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dial m for whatever

Let me tell you about the worst TV show of all time.

It’s called Next and its premise is as follows; at heart, Next is a reality dating show, whereby one lucky person (whom we shall call ‘the subject’) is given the choice of 5 hopeful partners (whom we shall call ‘the idiots’). The idiots get off a bus one by one and go on pathetic, pre-arranged ‘dates’ with the subject. If the subject should be dissatisfied at any point, they just simply shout “Next!” to send that idiot packing and bring a fresh new idiot off the bus.

And they say romance is dead.

On the other hand, if the two should find each other sufficiently “fly”, the subject can request a second date, at which point the idiot has two options: take the second date, kiss, cut to a shot of the sun setting with romantic music playing, blah blah blah; OR, they are offered a cash prize ($1 for every minute they were on their date, so usually about $70) and can make off with said “bling”, leaving the subject in the lurch. Even better are the episodes with homosexual contestants, because then the four remaining idiots sitting on the bus will, invariably, start making out, in what can only be described as one step back from a televised orgy.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that this horror show is produced by MTV, Music Television. But really, it should surprise you, because my roundabout point is this: what in the hell does any of this have to do with music?

MTV began broadcasting in 1981 with the simple words “Ladies and Gentlemen, rock and roll”. Profound epigrams aside, it soon changed the very way we see music… that is by allowing us to see it at all. With this came the first VJs, and as record companies began to see the attractive power of this new marketing medium, the content began to shift from simple performance videos to increasingly elaborate pieces of film art. Within a decade, MTV was a major force in youth culture. By the early 90s, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Nine Inch Nails, who once would have existed only on Planet Alternative, were now reaching a far wider audience. By the late 90s, MTV was doing the same for Electronica acts like Daft Punk, Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers.

Admittedly I’ve never had immediate access to MTV. Plus I wasn’t really the media-savvy TV critic I am now when I was negative 8 years old. Still, my association with early MTV is one of raw youth, of live broadcasts of Nirvana playing in a filthy bridge underpass, or of candid, uncensored interviews with rock stars as they freebase Elephant tranquiliser. Back then it seemed, despite being a corporate TV channel, to be rebellious. At the very least it seemed to genuinely be about the music. Nowadays, McDonald’s golden arches stand more for music than the M in MTV.

In 2008, MTV finally stop broadcasting music videos entirely. Tune in today and you will – from the comfort of your own living room – get to bare witness to the end of civilisation itself. Wall-to-wall reality shows in every different flavour imaginable; there are inane docusoaps like The Hills and Jersey Shore, horrifying dating shows like Date My Mom and Next, fly-on-the-wall documentaries like 16 and Pregnant (“What’s that one about?” I hear you ask). The whole thing is absolutely dripping in Western decadence, filling your screen with enough garish diamantes, fake tan, and sickening exhibitionism to make your eyes burst like a couple of over-ripened kumquats.

To me, the problem with MTV is really just a reflection of a problem with much of the music industry, which is that it’s less about the music and more about everything else in the world ever. There’s this unbreakable tether between music and lifestyle. You like this kind of music? Well then, these are the clothes you should wear. These are the cars you should drive. These are the issues you should find important. Still using correct grammar in your sentences? You shouldn’t be. And no matter what kind of music you’re into, you’re at least peripherally aware of what people who are into that music are supposed to look like. Realistically, I shouldn’t be able to discern a person’s entire psychological make-up from their 5 desert island discs, and yet MTV is using music to comment on every facet of the viewer’s life. So much so that oops, we’ve run out of time, I’m afraid we’ll have to drop the songs.

At any rate, all these shows are pervaded by the same vibe of which Next marks the pinnacle. It’s this weird, undefinable sense that it’s not human, that no one with a soul was involved at any level of production. Not even the catering. The subjects are so dizzyingly narcissistic, so unashamedly vulgar, and so breathtakingly bad at hitting the pre-prepared, pun-based lines some poor hack of a writer has had to churn out for them. Imagine if aliens had been monitoring Earth only through idiots, and then attempted to come up with the most successful TV station ever. MTV is exactly what they’d create.

It’s come a long way since its earnest beginnings in 1981. Three decades have seen the channel turn from cutting edge to shameless, from a youth culture icon to one of the most frighteningly nihilistic viewing experiences imaginable. And the audience has risen to meet it. Or rather, fallen to meet it, like a drunk teenager stumbling over whilst trying to best position themselves so they don’t choke on their own vomit.

MTV is now a refuge for the mindless. Maybe that’s what the M stands for.

(Image credits: 1.)

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