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Official Article

MTV: The 90's

Growing up in the 80's it was impossible not to be aware of the MTV network, but I did not experience the full effect of Music Television until the 90's when my adolescent hormones started to kick in and the need for teenage acceptance was in full swing. What follows are my experiences with MTV from 1990 to 1999.

In the early days of elementary school, my gateway to current pop music was through the occasional episode of Kids, Incorporated and whatever my friend's parents were listening to. My parents were no help as they were into 60's/70's crooners like Johnny Mathis and Tom Jones (who Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would soon revive). I distinctly remember hearing "She Drives Me Crazy" and "Good Thing" by the Fine Young Cannibals on a car ride with my friend Erik and thinking that their music was a revelation. That was 1989 and though my first look at MTV on a TV screen wasn't until several years later, I did get introduced to the MTV brand in a rather unique way.

My older brother was always a computer guy and showed me the latest PC games like Battle Chess or King's Quest. One day he booted-up his computer with some floppy discs to show me a game called Remote Control. He told me it was based on a game show from MTV where they asked questions about TV and music. I didn't know who Billy Idol was,  but I knew all about Laverne & Shirley, so I managed to not completely bomb. Truth be told, all I really wanted to see was the pixelated contestants make funny faces and get popcorn dumped on their heads. As far as I knew, for several years, MTV made great video games and was possibly for cool people. Then in 1993 I moved from California to New Jersey for few months to live with my cousins on an extended vacation and soon the floodgates opened thanks to a family connection.

My cousin Michelle was the coolest teenager I knew, plus, she had the best early 90's hair in town. She always took an interest in her 6th grader cousin, culminating in what became a weekly tradition in front of the tube. Each Saturday we would pop some frozen french fries in the oven and turn on "the MTV" to take in the latest videos. "Hanging out" with a teenage girl (even if she was my cousin) made me feel "cool" and the fact that we were watching "edgy" music videos made it all the more exciting.

I vividly remember snacking on some crinkle cut fries while watching the video for "Cryin" by Aerosmith and being amazed by the climax where Alicia Silverstone bungee jumps off a freeway overpass and flips off the camera. Sure, they digitally blurred it, but the sight of that obviously insane and cute girl dangling defiantly caught my attention in a big way. I had never seen anything so rebellious, so wild and recall thinking, "You can show that on television?" Which is a question I continued to ask myself for many years to come. 

Aerosmith was really my gateway to MTV through the early 90's, with each video upping the ante from "Crazy" to "Amazing" to the all-out madness of "Livin' on the Edge", these 40-something rockers who were old enough to be the dad's of their target-audience managed to appeal to disaffected teenagers nationwide. The funny thing is, many of the parents those teens were rebelling against probably stuck it to their own authority figures in the 70's by blasting Aerosmith records at full volume. While I didn't end up owning any of their albums myself, one music video from a newer musical act resulted in me buying my first CD.

Smashing Pumpkins were nowhere on my radar in terms of music prior to 1995. I was still hanging on to audio cassettes of Weird Al (Understandable), New Kids on the Block (Um...yeah) and a Madonna single of "Cherish" (No Comment). But while tuning in to a block of videos one night, I witnessed a type of mayhem I had never imagined. A screeching, nasally voice was claiming that, "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage" while, what I could only imagine were mud covered zombies, jumped down hills of dirt with reckless abandon. In that moment, I should have been frightened, but instead something inside of me snapped and I knew I had to own that song. 

I had been considering this "new thing" called a CD for a while, so I scrounged up whatever money I could and asked my Mom to take me to Target for the purchase. I remember seeing the strange album title "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" at the end of the video, but the cover was just as odd and unexpected. "Old timey Renaissance art? That's not cool!" But I had committed myself to the purchase, so I picked up the disc, only to realize it was a double album. "I only wanted one song, but now I'm getting 2 discs worth? Wow, CDs are crazy!" It turns out the album was pretty awesome, despite the album cover. Obviously the commercial power of MTV was not lost on me.

