When I was born, MTV had already passed its eighth birthday. Now that I've dated myself, I'll make another confession: I never had cable television growing up. So I watched MTV take over the planet like someone who lived in a different dimension -- I watched music videos with my friends at their houses, houses that magically had a much larger handful of terrible channels. I rented Beavis and Butt-head episodes from Blockbuster (remember that?).
MTV was a gem for me, a rare treat. I still remember watching those two somehow enjoyable morons making copies of dollar bills and even loose change and then thinking they were rich. I remember downloading music videos by my favorite bands on Napster and Kazaa because, without MTV, there was no other way to see them.
A lot has changed since then -- some of which I'll never understand, since I wasn't around to see the beginning.
But it's telling, at least, how much MTV has changed in my lifetime, and yet how much remains the same. When I was growing up, MTV made me think of cartoon morons making hilarious fart jokes and pissing off my parents. Now, MTV makes me think of cartoonish morons making jokes out of themselves and pissing me off. (Yes, that was a Jersey Shore reference.)
In the middle, MTV gave us much to love and much to hate. It gave Jon Stewart an early break with The Jon Stewart Show in 1993, even as it spearheaded television's march into the hellish inferno known as reality TV with shows like The Real World and Road Rules. It helped break alternative rock in the early '90s, many years before it started raising troubling questions about the exploitation of kids who were born in the early '90s with shows like Teen Mom. And somewhere along the way, it made music a secondary priority, something that would be relegated to MTV2 and then MTV Hits.
For better or for worse, Jersey Shore is the face of MTV now -- Season 2 was the highest-rated show on all of TV for viewers aged 12-34 (!!!), which essentially includes the demographic that gets to decide what pop culture is and isn't.
On many levels, as I suggested earlier, our nation's fascination with the Shore isn't all that different from our previous fascination with Beavis and Butt-head -- stupid kids doing stupid things that make us laugh. We tune in each week dying to know what idiotic conundrums they'll get themselves into next, knowing they'll prove that they've somehow still got that inexplicable, incomprehensible flair for entertaining us.
The difference is that the cartoon characters were (thankfully) sequestered safely in a pen-and-ink world, away from where they could sexually harass strangers at clubs or get punched in the face or be mistaken for role models. And whereas music videos were an important part of Beavis and Butt-head, Jersey Shore simply plays a few tracks and calls it a day (though I suppose the exposure is pretty helpful for those up-and-comings).
(Skip to 3:06 for the reincarnated cartoon duo's thoughts on Jersey Shore.)
In a way, MTV is just like any other cultural behemoth -- we talk about how much it changes our society for the worse, how it warps our minds and makes us stupid, how it perverts our notions of good and acceptable behavior, but if we press our faces to the glass and look closely enough, we can just just barely make out our own reflection, staring right back at us.