On Monday, Aug. 1, the 35th anniversary of the debut of MTV, VH1 Classic will be transformed into MTV Classic. As our Josef Adalian reported earlier today, this nostalgia network changeup sounds like an '80s kid’s dream. Just those words — MTV Classic — imply that a time portal has finally been created that will allow us to reexperience early MTV, exactly as it was when Martha Quinn introduced music videos featuring members of Duran Duran playing air saxophone on yachts.
Except here’s the thing: that’s not what MTV Classic is. The rejiggered, less VH1-ish network will primarily be aimed at millennials and therefore focus on the MTV programming that aired in the 1990s and 2000s, when the network had mostly abandoned the "music" embedded in its title and started airing scripted programs. Although its first hour will be devoted to a repeat of the first hour of MTV from 1981 and there will be a few hours per day devoted to music videos from the 1980s, MTV Classic will otherwise be all Daria, MTV Cribs, and Laguna Beach, with a smattering of MTV Unplugged and TRL, all the time. If you came of age during the era of Jackass, this is great news. But if you’re a Gen Xer — part of the perpetually ignored demographic responsible for making MTV a youth phenomenon in the first place — it is incredibly disappointing.
Look, I’m not going to go on one of those tired tirades about how MTV was so much better when it was a 24-hour music-video channel. That ship sailed a long time ago, and I’m pretty sure when it did, John Taylor from Duran Duran was still on it, looking super-hot while playing air saxophone. (Also, before you come at me with your Grandpa Simpson memes: Yes, I know I’m old. And yes, I did used to tie an onion to my belt, which was the style at the time.) I genuinely enjoyed many of the shows that MTV aired during the '90s and '00s. I like Beavis and Butt-Head as much as, and possibly even more than, the next person. I think it’s a blessing that the existence of MTV Classic means that Wonder Showzen will be back on the air. I wouldn’t watch a Laguna Beach marathon if you doubled my salary and strapped me to a leather recliner. But my point is: I have no problem with '90s and early 21st-century nostalgia, and I understand why MTV thinks this concept will work.
What I don’t understand is why it can’t also include more blocks of programming from the '80s. I am not making this up when I say that for years — YEARS — I have wondered why there isn’t a network called MTV Classic that airs moments from MTV’s golden era, exactly as originally broadcast. Imagine being able to watch three hours of music videos from this day in, say, 1983. Or the entire 1985 MTV Video Music Awards, as hosted by Eddie Murphy while wearing a sweater set pulled straight off a Cosby Show costume rack. Or all of the MTV premiere party for Pretty in Pink, not just the part on YouTube where Fee Waybill interviews a possibly inebriated James Spader and Andrew McCarthy:
(Kids: If you don’t know who Fee Waybill is, he was the lead singer of the Tubes. That’s the band that sang “She’s a Beauty,” a song whose music video, like so many early MTV videos, introduced impressionable children to the concept of lite S&M. Seriously: at one point in this video, a dominatrix and a young boy crash through a naked paper female breast with a fully erect nipple. This is the kind of history that cannot properly be passed down without MTV Classic’s help.)
To call a channel MTV Classic and mostly ignore the moment it began, the moment when “I want my MTV” became a catchphrase, is both insulting to the generation that popularized that catchphrase and flat-out inaccurate. It’s like using the name Coca-Cola Classic to describe Coke Zero or acting like Taylor Swift is responsible for the term #squad goals. It ain’t right.
It stings even more because Gen X is constantly overlooked by the culture at large simply because, numbers-wise, we are smaller than the generations that surround us: the baby boomers and the millennials. Just about every article on cultural trends in this country talks about those other two big age demos and acts like those of us in the middle do not even exist. (“Boomers vs. Millennials: Who’s Really Getting Robbed?” Gen X is, New York Times.) We’re used to it by now. But in the name of both Katrina and the Waves, if there is one damn thing Gen X is responsible for popularizing in America, for better or worse, it’s MTV. Also The Simpsons, Prince, Star Wars, Nirvana, and a lot of other things that we have been happy to let y’all borrow.
In all seriousness, though: MTV is not only ours. It belongs to multiple generations. But if MTV executives really want to double-down on MTV nostalgia, I humbly suggest they figure out a way to do so that will appeal to both millennial and Gen X audiences. If the success of Strangers Things on Netflix has taught us anything, aside from the fact that people love the hell out of Barb, it’s that '80s artifacts have an appeal that extends beyond people who grew up during that decade. There’s no reason MTV Classic can’t drop a broadcasting needle on this day in 1985 MTV, and, later, drop another needle on this day in 1998 MTV. Really, shouldn’t we all have the opportunity to escape the present and wallow in the bad haircuts and rampant sexism of yesteryear? Especially if Donald Trump winds up in the White House?
In conclusion: I want my MTV, and I want it on MTV Classic. If you agree with me, please feel free to join this revolution.*
*Note: the Revolution not affiliated with Prince.