BY WHITNEY COLLINS
In August of 1981, when I was on the cusp of nine, MTV debuted. Heralded by a spartan guitar-and-drum intro, footage of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, and a gloriously low-budget, classroom-doodled flag, MTV stormed into the family rooms of my generation and bitch-slapped Monopoly game boards into the fireplace.
The genesis of Music Television was a landmark moment for me and my peers, an event that easily eclipsed the launch of the first Space Shuttle four months prior, the 1983 premiere of Chicken McNuggets, and, not surprisingly, the 1984 purchase of my first bra—a flimsy piece of fabric that could have easily been confused with an infant’s blindfold.
To put it mildly, MTV slammed the door square in the face of the 1970s, signaling the end of my childhood and the beginning of what they now call “tweens” but what we then called “youth.” Within weeks of seeing Pat Benatar prancing about in her liquid leather pants and flashing her rabbit teeth for the camera, I went from braiding ribbon barrettes and wanting to be Vicki Stubing to wondering who I could cut for a Styx ticket.
There was one minor problem, however: MTV aired on cable, and my family lived out in the country on a ten-acre patch of land that had only recently been a cornfield. Our new, two-story brick house rose out of the bleached grass like a solitary bank branch might in the desert, and a scoliosis-ridden antenna that perched on our chimney was my only connection to the televised world. On good days it brought me 60 Minutes and the occasional grainy episode of Three’s Company. On temperamental ones, it broadcast what I think was Masterpiece Theatre but what might have been scrambled porn. That’s how bad the static was.
Thus, that momentous summer, while all the kids in town were losing their suntans in the indigo glow of 24/7, commercial-free MTV and discussing The Vapors and Ultravox, I was out in our barn, cleaning my horse’s sheath per Pony Club requirements, and plotting where I could procure a satellite dish.
Again, in case you missed it, while my friends were singing “Take It On The Run” into their mothers’ Tickle deodorants, I WAS SHAMPOOING MY HORSE’S PENIS AND SCHEMING GRAND LARCENY JUST TO SEE ONE REO SPEEDWAGON VIDEO.
If there’s any residual confusion on why I am the way I am, that should probably clarify things. (Also: somebody needs to shut down Pony Club.)
When school started six weeks later, I quickly devolved into a sleepover hussy. Once shy about overnights, and picky as to other people’s bedsheets and family dynamics, I fast learned to accept any classmate’s or playground acquaintance’s (or pretty much any school-age girl’s) invitation to spend the night. As long as she had cable, I didn’t worry myself with her domestic dysfunction. If her father threw Scotch bottles out in the driveway while I slept on a dog bed, so be it. Simply watching Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” six or seven times before my parents picked me up was worth eating frozen waffles that were still frozen while someone’s mother slept till noon.
This was a surreal and starry-eyed time in the lives of ’80s kids. MTV soon became the babysitter everyone loved, a cultured nanny who never slept. A worldly caregiver, both sentimental and untamed, who kept children out of the emergency room and distracted from the double-threat of divorce and nuclear war through the hypnotic stylings of Split Enz. When MTV was on—which it always, always was—parents of that era were free to do as they wished. If so inclined, they could hand out bags of Doritos and cases of Mello Yello and take off for Rio, confident that when they returned 21 days later, there the children would be, just as they’d left them in the sunken living room, albeit more anemic and rightly sated, now knowing exactly what The Who looked like when they sang “You Better You Bet.”
MTV’s heyday was, in short, The Era of Unsupervised Children. I remember often never seeing parents on sleepovers. I remember my friends and I cooking Velveeta nachos for ourselves in big, wood-paneled, carcinogenic microwaves. I remember sleeping in strange dens, wrapped in strange afghans with the television on all night. I remember occasionally wondering: Who is watching us? Who is monitoring us? But then I’d think: OH, THAT’S RIGHT: MARTHA QUINN IS! And then I’d sit back against yet another couch, my arm in yet another box of cereal, and wait for that astronaut to plant that flag, over and over and over again in that moon dust, until somebody’s hungover dad drove us to White Castle for breakfast.
