THE VJ IS BORN
AUG. 1, 1981
”7, 6, 5, 4… We have main engine start. Ladies and gentlemen, rock & roll.” That rocket launch not only signified the birth of MTV, it also introduced viewers to a new species of host: the VJ. Pioneering the gig were unknowns (from left) J.J. Jackson (who died of a heart attack in 2004), Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter. Hunter, a bartender/actor who was hired just three weeks before the channel hit the airwaves, recalls freaking out about his lack of music knowledge. ”I had three-ring binders like I was going back to college to cram,” he says. The VJs discovered their pop culture impact only after a series of middle America meet-and-greets. Blackwood recalls one trip to San Antonio: ”There were lines wrapped around the mall. I said, ‘Who’s appearing here?’ And they go, ‘You!’ And I was like, ‘Aaaaaaaaah! Drive around the parking lot for a while.”’
DURAN DURAN EMERGES
DEC. 31, 1982
When Duran Duran took the stage at MTV’s 1982 New Year’s Eve bash, they had a message for the audience. ”Good evening, America,” said singer Simon LeBon. ”We came 2,000 miles, we want to see you dancing!” While the band was relatively unknown in the U.S. at the time, the group rang in 1983, then dominated the rest of the year — and MTV — with their hyper-stylized videos for ”Rio” and ”Hungry Like the Wolf.”
DEC. 2, 1983
Nine months after Michael Jackson’s ”Billie Jean” became the first video by a black artist to get heavy airplay on MTV, the Gloved One topped himself with a 14-minute homage to zombie horror flicks. Directed by John Landis (Animal House) and starring Jackson and Ola Ray, ”Thriller” cost $1.1 million (making it the most expensive video to date). It featured an often-spoofed dance sequence that won the network’s inaugural Video Music Award for Best Choreography. One unfortunate footnote: the subsequent fad featuring hideous leather jacket-pants ensembles.
MADONNA PERFORMS AT THE FIRST VMAs
SEPT. 14, 1984
Dolled up in a white-lace bustier, a ”Boy Toy” belt, and a flouncy tutu, Madonna performed ”Like a Virgin” at the first MTV Video Music Awards looking like the world’s naughtiest bride. Rolling around on the stage, she delivered come-hither looks straight into the camera — sometimes the wrong camera — while humping her discarded veil, and flashing her panties and garters. It was a jaw-dropping routine and the beginning of a beautiful friendship between MTV and the Material Girl.
MTV GETS ''MONEY FOR NOTHING''
At the time, Dire Straits’ video for ”Money for Nothing” was bleeding-edge computer animation, right alongside Super Mario Bros. and Max Headroom. Fueled by heavy MTV airplay — and a high-pitched cameo from Sting that incorporated the ”I want my MTV!” slogan — the satiric rock-boogie tune mocked and celebrated the music channel, and became the British band’s biggest hit ever. When MTV Europe launched on Aug. 1, 1987, ”Money” was the first video played. How meta.
THE CLOCK STARTS FOR 120 MINUTES
MARCH 10, 1986
Debbie Gibson didn’t have full custody of MTV’s airwaves in the ’80s: For two hours on Sunday nights, artists like Kate Bush, the Cure, and XTC got their due. Hosted by Dave Kendall, the Robert Smith-coiffed Brit who rarely went without his motorcycle jacket, 120 Minutes was the music-video version of college radio (and the seed to the network’s initially indie-centric spin-off, MTV2). When the show ended its 17-year run (with Matt Pinfield as the reining host), Kendall returned to bid alterna-fans goodbye with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ”Kiss Them for Me.”
HEADBANGERS BALL ROCKS ITS FIRST FACE
APRIL 18, 1987
Some bands were just too heavy for daytime MTV, and the Ball became a Saturday-night haven for rockers dying for a fist-pumping good time. Several hosts (including the majorly big-haired Adam Curry and most notably Riki Rachtman) spoon-fed the rage to suburban metal virgins and salvaged countless interviews with amusingly incoherent band members. It was a three-hour tour of the dark side that propelled groups like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses into the mainstream.
YO! MTV RAPS BRINGS HIP-HOP TO THE BURBS
AUG. 6, 1988
Before it was commonplace for Kanye West videos to run alongside Gwen Stefani clips, MTV dipped its toes into the hip-hop pool with a two-hour weekend block of rap videos. Created by the late filmmaker Ted Demme (Blow) and Peter Dougherty, Yo! MTV Raps featured in-studio interviews (by hosts like Fab Five Freddy, and then Ed Lover and Doctor Dre, pictured) and performances by everyone from MC Hammer to N.W.A. Due to growing demand, the show later expanded to six days a week before finally wrapping in 1995.
