I never really had much patience for the tired gripe that “MTV doesn’t play videos anymore.” After all, the complaint was already a chestnut before I started watching MTV, and yet in my early years of exposure to the channel, I scarcely had trouble finding videos. My family lived in a condo complex in Stratford, CT that, until 1996, had the most basic cable service possible, which somehow meant no MTV. So a decade and a half after the channel’s debut, I was experiencing the channel the way that those nearly a generation before me had: curiously and furiously seeking out the channel at my friends’ houses. I remember racing home after school the day that our condo’s cable package was going to be expanded to include MTV, and watching hours of videos after school, starting with “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine.
Sure, there was plenty of MTV original programming, as there always had been. Some of it was reality television and some was not. Some of it was great and some of it was not. But I quickly adapted to the schedule of the network, and could find what felt like twelve hours’ worth of videos on some weekend days. This was the beginning of a second golden age for music videos; Hype Williams gave jiggy rap its signature proto-Michael Bay sheen. Big-budget action sagas like Mariah Carey‘s “Honey” coexisted with Michel Gondry art-dreams like “Everlong.” And this was without even delving into 120 Minutes. All of this was pop, and it all coexisted. Jess Harvell analyzes this, in so many words, in a piece on Beavis and Butthead for Sound of the City (which, incidentally, is the only venue not in-house that’s actually given MTV’s entire history a fair shake for this anniversary).
Here’s a perfect example of the contrasts of mid-1990s MTV: perhaps the only 1996 video I remember more distinctly than “Bulls On Parade” is Mariah Carey‘s “Always Be My Baby,” which I loved from the first, even though at the time I was too “cool” to like pop music. (I was 11. I had a lot to learn.) Even then, though, I had a sense, as I continued to obsessively watch the music-video programs on MTV, that their days were numbered. Whole weekends would be devoted to countdowns of various forms and lengths, in an attempt to drum up more interest in videos-as-programming (a mimic of holiday-weekend radio countdowns), until finally, on November 16, 1997, after a glut of promotion, MTV ran seven-and-a-half straight hours of music videos—The Top 50 Video Countdown, with all videos played in full—with the promise that host Matt Pinfield would be green-screened into one of the clips, and the fiftieth caller to a toll-free number would win $50,000. The winner was Hal Perry of Seattle, though before the special my friends and I were convinced that we would win, and on the next school day afterward we asked around, hoping that one of us had won (and then, you know, just gone to school the next day. No big deal). The video in which Pinfield appeared? Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.”
Surely, I thought at the time, this is the beginning of the end of music videos on MTV. Finally the predictions of naysayers are going to come true. What I didn’t realize at the time was the network’s commitment at the time to continue showing videos. Sure, they were less expensive than original programming. But they also got abysmal ratings. And this glut of video lists revisiting the late 80s and early 90s during the mid-90s wasn’t a death knell for the music video at all. MTV Live was already two months old at this point; within another ten months it would become Total Request Live, and be uniquely positioned to showcase the music videos of the wave of teenpop that accompanied the turn of the century. And even then the music ranged wider than just Lou Pearlman and co.; the first video to be officially “retired” by TRL was Korn‘s “Got the Life” in January 1999. And at the same time, MTV2 was growing—at the time an outlet for videos and video shows that did not rate for MTV proper. Now that MTV2 has its own stable of shows, VH1 Classic, VH1 Soul, MTV Jams, MTV Hits, and Palladia have all stepped up to show music videos and music programming. Thirty years after the animated moon man planted the MTV flag, music television is alive and well.