Madonna’s Marie Antoinette-inspired “Vogue”, Prince’s “Caligula Show”, Nirvana’s famous unplugged performance, Britney’s snake dance… MTV founded the VMAs in 1984, and over the years it has given us a wealth of pop history.
It was 1984 when the channel produced its first MTV Video Music Awards, or VMAs as we know them now. The first awards ceremony was marked by Madonna, who performed her hit “Like a Virgin” live in a wedding dress, and immediately caused a minor scandal with her “Boy Toy” belt as she writhed on the floor during the song and showed off her lace collar and garter belt. The Cars’ video for “You Might Think” won the top prize, beating Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. At the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards, Peter Gabriel won ten awards, including the Video Vanguard Award and Video of the Year for his clip “Sledgehammer”. The statuettes presented at the Video Music Awards were modelled on MTV’s “Moonman”, the channel’s original image from the first broadcast. The Video Music Awards remains MTV’s most-watched annual event to date.
A new era
MTV’s history saw the early emergence of various charity campaigns and the organisation of a number of charity events. In 1985, the music channel was almost the first to spearhead a safe sex initiative in response to the AIDS epidemic. It was also in this year that MTV changed hands, with entertainment giant Viacom buying it from Warner, and it was at this time that many successful innovations, such as the genre presentation of videos, were made. Headbangers Ball was exclusively about heavy metal, Yo! MTV Raps was about hip-hop and 120 Minutes featured artists from the then-emerging alternative rock genre. These shows would eventually spawn some of the most influential artists of the years to come, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam and rap icons like Dr Dre. MTV was then making its mark in a growing number of genres, such as dance and fashion, but it was also the place to find out about the latest celebrity gossip (MTV News, House of Style, Club MTV).
If you tuned in to MTV in the nineties, you could see metal bands like Pantera and White Zombie, but also gangsta rap like 2Pac and Biggie Smalls. Video premieres became events in their own right, with video artists and in many cases renowned filmmakers trying to outdo each other with their creations. This continued until the middle of the decade, when MTV played 36.5% fewer music videos between 1995 and 2000. MTV President Van Toffler said: “The novelty of simply showing music videos is gone. We need to reinvent ourselves for a contemporary audience”. Then, with the advent of YouTube, MTV reduced the overall rotation of music videos even further by the mid-2000s. While in 2000, MTV had eight hours of music videos a day, by 2008 the channel was averaging only three hours of music videos a day.
The big innovation was finally the reality TV genre. MTV had already made its mark in 1992 with Real World, which showed young people’s struggles with sexuality, drugs, depression, and partying. But the biggest successes came much later, in the 2000s, with six seasons of Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, and car shows like Pimp My Ride, which ran until 2017 and was one of the longest-running programmes in the history of the channel.
This is the End (?)
However, with the rise of digitalisation, the advent of YouTube and easy-to-download music content, MTV tried to fight back, but it was losing on all fronts and lost its musical power… it had less and less to offer in the face of the new wave of content consumption, and now it has to compete with giants like Netflix and TikTok. It’s no longer possible to be as cool on as many platforms as it was decades ago, but that’s not what you can expect from a TV channel in 2022. What is certain is that perhaps no one has contributed as much to the evolution of music, music videos and even pop culture itself as MTV.