Has MTV Disappointed Yet Another Generation?

“I Just Want My Pants Back” premiered last month on MTV. It’s about four attractive post-grads living in Williamsburg, dropping pop-culture references to the tunes of its hipster-friendly soundtrack. RJ and Jon, our two in-house young-altbro would-be music writers living in Williamsburg, greeted the show with guarded optimism—even some excitement. But as the show has progressed—tonight is episode 10 of the 12-episode first season—they may have become just the latest generation to discover the heart of sadness in the world of MTV.

JON: So “Pants” was kind of a bummer, right? Five episodes in (approximately, er, three weeks ago) and Jay and Tina’s Brooklyn-based adventures in hip young adulthood weren’t necessarily as compelling as the narrative of the pre-All Star Game match-up between the Lakers and Thunder. The show with 2000-words worth of potential hasn’t offered much other than some fun characters who sometimes say funny things: The James Franco-hosted party that Tina’s then-squeeze, Brett, takes her and Jay to provided good beard jokes, the excellent line, “Franco’s doing a dramatic reading of his Wikipedia page on the roof!” and even led to Jay scoring an interview at Kracken Records (yeesh)—which he promptly blows cause he sees Jane (the girl who took his titular pants) in the hall. It wasn’t a total bust, but the lack of, y’know, substance (see: episode four’s too easy, groan-worthy conflict resolution via a spontaneous “hipster marching band” just minutes after Jay and Tina’s night hits rock bottom) was disappointing. And, let’s be honest, that burden falls on the writers… but the show is on MTV. And typical of lame, corporate, out-of-touch-with-the-youths MTV to go and pick up a show that’s more style than substance. Not like the good ol’ days, right? Or I mean that’s what I’m told—it’s the network that’s disappointing. Not that each generation is.

RJ: Leave it up to us assholes to reach for meaning in a semi-pointless and likely doomed MTV show. Yeah, we get some laughs out of exaggerated portrayals and biting zingers (like an actually hilarious Solange Knowles name drop), but the fact that we won’t bother watching it now exposes the biggest failure of “Pants”: We don’t even care about the characters anymore. And that’s coming from two kids who cared too much from the get-go. Weed even made a return in episode 4 with Jay’s journey to Fat Tim, the Bushwick dealer; but Jay doesn’t even smoke it, lamenting that he somehow can’t get high after missing a Battles show. Because apparently inside Warsaw during a Battles show is the only place you can inhale nuggetry. Dude, you just had a frustrating night of failed best-friend plans and missed a band you were really pumped about after you sort-of hooked up with an engaged girl at her bachelorette party. This seems like the time to smoke.

So are we absolute fools for wanting, expecting, looking for meaning from MTV? Short answer: Yeah. Long answer: Surely we can’t be to blame here. It must be MTV’s fault! It may seem silly that we grasped for deeper meaning in this MTV show, but once upon a time that meaning wasn’t too hard to find in MTV programming. When I talk about The Music Television with those older and wiser than me, I hear a strong attachment to MTV that I’m not sure our generation has (as well as disapproval, dismissal, ridicule, and other generally negative vibes towards its current incarnation that I don’t think I share). But I’m not interested in the usual large “monoculture vs. the Internet age” arguments. What about MTV specifically? Did the programming falter? I’m not sure MTV means that much, if really anything, to people our age.

JON: I gotta admit though, my gut reaction is: Not a chance; I have no expectations of MTV that could even be shattered. This is the network that basically walked me—a weird, sheltered suburbanite who totally got freaked out by The Talk in fifth grade—through puberty. My most vivid memories of MTV all revolve around sex. Video girls on “TRL,” Britney Spears ripping off her suit to reveal that rhinestoned, skin-colored number at the 2000 VMAs, numerous after school viewings of “Next,” “Room Raiders,” “Date My Mom,” “Parental Control,” etc., the glorified orgy that was “Real World: Las Vegas,” Spring(er) Break, and one very confusing night with two episodes of “Undressed.” Now I’m not one to armchair psychoanalyze myself, but the potent cocktail of televised casual sex mixed with healthy doses of “Pinkerton” might explain some of my neurosis… but that’s neither here nor there.