So yes, MTV was about music and I thoroughly enjoyed videos by Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows, Hootie & The Blowfish (wow, lot's of animal names) and En Vogue (they were funky). Soon I realized there was more to this channel than music videos when Serena Altschul or Tabitha Soren of MTV News would interrupt with an update on the changes to the line-up for Lollapalooza or throw it to Kennedy for a report on Bill Clinton's presidential campaign.  I always thought it was so weird that they were talking about politics when all I wanted to do was see Weezer's "Buddy Holly" video again. While my afternoons were spent with alternative pop rock, my nights were spent waiting for the twisted world of MTV Animation to flicker across my TV screen. 

Of course the appeal of Beavis and Butt-Head was inescapable as a 12 year old boy in 1994 and I watched my fair share of Cornholio-inspired escapades while looking over my shoulder to make sure my Mom didn't see what I was watching. Playing with chainsaws and shouting, "This Sucks" was not approved programming in our home. Which is fine, since I was always a bigger fan of their music video commentaries that played in between story segments. But after this goofiness ran it's course, the real weirdness started.

MTV's Oddities opened with a creepy carnival atmosphere introducing an episode of 2 adult animated series' about some rather peculiar dudes. The Head focused on an average guy named Jim who wakes up one morning with a gigantic oval-shaped head that just so happens to house a purple alien named Roy. Together they dodge government agents and battle an evil alien named Gork, while Roy helps Jim solve some of his day to day problems. While the humor was mostly over my head (no pun intended), there was something hypnotic about the crude animation style and crazy premise.

The other half of the show was dedicated to a comic book adaptation of Sam Keith's The Maxx. What looked like the story of a super hero in purple tights was anything but, instead focusing on the delusions of a mentally ill vagrant who drifted between the real world and hallucinations of the evil Mr. Gone and his toothy minions, the Isz. The Maxx was obsessed with his case worker, Julie, who he imagined as The Jungle Queen in his imaginary happy place, The Outback. It was a really dark, trippy show and having just gotten into comic books a few years earlier, was right up my alley. 

Also worth mentioning is the futuristic animated assassin, Aeon Flux created by animator, Peter Chung. Some viewers may have been drawn in by the stretched out, S&M character designs, but I found them creepy. I was more interested in the strange details present in the main character's struggles against the androgynous Trevor Goodchild. It was a will they, won't they kind of relationship, with a homicidal tendency. 

While trying to accomplish her mission (which was never really clear to me) Aeon would contort herself into weird positions to get past security zones, secret messages were passed via french kissing, lots of weird body implants were shown and the occasional kung-fu battle added to the excitement. Just a weird, kinky show that disgusted as much as it fascinated. It lasted 3 seasons, though the first 2 were just a series of short films. But it wasn't all animated acid dreams, there were some laughs to be had in MTV's late night programming. 

Premiering in 1993, The State was like Monty Python with an American attitude, though at the time it was probably looked at as an alternative to Saturday Night Live. This sketch comedy group wrote and performed all of their own material with titles like "The Barry Lutz Show/Monkey Torture", "$240 Worth of Pudding" and "Captain Monterey Jack", which should give you an idea as to the wacky world they lived in. The cast consisted of 10 guys and 1 girl who went on to write and star in TV shows like "Reno 911!" and movies such as "Wet Hot American Summer".

I happened upon an episode of The State after sneaking a peek at Beavis and Butt-Head one night and soon I was hooked on this brand of irreverent comedy. Our VCR wasn't working at time, so I would hold up an audio cassette recorder to the TV speaker and record the hilarity. My personal favorite skit is one called "Monkeys Do It II". Despite the misleading title, the whole sketch centered around a group of know-it-all Italian-American cousins arguing with each other in a New York suburb basement making ridiculous claims about the history of Thanksgiving. Here is one such exchange:

Man 1: It's not an everybody holiday, it's an Italian holiday and if Columbus heard you say that he'd beat the crap out of you. Christopher Columbus was world renowned for beating, with his fists, anybody who was not Italian on his holiday.

