An essay in the New York Times, prompted by the July celebration of Independence Day, put forward the ten days that really changed American history. The point was that nothing much actually happened on Thursday, July 4, 1776. The Colonies had voted independence two days earlier; the document wasn’t signed until a month later. When John Adams predicted that the “great anniversary festival” would be celebrated forever, from one end of the continent to the other, he was talking about July 2.
The real dates of significance, suggests Adam Goodheart, should include such days as:
June 8, 1610 – Lord De La Warr arrived with a fleet bringing supplies to a struggling Jamestown, ensuring that what we now know as the southeastern United States did not end up in the French or Dutch empire;
June 20, 1790 – The evening when Thomas Jefferson invited Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to dinner to broker the deal to situate the nation’s capital on the Potomac and to have the federal government take on the war debt of the thirteen states, establishing the primacy of the central government;
February 15, 1933 – A wobbly chair caused anarchist Giuseppe Zangara to lose his balance and miss shooting President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, thus preserving what would come to be known as “The New Deal” as well as the move toward internationalism;
March 2, 1955 – Claudette Colvin, age 15, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but was not deemed the right person for civil rights leaders to rally around (as she became pregnant shortly after her arrest), leading them to pursue a legal case with a woman by the name of Rosa Parks, allowing a young man by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., to emerge as a leader;
August 20, 1998 – The country became so absorbed by the Monica Lewinsky affair few noticed that the United States fired 60 cruise missiles at Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and missed killing Osama bin Laden by as little as an hour.
Let’s also consider August 1, 1981. On that day, a television network dedicated to the young and the music they love kicked off at midnight with a video of British band The Buggle’s performing Video Killed the Radio Star.
It was the day MTV was born.
Reflecting on the cultural impact of MTV is almost a cottage industry. Perhaps it is enough to consider The Today Show’s assessment of some of MTV’s key moments:
September 14, 1984 – Madonna’s sexually suggestive performance of Like a Virgin in the network’s inaugural Video Music Awards, noteworthy for helping cement her reputation as a risqué performer and setting the stage for even more risqué MTV VMA shows to come;
May 21, 1992 – A “reality” series, The Real World, premieres with the premise of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped. Over the years, RW has tackled social issues such as abortion in a way that has shaped the hearts and minds of millions;
October 1, 2000 – The reality series Jackass, about a group of guys performing dangerous stunts for laughs, premieres. Acts included frontman Johnny Knoxville voluntarily sitting in a full port-a-potty as his friends proceeded to tip it over. Soon copycat stunts were being performed by youth across the country, often to their physical detriment;
March 5, 2002 – The Osbournes premieres, following the foul-mouthed antics of metal demigod Ozzy Osbourne (frontman for Black Sabbath), his manager wife, Sharon, teenage daughter Kelly and son Jack as they go about their daily lives, winning MTV its first prime-time Emmy;
August 28, 2003 – Madonna once again performs her hit Like A Virgin with Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears at the Video Music Awards, ending with an open-mouthed kiss with Spears, perhaps the most famed same-sex kiss on national television;
December 3, 2009 – The network debuts what would become its highest rated program The Jersey Shore, a controversial show about the “gudio/guidette” subculture and making Snooki a household name;
February 8, 2010 – The network decides to drop the words “Music Television” from their logo as a part of a campaign to reinvent themselves to better reach the millennial generation.
Martha Quinn, one of the five original “VJs,” reflects, “We were rebels with a cause, and we had the rock ‘n’ roll generation and the television generation behind us.” Now, with around 100 channels and over a billion viewers, MTV does not reflect youth culture; it creates it. Or as founder Bob Pittman presciently stated in a 1982 interview, “If you can get their emotions going, make them forget their logic, you’ve got them. At MTV, we don’t shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them.”
Todd Gitlin has written of the new supersaturation of the media, what he calls the “media torrent.” This “torrent” determines what we see, and what we don’t; what we think about, and what never enters our mind. “All media work us over completely,” Marshall McLuhan warned. “They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”
So sadly, we mark over thirty years of MTV and of having our 14-year-olds owned.
James Emery White
“10 Days That Changed History,” Adam Goodheart, The New York Times, Sunday, July 2, 2006, read online.
“Big moments in the history of MTV,” Today Television, read online.
“MTV is Rock Around the Clock,” Christian Williams, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 3, 1982.
Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives.
Marshall McLuhan with Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.