Well, I should clarify. It wasn’t all sex—there were plenty of drugs on “True Life” and tons of rock and roll and general numbskullery on “Jackass.” And of course a lot of those things conflated on “TRL”: I’ve got vivid memories of coming home from school and watching the clips for “Fat Lip,” “Oops… I Did It Again,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and, hell, even Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’,” all of which were total mindfucks at their respective times. As lame as it sounds—and believe me it sounds super lame—MTV was absolutely a crucial part of how I was exposed to the adult world (plus “The Simpsons” and some Skinemax). The channel wasn’t expressly forbidden in my house, but there was like an unspoken rule about watching; but you can’t expect a hormone-rattled kid with a cable TV in the basement to watch Nickelodeon forever when MTV’s just two channels away. MTV fulfilled a desire, basically: The programming wasn’t top notch (as you can gather from the majority of the aforementioned shows), but once it hooked me with its rock ‘n roll ‘tude and edginess and taboo subjects (read: um, boobs, I guess) I was sold on everything from “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica” to “Made” to a true classic, “Pimp My Ride.” That’s my MTV and—wait for it—I totally wanted it.

RJ: NICE ONE.

Anyways, I too don’t really expect much from MTV other than absolute entertainment, but I also wonder if mere entertainment does justice to the storied MTV history. My irrational love for “Jersey Shore” aside, I don’t really watch any MTV programming these days, and I think that’s why “Pants” excited me: I felt it could offer something philosophically or culturally engaging, like a step in the direction of the glory days. While I can’t say I horndogged all over MTV in my budding pubic years like you, I did watch many of the same shows at that time too (and became enamored by “Jackass,” which explains a lot). Yet thanks to “chill parents” (or “questionable parenting”—depends on your definition of “good supervision”), I was also lucky enough to watch MTV (and VH1) since my early elementary school career. Back then I fiended music culture coverage and any music video I could watch, from slammin’ euro dance hits to 90s alternative staples and anything in between. MTV helped spark my transformation from mushy blank slate to sentient fan. But in my first year of middle school, I began to grasp for deeper subcultures (thanks, skateboarding!), gradually turning elsewhere for music discovery. MTV still had some significant music moments, and I wouldn’t have reached that point of cultural interest without the channel, but soon enough it was my destination for unusual, barely dangerous, and/or rabble-rousing programming. And it’s pretty much the same today.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy what MTV had become at that age. I loved the shit out of it. In fact, I watched more MTV post-music than in my gateway years. Yet it became a main mental veg-out zone, and less a place for thoughtful or provoking programming. Still, we both loved MTV as it transitioned away from bonafide Music Television, even if that’s supposedly when it “went wrong.”

JON: Well, I dunno if MTV really went wrong. I mean, first of all, let’s not neglect the handful of good, and sometimes even (gasp!) revolutionary shows MTV aired over the past decade. “Jackass” is absolutely brilliant—it’s 90s xxx-treeemee sports (sponsored by Red Bull!) jacked up to their most illogical and absurd. “The Osbournes” changed reality TV just as much as the “Real World,” allowing not just seven complete strangers their fifteen minutes, but extending that option to aging rockstars, high-society brats (young and old), MySpace stars looking for love and sex addicted C-listers. (And don’t just holler “decline in quality,” because plenty of people have found plenty of interesting and intelligent things to say about “The Hills.”) Not to mention that below the radar MTV continued to offer a space for up-and-coming comedians, allotting air time to the weirdest of the weird, from “Wonder Showzen” (on MTV2, admittedly) to “Human Giant” to “The Andy Milonakis Show” to one shining season of “Clone High” (Will Forte voices Abe Lincoln; Bill Lawrence co-created; the soundtrack features American Football, Taking Back Sunday, Saves The Day, and others—need I say more?).

Of course that was the minority, but the majority was equally compelling. Though maybe not exemplary television, “The Hills,” “Made,” “Cribs,” “Laguna Beach,” “Two-A-Days,” “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” “Jersey Shore” are just endlessly watchable television. I didn’t shout to the world that I watched some of those shows, but I always tuned in, and so did my friends. We’d laugh about “Cribs” or “Jackass” or Diddy’s hilarious “Vote Or Die” campaign, maybe kill time with an episode of “Made” or make fun of “Next.” That was the extent of our engagement and we were absolutely fine with that; no need to pick a bone that doesn’t need to be picked.

RJ: So maybe MTV never “went wrong”? “Human Giant” and “Wonder Showzen” gave us absurd comedy like “The State” offered viewers in the 90s, and “Jackass” meant as much to us as “Beavis and Butthead” meant to Gen X. Except the reality-dating braindrains, which pretty much define “junk food” programming, even shows like “Laguna Beach” offered some (slightly scripted) insight into a certain lifestyle, locale and youth culture that dominated the imaginative fancy of our culture at the time (damn, it’s been that long since “The O.C.”?). “Cribs” was a sometimes demystifying, humanizing look into artist and celebrities’ lives in the pre-Twitter era (or dehumanizing, depending on the gaudiness of the star’s digs) and produced possibly the greatest segment in MTV history. For better or worse, MTV created this reality TV juggernaut, and regardless of criticisms, it’s been compelling enough to grow into an unstoppable force. Unfortunately, I can’t speak that much to older MTV programming because while it helped me blossom into early stages of cultural awareness, I was far from the fullblown geek I am today. Or I was just unborn.