''LIKE A PRAYER'' SPARKS A FIRESTORM
MARCH 2, 1989
In ”Like a Prayer,” Madonna promises she’ll take us ”there” — and apparently ”there” meant a world of controversy. Burning crosses and making out with an African-American saint were just two of the images that irked both sensitive viewers and PepsiCo; the video cost Madonna her endorsement deal with the soda giant. This was just the beginning of Madge’s long history of clips that stirred things up, including 1990’s sexual free-for-all ”Justify My Love,” which was banned by MTV. In 2001, the violent, robbery-themed ”What It Feels Like for a Girl,” directed by her then-husband, Guy Ritchie, aired only once. ”We definitely go back and forth,” MTV exec Van Toffler said in 2006 of the network’s relationship with Madonna. ”She’s a passionate artist, not just for her music but for her visuals. She’s not afraid to take risks and reinvent herself, and that’s the same mantra that’s driven MTV for the last 25 years.” As long as those ”risks” don’t involve crime sprees or orgies.
MILLI VANILLI EXPOSED
NOV. 14, 1990
In one of the most inevitable music-industry press conferences ever, producer Frank Farian confirmed a minor rumor: Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan were not the voices behind Milli Vanilli. Alarm bells were set off the year before when ”Girl You Know It’s True” skipped repeatedly during a ”live” performance recorded by MTV. The duo quickly relinquished their Best New Artist Grammy. (Pilatus later committed suicide.)
''BLACK OR WHITE'' AND MAD ALL OVER
NOV. 14, 1991
Simultaneously broadcast on MTV, BET, and Fox, the controversial video for the first single from Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album was immediately criticized for its four-minute ”panther” sequence, in which Jackson repeatedly grabbed his crotch and destroyed a car painted with racial slurs. (After the video was banned, Jackson released a non-panther version.) Featuring a cameo by Macaulay Culkin — not to mention a cutting-edge morphing sequence that blended together a multicultural mix of models (yes, that’s Tyra Banks) — ”Black or White” turned out to be the pop star’s final ”event” video.
BILL CLINTON COURTS THE YOUTH VOTE
JUNE 16, 1992
A smiling Bill Clinton took the stage live before 200 students at MTV’s high-tech town meeting held in Hollywood. Not only did the appearance give a boost to the media-savvy candidate (President George H.W. Bush and independent candidate Ross Perot declined to participate), it also went a long way toward dispelling the notion that America’s teens cared more about The Real World than the real world.
Dec. 16, 1993
Season 4 of MTV Unplugged featured some clunkers, like Swedish schlock-rockers Roxette, but it ended with the most significant performance of the entire series: Nirvana. Four months before his suicide, Kurt Cobain was nervous, self-conscious, and seemingly one missed note away from crumbling into dust. But his music was captivating. Stripped of studio manipulation, the impeccable songcraft behind Cobain’s sludgy grunge anthems shone.
THE REAL WORLD'S PEDRO
JUNE 23, 1994
In an era when AIDS was viewed as a death sentence, the producers of MTV’s The Real World actively searched for an HIV-positive person for the show’s third season, set in San Francisco. They found safe-sex activist Pedro Zamora, a classically handsome gay 21-year-old whose openhearted charisma and self-confidence so captivated viewers that when he died Nov. 11, 1994 — the day after the last episode of the season aired — it was national news. (President Clinton even called Zamora’s Miami hospital room days before.) ”I don’t know if [The Real World] changes minds,” says creator Jonathan Murray of Pedro’s impact, ”but it certainly opens minds.” Even in its most recent, boozy seasons, The Real World has continued to showcase issues like homophobia, racism, self-mutilation, and eating disorders. That said, Murray admits ”it’s hard to top Pedro Zamora. It was an incredible moment in time.”
COURTNEY LOVE VS. MADONNA
SEPT. 7, 1995
Bitchy on-air exchanges between musicians are a rarity these days. But during the 1995 VMA post-show interviews, Kurt Loder presided over a deliciously icy moment between two of music’s biggest blondes. ”Courtney Love is in dire need of attention right now,” sniffed Madonna as the Hole frontwoman stumbled unexpectedly into frame. After some incoherent Love babble (”It’s like working in the hospital and going out with the ambulance driver”), Madonna fled, but not before kissing Love’s makeup-smeared face.
BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA
DEC. 20, 1996
The video-addicted, supremely stupid duo made the jump from MTV to the big screen — and the mainstream — with Beavis and Butt-head Do America, which debuted at No. 1 with $20 million. Conservative politicians and critics hated them, but given their enduring popularity — the two had lingering appearances on MTV awards shows and will return ot the channel’s schedule on Oct. 27 — Beavis and Butt-head got the last chuckle. Heh-heh.
THE CARSON DALY ERA BEGINS
SEPT. 3, 1997
Carson Daly began his MTV career as a VJ on pretaped countdown Total Request and a correspondent on MTV Live. A year later, those shows fused into the after-school juggernaut renamed Total Request Live, and Daly emerged as the pied piper of pop, shepherding a flock of squealing preteens through the hits of the day. Coinciding perfectly with the boy-band craze, TRL often shut down Times Square as throngs of fans turned out to watch the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync live in the studio; the show also helped launch the careers of artists such as Britney Spears, Kid Rock, and Eminem. ”TRL was like the good years of General Hospital,” says Daly of the show that went off the air in 2008. ”All these soap opera-esque story lines played out in front of the world.” But it’s the noise that people will remember forever. ”I used to see people [who work in the MTV building] eating lunch, and they’re like, ‘Ugh, who’s downstairs today? I could hear it all the way up,”’ Daly recalls. ”And I’d say, ‘Where do you work?’ and they’re like, ‘On 56, in legal.”’
