Back in 1981, there was this Music Television Channel to one wanted until a George Lois came up with one four letter phrase that changed history as we know it. "I want my MTV."
Then all of a sudden MTV became hotter than neon, popped collars and Patrick Nagel illustrations. Nothing was more cool, iconic or irreverent than MTV. The station was one of the first designed for younger people. The fact parents hated the videos and the artists (a sneering Billy Idol, hyper-sexual Madonna, sexually ambiguous Prince, not to mention Twisted Sister to name a few) made it all the more attractive. For two years during the mid-80's, Andy Warhol had a show called "Fifteen Minutes." The downtown cool was effortless. And just like Warhol, MTV was as calculating and cynical.
Nothing signified this more than the VMA's which made the Grammys look geriatric in comparison. Consider Madonna writhing around in a white wedding dress one of the starts of self-promotion that could make or break a rock star. The award given out at the VMA's was a Moon Man, in honor of what happened to be one of its most middle-finger waving moments: a simple twenty second bumper that announced with all the bravado in the world that MTV had arrived, and yes that was a big deal thank you very much. Using the original footage of the moon landing and painting an animated MTV flag in front of the American flag, was quite a bold statement.
So now MTV finds itself in a quandary. In the early 90's it diversified into reality television starting with The Real World. Shows like The Jersey Shore and Sixteen and Pregnant supplanted what little street cred MTV had left with junk. MTV's cynicism and disdain for its audience reached an apex when it embraced identity politics and often divisive casual racism masquerading as being progressive to the point where it alienated its audience. To be fair their ratings have been on the decline for years, with millennials in particular, and every other demographic in general. Finally sensing that perhaps taking the woke route isn't that good for the bottom line, MTV announced it would go back to its roots and start playing more music.
Perhaps this promo for the 2017 VMA's is making that intention a reality, finally. It's the first time in recent memory MTV has acknowledged its pioneering history in any way. But you'd have to squint really hard to see that history here. They've sampled sounds from the NASA announcers but beyond that, it's just a set of the moon with dancers showing off some five-year old dance moves, while an unrecognizable version of the Buggles' "Video killed the radio star" bubbles along. If you know anything about that song it was a cheeky and ironic protest at the dawning of the Age of MTV. The reason it falls flat in this context is that people don't listen to the radio that much anymore.
This promo manages a strange trick of being both generic, overproduced and complicated. It's also myopic in its nostalgia. I have no idea why there are dancers on the moon. I suspect no one will recognize the dress as a nod to Madonna or the snake as a nod to Britney Spears. I have no idea what statement they are trying to make, if any. It's to be expected. Whereas once MTV challenged the status quo, now they are the status quo. Like a dull college professor trying to shut down free speech it doesn't want to hear, MTV has turned into the morally outraged social conservative that musicians fought during its heyday. What's worse, it's now indulging in self-worship it can no longer live up to. This promo is MTV sniffing its own farts. If they had any sense they'd fire everyone in the creative department as well as their show runners, shut down for a few months, and come back when they are ready to focus on music. Or just put Kurt Loder in charge of it.
Agency: MTV Marketing and Creative Group
Director: Floria Sigismondi