But let’s look at the now. My first impulse is to reach for music in The Channel Formerly Known As Music Television, and on today’s MTV there are a few things happening, albeit more indirectly. MTV often highlights songs that play during shows at the bottom of the screen; I think I first saw this around the “Laguna Beach” days so MTV could tell me Yellowcard was soundtracking this phenomena of “high school love forever/fuck you, LC, Stephen IS MINE.” Now, the tracklist system is used to showcase silliness on “Jersey Shore,” but also shoots some good looks to good bands. “Pants” did a solid job on this, using tunes from quality (Brooklyn-based, no less) acts like X-Ray Eyeballs and Frankie Rose. And the recent short-lived cartoon series “Good Vibes” featured our favorite band, Nashville punks Diarrhea Planet. But MTV’s push into post-broadband indie relevance isn’t all that new. “The VICE Guide To Everything” has a title that speaks for itself; and a couple years ago, “My Life As Liz” featured Band of Horses in a season climax and tied itself to SPIN by having a main character as an intern. It was pretty cheesily done, but Liz was a sort of precursor to many current and recent scripted MTV shows. But ok, does MTV suck right now or what?

JON: I think the answer is no. “Pants” may not have been what we’d hoped, and sure the network is home to tons of mediocre and straight-up awful programming (like most networks); but as far as I can tell, MTV continues to be what it’s always been: an outlet that caters to and somewhat represents the good ol’ youths. It’s just that instead of young adults, it seems like over the past decade or so their target audience has become tweens and teenagers (everyone’s favorite watchdog group, the Parents Television Council, pointed out that “Pants” was being targeted to kids as young as 12). So it makes total sense that MTV is now airing a show like “Awkward” (which I have not watched yet, but I hear is quite excellent), and is prepping a US version of the very well received British teen-angst sitcom, “The Inbetweeners”—they’ve obviously still got a vested interest in airing programs that the kids can connect with (which is probably why the uber-outlandish “Skins” remake bombed so hard). Plus, as you pointed out, it’s not like they’ve abandoned music, they’ve just adapted to the immediacy of the iTunes era where a sync on a show can absolutely break a band, just like a music video did back in the 90s. Plus, for the “but MTV used to do like hard hitting reporting” claim; it’s called MTV.com, they’ve got tons of coverage, interviews, music videos, and more—but you don’t read it because you think the brand is lame.

But let’s not forget the initial question: Did MTV disappoint another generation? Again, I’d say no. I’ve never had any sort of deep personal connection to the network that could be betrayed via “Teen Mom” or whatever—as far as I’m concerned MTV’s always had some great shows and just as many crappy ones. MTV may not be the voice of a generation, but these days I don’t think any one thing can. Maybe Facebook or Twitter, but those just let you become the voice of your own privately-selected generational movement. And I mean, isn’t that kind of what MTV always promised? These days you can want and have your MTV—it’s just that MTV is whatever you want it to be.

RJ: There’s definitely a gradient shift in viewer age, and it’s easy to see why that makes the programming appear shallow or horridly immature compared to the channel’s high times. If a slightly older and more politically and culturally aware demographic represents your channel’s target audience, more substance is implied and expected. If you’re now catering to 15-year-olds who need “Teen Mom” to really let them know what’s up, that substance seems… lacking. Or at least much harder to achieve. I don’t think the idea behind “Teen Mom” is necessarily trashy or exploitative, but when it devolves into a faux celebrity culture for the “stars” with dedicated TMZ coverage and viral news stories of assaults, any potential grace or insight just dissipates. Maybe those 15-year-olds aren’t watching “Teen Mom” for sociological reasons, and instead are just craving that television junk food and easy drama. But if so, that’s a wasted opportunity. I’d like to think the older MTV would’ve been able to approach a subject like this better. So maybe there is a slight disappointment in MTV here.

The Internet has definitely given us the ability to be our own generational movement, but I still think MTV has to shoulder some responsibility in the relative decline of its brand, content, and cultural role. I’m not really disappointed in MTV either because I never expected that much; but compared to Music Television, I can sometimes sense I’m missing something. Something important, something meaningful. And I’m not sure I’ll ever really get it. Sometimes I feel it’s a shame, but not always. It’s kind of like I’ve been “Punk’d,” but only if I cared a little bit more.



Jon Blistein and RJ Cubarrubia spend their afternoons at Billboard and have also written at places like RollingStone.com, The L Magazine, Impose and Nerve.com.