''...BABY ONE MORE TIME'' DEBUTS
DEC. 11, 1998
The post-Mouseketeer portion of Britney Spears’ career began with a sexy hallway dance party that changed pop culture forever and paved the way for young video temptresses Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson. Brit’s quasi-Catholic schoolgirl outfit was just the first in a series of increasingly revealing signature ensembles she showcased on MTV; legend has it the decision to tie up that oxford shirt and flaunt her abs was Spears’. It’s a shame that her subsequent choices haven’t always been quite as smart.
DIANA ROSS FEELS UP LIL' KIM
SEPT. 9, 1999
The VMAs are famous for bizarre incidents, but the award for the Best Non-Madge-Related Extravaganza goes to Diana Ross, who gave Lil’ Kim’s pasty-clad breast an impromptu jiggle before the two presented Best Hip-Hop Video. As Ross later explained to Larry King, ”I was acting like a mother to say, ‘Why are you doing this?”’
JOHNNY KNOXVILLE IS A JACKASS
OCT. 1, 2000
Beavis and Butt-head may have been MTV’s original dumb and dumber, but Knoxville (pictured) and friends followed up with a real feast of foolishness. With stunts like Butt Stapling, Pogo Stick Skateboarding, and Beard of Leeches, the gang sacrificed their bodies in the name of idiotic entertainment. And like B&B, the Jackass boys successfully crashed the big screen (opening to $23 million in 2002), proving that you should never underestimate the power of a bungee wedgie.
MARIAH MELTS DOWN ON TRL
JULY 19, 2001
”Mariah Carey just walked in wearing a T-shirt, pushing an ice cream bin.” That was how Carson Daly introduced Carey’s surprise visit to TRL, during which the loopy diva handed out Popsicles and performed an awkward striptease as Daly tried to keep it together. Says the diplomatic host, ”I think a week later she made an announcement that she was gonna take a little time off. Anyone who watched that day probably saw that was a good idea.”
THE OSBOURNES DEBUTS
MARCH 5, 2002
Maybe it was after savvy matriarch Sharon threw that ham into her neighbor’s backyard, or the moment shambly Ozzy Osbourne bellowed, ”Bubbles?! I’m the Prince of [bleep]ing Darkness!” But at some point in the spring of 2002, Ozzy Osbourne went from ’80s metal has-been to the head of America’s Favorite Family, and he and his kooky clan did it by just being their warmhearted, filthy-mouthed selves. By exploring one simple idea — how do famous people act when they’re at home? — MTV created the celeb reality sitcom, a genre that has since included the sublime (Newlyweds), the ridiculous (The Anna Nicole Show), and the beyond-all-comprehension (Britney and Kevin: Chaotic). ”[Those shows] pale in comparison,” says Sharon. ”Some of them were fun for a while, but there was nothing as good as what we were doing.”
OOPS, MADONNA DOES IT AGAIN
August 28, 2003
Madonna continued her habit of shocking a now suspecting nation at the VMAs, this time with girl-on-girl kisses after a domineering routine with two artists who benefited from the trail she blazed decades before — Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The two youngsters were dressed in get-ups mimicking Madonna’s iconic ”Like a Virgin” outfit, and they even sang that song in the beginning before switching to ”Hollywood.” Madonna clearly played a male role throughout as they all hinted at the sexual nature of the routine. All subtlety was lost when Madonna leaned over and made out with Britney first and then with Christina.
AMERICA LOVES THE NEWLYWEDS
AUG. 18, 2003
As soon as middling pop stars Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson were betrothed to MTV, a phenomenon was born. The couple’s opposites-attract act — who knew confusing fish and fowl could be so funny? — turned them into the household names they’d always hoped to be (but didn’t quite become through their music careers). Movie and TV offers rolled in, as did relentless media scrutiny. Tense second and third seasons followed… and concluded, off camera, in 2006 with what might just be the first divorce ever caused by a music network. (Lachey married Vanessa Minnillo on July 19, 2011.)
MTV'S DOCUSOAP EXPLODES
SEPT. 28, 2004
Laguna Beach, a not-so-veiled shot at The O.C., aimed to prove that scripted teen dramas were predictable and uninspiring. By following a group of actual (we’re told) high school kids living their totally genuine (they say) lives in their natural Orange County habitat, MTV reinvented the docusoap — a genre that has no need for things like character development or snappy dialogue. By the end of season one, 2.2 million viewers were hopelessly hooked.
R. KELLY'S VMA PERFORMANCE
AUG. 28, 2005
The R&B singer acted out every lyric in his bizarro musical soap opera, with mesmerizing results. Marveled VH1 pop culture commentator Hal Sparks, ”I’ve had to listen to people ramble about relationship crap; I’ve never had it passed off as art, though. I didn’t know anybody who didn’t yell into the next room, ