1. Actual Music Videos
The music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” everybody’s favorite Nirvana song, dropped as a world premiere on MTV in 1991. Remember when World Premieres for music videos was still a thing? Of course now we accept the music video as a standard feature of popular music consumption — if you’re a pop star you have to make a music video. But the reality is that MTV, the first music television network, not only created an entire audience for its network from scratch (think about THAT one for a sec) but also made the music video itself a crucial promotional-creative tool in the way artists make and the way we consume music. How many of us have absolutely HATED a song…until we saw the music video for it and then got so obsessed we had to go out and buy the single right away?
MTV has always had a knack for racy programming fully of sexual innuendos and suggestive camera angles that went places other networks were too chicken to go. Undressed, the network’s own soap opera about youth and college life, showed sexually active college students and other young people faced with a variety of very important problems we were probably all facing at exactly the same time. For me, Undressed was one of the first places I was exposed to the malleability of sexuality and gay characters on TV. Every week it was like Those two guys are so hot and Wow he’s taking his shirt off and they’re SOOOOO gonna bone but wait what? Where did those girls come from? Wait, after all that he’s STRAIGHT?! This is exactly what my high school experience was like.
3. The Iconic MTV Logo
Logos are everything for a brand, and throughout its history the MTV logo has been innovative, colorful, edgy, and borrowed a lot from the vibrancy of pop art. It was sort of like a piece of graffiti that was always tagged to the bottom of our screens.
4. When Britney Spears Wanted To Be A Slave For Us
Remember when Britney Spears was SO on top of her game? She threw out those high socks and pigtails with a quickness and started dancing with thick, very fat snakes like the sweaty temptress she was. I would have given anything to have been in that music video. Maybe we don’t admit it, but we miss THAT Britney Spears.
5. Carson Daly And TRL
I used to rush home from school to catch the last 30 minutes of TRL. I wouldn’t miss Carson Daly and the top video countdowns for the WORLD. There was something so magical about TRL, because they always had the hottest singers (like Britney Spears) on the show. But probably the best part was the shots of rabid fans in Times Square who were just like you wherever you watched TRL from. They were excited and were probably in New York for the first time, and there they were on TV jumping up and down because they can see Justin Timberlake through a window pane three floors up. It’s powerful stuff.
6. MTV Unplugged
Remember when you could listen to some of your favorite artists sing a stripped show with acoustic instruments? Because, like, they’re singers and not just a body attached to a song merely to market and promote it? Bob Dylan, Alanis Morissette, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, and Maxwell are some of the artists who did Unplugged. It was all about showcasing artists at their brightest, without the fluff of production that goes into music.
7. Boundary Pushing Original Shows
As MTV shifted away from music videos focusing more on reality content we got a lot of edgy programming in shows like Undressed, Beavis and Butt-head, Daria, Singled Out, The Real World (before it got ridiculous), The Jon Stewart Show, Pimp My Ride.
8. Spring Break Coverage
Nothing made me more excited about going to college than MTVs Spring Break coverage. If that’s what college is like, I have GOT to go! For one week every March, MTV picked up and went to a nice, sunny Spring Break-y location and filmed chicks and bros in their best beachwear, rocking out to live music and drinking out of red cups by the pool. It was fun, it was excitement, it was a hot mess. It was awesome.