Man 2: That's not true, Columbus did not even celebrate his holiday until after his death, nobody did, because the calendar was not invented, until thousands of years later.

Man 3: Therefore Thanksgiving is an everybody holiday, read the bible.

The State only lasted 2 seasons on MTV before the cast jumped ship to an ill-fated deal with the CBS network. I remember being so bummed when I couldn't find the show on at it's regular time for several months, but also the pure joy of stumbling upon the falsely titled, "The State's 43rd Annual All Star Halloween Special" on Halloween night in 1995. I thought I was in for  years and years of laughs, but instead CBS never produced another episode and the cast moved on to other projects, it was a trick and a treat all in one


As far as game shows go, I used to get a kick out of the dating themed "Singled Out" hosted by future creator of The Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick and former Playboy Playmate, Jenny McCarthy. I won't lie, I was mostly in it for a chance to ogle Jenny, but the creepy puppet cupid head was fascinating as well. The whole premise was that 50 single guys and 50 single girls were whittled down based on categories selected by the bachelor/bachelorette of the opposite gender. The remaining contestants then participated in a "The Dating Game" style question and answer session. There was a lot of yelling and Jenny being obnoxious, which may have led to her short lived sketch program, The Jenny McCarthy Show.

The comedy on Jenny's show wasn't anywhere near as hilarious as The State, it was mostly about a "hot girl" making ridiculous jokes involving bodily functions. Although one weird segment starred Jenny as a Farmer's Daughter who had her father abduct strangers, plant them in the family cauliflower patch and then proceed to scold her "Cauliflower Girlfriend" for not being happy enough. This off-kilter humor was one of few shining moments of comedy that got my attention. There was also an interview and musical segment each episode featuring performances by 90's one and done's like The Wallflowers, Hanson or The Verve Pipe, but still the show only lasted one season.

Of course the true runaway hit of the decade was The Real World, a "reality show" featuring 20 somethings making their way in big cities across the U.S.A. with the promise that they would, "stop being polite and start getting real". The cast I remember most was the group based in San Francisco featuring the love triangle between sensitive cartoonist Judd, bicycling loudmouth, "Puck" and their object of affection, Rachel. The rivalry got so bad that Puck actually got kicked out of the house, cementing his reputation as the "bad boy". This season also featured the first look most people had at a homosexual person in a relationship dealing with AIDS, in Pedro. I didn't really understand the significance at the time, but could tell it was controversial.

The only other season of The Real World I watched was the Miami cast. I became interested in that season because cast member Sarah was the editor of my favorite comic book of the moment, Gen13, and I thought I would get some inside information on the stories to come. Instead I got a few scenes of Sarah reading some comic pages on a computer while wearing a Gen13 shirt. Still, my hobby was being validated by cool, older people, which was a big deal. 

As the 90's moved on and I entered my High School years from 1996-2000, MTV became more of a roadside stop than a destination. My group of friends and I would tune in on occasion to watch the claymation combat of Celebrity Deathmatch, where entertainment icons maimed each other in a cartoony style. I still can't believe this show didn't get the network sued and they even made a video game out of it. Other appointment viewing was when Ben Stiller or Mike Myers were hosting the MTV Movie Awards. Outside of those programs the network was pretty much off my radar, since the shows were now focusing more on Boy Bands like N'SYNC or Backstreet Boys and I had been introduced to classic bands like KISS and The Misfits.

I still have a lot of nostalgia for the days when Alanis Morisette, Jewel or Joan Osborne would flash across my TV screen to deliver angsty philosophical advice set to music. MTV gave me a look at what pop culture had to offer at a time when not being in the know could seriously damage your reputation. As for the common claim that MTV doesn't focus on the music anymore, I think it's plain to see that this shift was happening as early as the 90's and still managed to garner the network some retro credibility. 

