of blonde hair, Blackwood embodied the rock 'n roll spirit of MTV's early years.
Post MTV, Blackwood continued to work in the entertainment industry, acting, hosting and appearing on celebrity news programs. She took on the stage too, performing as part of the 2003 road company of "The Vagina Monologues." She also serves as a host on Big80s on 8 with her MTV cronies.
A former entertainment reporter and DJ, Jackson brought credibility to the veejay crew. Older than his co-horts, he was known for his knowledge of rock music and the people who made it. He was able to score interviews with legends like Robert Plant and Pete Townshend in MTV's early years.
After five years with the network, Jackson returned to his disc jockey roots. He's the only member of the original gang no longer alive -- he passed away in 2004, at 62, after suffering a heart attack.