Celebrating its 40th anniversary this week, having debuted on August 1, 1981, three letters, MTV, have come to mean different things to different generations.
For the older crowd, Gen Xers as well as millennials born at the cusp of their generation, MTV meant Nirvana’s timeless acoustic set on MTV Unplugged, Carson Daly whipping up the TRL crowd, Beavis and Butt-Head's mumbled inanities and Mariah Carey fully clothed in her jacuzzi on Cribs. Not to mention Yo! MTV Raps.
For Gen Z, it's reality TV, fly-on-the-wall series and documentaries.
These days, it has just one hour and 10 minutes of music programming a week. With YouTube now the place to go for the music videos MTV was once famous for, and every network and streamer producing the type of reality programming MTV helped pioneer with their The Real World series, MTV has to keep up with the ever-changing, aesthetic-driven, shortened attention spans of the TikTok generation.
Out is the music and in are documentaries. MTV Documentary Films scored a recent Emmy nomination for 76 Days. Also comedy and light entertainment, with MTV Entertainment Studios receiving an Emmy nomination for the series Emily in Paris. Not to mention jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon by reviving MTV Unplugged and Behind the Music, as well as The Real World Homecoming.
As the channel turns 40 – and fun fact, the first music video shown on the fledgling channel was The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star – here are seven pop culture moments we still talk about that we have MTV to thank for:
1. Michael Jackson debuts ‘Thriller’
The John Landis-directed video was tailor-made for the MTV generation, and the 14-minute-long music video premiered in a firestorm of publicity on the channel on December 2, 1983. Jackson’s legion of fans had already made MTV their go-to, flocking to the channel thanks to videos for Beat It! and Billie Jean.
2. President Bill Clinton’s underwear reveal
Long before Barack Obama appealed to a younger demographic with his hilarious appearance on Zach Galifianakis' Between Two Ferns talk show, President Bill Clinton was gunning for the youth vote and used MTV to do it.
In 1992, MTV launched its Choose or Lose campaign to promote voter registration, and the channel hosted a town hall with Clinton to discuss issues directly affecting young people. One of the most memorable questions posed to the President was: “Boxers or briefs?” He chose briefs.
3. Jessica Simpson asks the question: 'chicken or fish?'
Starring in MTV Newlyweds, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey documented their life as a newly married couple, later admitting the show had put a lot of pressure on their relationship.
One of the most enduring moments came from Simpson’s confusion over whether she was eating chicken or fish when she was eating tuna.
“Is this chicken what I have or is this fish?” the pop star asks her incredulous husband. “I know it’s tuna, but [the tin] says, ‘Chicken by the sea’.”
4. Nirvana on 'MTV Unplugged'
At the height of the grunge music movement, in November 1993, Nirvana stripped back their sound to appear on MTV Unplugged, performing Come As You Are, as well as a host of covers by their musical peers including Lead Belly and Meat Puppets. Entering pop culture history as one of the most era-defining gigs of all time, lead singer Cobain would take his own life only five months later. A year later, the album Nirvana Unplugged in New York debuted at number one on the Billboard 200.
5. Kanye West's stage invades Taylor Swift
With Beyonce visibly embarrassed and mouthing “Oh, Kanye”, Kanye West’s stage invasion to dispute Taylor Swift winning Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards is still talked about today. Igniting a feud between West and Swift which is still going strong 12 years later, West objected to Swift winning for You Belong with Me over Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) by telling the shocked singer: "I’m happy for you and imma let you finish, but Beyonce had the best music video of all time.”
6. Kiss: under the make-up
After a series of album flops in the early 1980s, glam metal band Kiss were in need of a last-ditch attempt to grab themselves some headlines. One phone call to MTV later and the band landed themselves a special in which they unmasked themselves for the first time ever. Appearing on MTV on September 18, 1983 without their signature black-and-white make-up garnered worldwide publicity and their next album, Lick It Up went platinum.
7. 'The Hills': The girl who didn’t go to Paris
MTV show The Hills ran from 2006 to 2010 and made household names out of Lauren Conrad, Heidi Montag, Whitney Port and Spencer Pratt. In season two, when offered the chance to live and work in Paris for the summer, Conrad famously chose her boyfriend Jason Wahler over the City of Lights, leading Conrad’s editor at Teen Vogue, Lisa Love, to deliver the Miranda Priestly-esque line: “She’s gonna always be known as the girl who didn’t go to Paris.”
Spoiler: it didn’t work out with Wahler.