So what is your favorite memory of 90's era MTV? Was it the music? Was it the personalities? Sound off in the comments below. 

By the way, if you want to continue the conversation, you can now message me on Twitter @hojukoolander. 

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Lazlo Posted on Feb 13, 2017 at 02:31 AM

I was in my own little world in the mid 90s, and just not into popular culture. After reading this, I just have to check out The Head and The Maxx . . . I'll look it up on Youtube and see if there are DVD sets out there. Both seem right up my alley, all weird and trippy.

massreality Posted on Aug 06, 2015 at 06:11 AM

Beavis and Butthead and Singled Out defined my pre-teen years. Man, do I miss that time.

I also have some extreme nostalgia for MTV Spring Break Out. I looked forward to that every single year.

mickyarber Posted on Jul 12, 2015 at 01:04 AM

I didn't get into MTV until the 90's, and I jumped in head first.

One of the features I really liked was when they would do a block of videos....4 In a Row I think they called it. Four straight videos without any interruptions.

I loved Aeon Flux, and was a big fan of Beavis and Butthead too. And one of the highlights of my year was when they would do the spring break week. Great tv right there.

A really nostalgic article. Great job.

Caps 2.0 Posted on Jul 08, 2015 at 04:09 PM

Although I had seen MTV at relatives' houses, I was not allowed to watch it regularly until 1997, and by then, it was not really a music channel, but more of a lifestyle network. The only non-music program MTV aired that I could genuinely say I liked was "Daria", but I haven't seen it since it went off the air, and I refuse to buy the DVDs since all the music was changed. When it comes to MTV, I prefer the 80s version, which I've come to know more about through purchasing DVDs from online sources.

I can recall interviewing Nina Blackwood through e-mail in 2011 for RetroJunk, and we both expressed displeasure with "Remote Control". Most of the feedback on the article was in praise of MTV's non-music programming. I guess I underestimated the appeal of the non-music programming. I probably should've waited a few years to do the interview and have done it for Pop Geeks, where I'm currently writing now.

Finally, the popular video of several years ago entitled "Ask A Network Head" dismissed those who complain about MTV not playing music anymore by saying, to quote the video, "Your generation—not the one before you, not the one after you—your generation decided to steal music, and music videos are more worthless than ever before". I disagree with that hypothesis. People were stealing music in the 80s and 90s, too, by making mix tapes, trading tapes and recording music from the radio, but they were still playing videos anyway.

The complaint that MTV isn't about music anymore may be tired, and it is true that MTV plays a few hours of music videos in the morning, but those who miss music as MTV's primary focus have their reasons and shouldn't be dismissed.

As for the article, it was a great one, but then again, all your articles are, Hoju. I may not have the fondness for 90s MTV that you do, but the way you described how the network made you feel and what nostalgia you have for it is amazing.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jul 08, 2015 at 04:07 PM

Wow. That's a lot to digest. Clearly MTV had a major impact on you in the 90's.

My interest in MTV waned beginning in the late 80's. In the mid-80's, it was the "cool" thing to do to watch MTV and Friday Night Videos, catching the latest video representations of your favorite music whenever time allowed (and someone else wasn't watching the big screen). I can recall pretty clearly sitting with my buddy Phil on one of those crazy looking curved chaise chairs, powering on the big screen TV (the kind that lifted out of the cabinet like some kind of alien fortress), and watching music television.

But by the 90's, MTV had run it's course with me. Later, when MTV introduced Beavis and Butthead, Aeon Flux, Singled Out, and other entertaining programs, I started tuning back in. I also found myself fascinated by the first season of The Real World, like you (I HATED Puck!!!). Then, once again, I began losing interest. Since then, I have all but forgotten MTV. You would have to pay me a significant amount of money to watch it at this point. And when they started introducing other channels (MTV2???) just to air videos, I knew this thing had jumped the shark, at least in my opinion.

But it will always hold a particularly special place in my memory jar, for those nights long gone, sitting with a friend and enjoying our favorite music set to video.

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