Sadly, my torrid affair with MTV was relatively short-lived; the highlights of our liaison included 1983’s Thriller, 1985’s “We Are The World” and A-ha’s “Take On Me,” and 1987’s banner year with “Livin’ On A Prayer,” “Sledgehammer,” and Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way.” My last, truly tender moment with MTV was at a ninth grade slumber party; it was then that I saw T’Pau’s “Heart And Soul” for the 148th time and wept into a Domino’s pizza for everything that had been.
I sensed the end was nigh.
After that, in 1988, the seven-year itch hit. The shows Remote Control and House of Style were the first sign MTV and I were growing apart. The Grind was our first all-out fight. And if video killed the radio star, The Real World brutally murdered the video star—we’re talking multiple, premeditated stab wounds right into the soul of Tawny Kitaen. That said, the real and final, long overdue break-up happened when Road Rules premiered in 1994 during my senior year of college. Tuning in to that show was like walking in on a lover in bed with a German Shepherd. I think I threw my clicker out a second-story rental house window and screamed “I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO YOU ARE ANYMORE!” And then I marched out: thoroughly crushed and disenchanted.
(MTV still has my toothbrush, by the way, WHICH HE CAN FUCKING KEEP.)
When I had my first son in 2006, he’d regularly get up at dawn to eat and I’d nurse him and watch VH1’s Jump Start, which was a music video show I happened upon by accident. It was the closest thing I’d ever seen to MTV ever since MTV had decided to start selling out and whoring around. I liked Jump Start in the same way a heroin addict probably likes methadone. It gave me a fix, but it just wasn’t the same as wearing a neon pink Frankie Say Relax muscle shirt and eating two sleeves of Oreos while my friends’ parents’ marriages failed. Nothing would ever be that raw and poignant.
Recently, someone told me there’s another MTV channel called MTV Hits that specializes in playing primarily music videos. It’s probably been around twenty years at this point. I’m tempted to tune in, but it kind of seems like sitting alone, at the end of the bar in a Jimmy Buffet t-shirt, and trying to make conversation with people fifteen years younger about what ever happened to David Coverdale. Plus, I’m pretty sure that channel’s not playing Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.”
On the bright side, the original MTV VJs host the 80’s channel on XM radio; if you want to hear Mark Goodman and Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn and good old raspy Nina Blackwood, they’re still alive and still talking about Robert Palmer and The Buggles like it’s still okay for kids to eat nitrates and for Madonna to show her tits. After listening to them all day in my minivan, I sometimes think: “Shit! I forgot to go to the tanning bed!”
Regardless, all this makes me feel bad for my kids. They won’t grow up with album art and liner notes and record stores, much less vinyl records that smell like heaven or shitty tape recorders that eat your tapes. They won’t grow up having to listen to an entire album to get to the one song they bought it for. They won’t know the mystery of rock stars because rock stars have blogs. They won’t know that messing with those little plastic thingies on a mix tape will keep people from recording over it. They won’t know that simultaneously holding down Fast Forward and Play until there’s a clicking sound means the start of a new song. Not to mention, they won’t have to wait weeks to see Rod Stewart’s “Ain’t Love A Bitch” because they’re busy shining an Appaloosa’s knob.
And, most heartbreakingly, they won’t grow up with MTV.
No, they’ll grow up being babysat by someone named Jordynn who’s getting a nursing degree and who actually knows CPR and who won’t let them waste the best days of their youth on a sectional. My children will go to sleepovers where organic blue corn tortilla chips are served in one room, while mothers and fathers come to civilized compromises in another. Russia will be just another country.
My children will download cheap, single songs onto hard drives instead of mowing entire neighborhoods to pay for one, sacred, fragile album that can be easily broken over a knee or a coveted cassette that can be devoured like fettuccine by a crappy General Motors tape deck. And the videos my children will watch? They will be 3-D productions that cost more than an African village. My kids won’t know the awkward simplicity of Mick Jagger dancing alone in a cheap black room wearing a purple blouse and white pajama pants.
Finally and perhaps most importantly? They won’t see men wearing skinny jeans the way men were meant to wear skinny jeans.
And may God help them. Because if that’s not the biggest tragedy of all, I don’t know what is.
This essay originally appeared on Loop.