VH1’s groundbreaking series “Behind the Music,” which explored the real-life grit beneath the glamorous veneer of rock and pop, returned to Paramount+ on Thursday. MTV’s pioneering series “Unplugged” and “Yo! MTV Raps” will also soon be resurrected for the Viacom-owned streaming service. That these shows are being offered via a streaming platform rather than on either network is the ultimate measure of how far the once-trailblazing music video channels have fallen, especially the one that started it all.
Ironically, it’s the trendy reality and competition shows that MTV gradually integrated into its lineup starting in the ’90s that ultimately led it into music oblivion in the 2000s.
When it emerged on Aug. 1 40 years ago, MTV quickly evolved from a scrappy new kind of cable channel into a force to be reckoned with. Within its first five years, it had gone from an eclectic station that broadcast videos and concerts from artists small and large to an essential home for music superstars plugging their newest albums. VH1 kicked off in 1985 as the softer alternative for older listeners, but by the mid-’90s it catered more to the original MTV rock audience who had aged into that demographic.
At the outset, MTV helped push the “Second British Invasion” of new wave and synth pop and the heavy metal ascendency, in particular, because it played artists who weren’t garnering much American radio play. After all, before MTV, there weren’t many ways to become a hit performer without a big push from FM radio.
But it turned out big stars were helped just as much as emerging talent. Careers of visually oriented artists such as Madonna, Duran Duran and Michael Jackson were greatly boosted by the music video explosion. Their fashion and image choices influenced the teen masses while young audiences discovered an exciting new world of music.
Marquee shows and talent also redefined how music could be consumed, celebrated and understood. The Video Music Awards became a staple celebrity event, and the “Unplugged” series reminded the next generation that old-fashioned strumming was worth a listen. Many of MTV’s young anchors (dubbed VJs) were clearly music aficionados and veterans who brought expertise to entertainment reporting, notably the late famed radio DJ J.J. Jackson in the ’80s and Kurt Loder and Serena Altschul with their smart news reporting throughout the ’90s.
MTV’s influence also expanded to mark many TV shows, like “Miami Vice,” with its fashion choices and pop music soundtrack, as well as many movies. When “Yo! MTV Raps” debuted in Europe in 1987 and a year later in America, it helped build legendary rap and hip-hop figures in the U.S. and expose the genre to a global audience through the network’s international outlets.
Not that MTV didn’t have its faults. It barely played Black artists at first, focusing on North American and British pop and rock that were dominated by white musicians. David Bowie and Rick James called them out, and once Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album and video became a phenomenon in 1983, boosting the network’s fortunes in the process, MTV started to play him and other African American artists regularly.
They also shoved heavy metal into a corner, giving the genre a Saturday night-only slot in the later ’80s because of attacks on the controversial genre by some media outlets and parent activist groups. By that time, smaller artists of any style had far less of a shot of getting on the channel, needing to rely on regional video shows, instead.
The MTV paradigm also dictated that a striking image and slick videos were as integral as great tunes, so artists had to worry as much about selling their looks as crafting memorable music. By the late ’80s, style over substance became a growing problem, and in the ’90s, a majority of the most expensive videos ever made emerged. They were fun to watch, but they epitomized the excess that damaged the music industry and encouraged illegal music downloading.
Ironically, it’s the trendy reality and competition shows that MTV gradually integrated into its lineup starting in the ’90s that ultimately led it into music oblivion in the 2000s. From “The Real World” to “Jackass” to “Jersey Shore,” the network delivered an increasingly dumbed-down version of youth culture in which music was an incidental ingredient.
Today, MTV and VH1 reside in a morass of reality television banality sprinkled with occasional movie and TV reruns that bears no resemblance to their glorious former selves. Last year, the VMAs drew 6.4 million viewers. Ten years ago, they pulled in 12.4 million.
To its credit, in recent years, MTV has tried to bring the music back with the offshoot channels MTV Classic and Live. But it’s had little success. Instead, MTV and VH1 survive with non-music content and reality shows like “Teen Mom 2,” “Ridiculousness” and “Cartel Crew.” That has made them musically irrelevant, as YouTube has become the new MTV. Almost any music video you want to see is on it, while Bandcamp, Tidal and Spotify have given fans greater power to discover new and classic music, whether it’s curated through algorithms or their own curiosity.
It’s sad but no surprise that a visual streaming outlet is the one to revive MTV and VH1 hit shows after those networks veered far off the rails by, ironically, chasing the youth culture that originally devoured their video programming and made it must-see TV for those coming of age. That’s the cost of becoming a slave to the trends rather than setting them. But for a time, it was glorious.
Bryan Reesman is a New York-based reporter, the author of the book “Bon Jovi: The Story” and host of the podcast “Side Jams.”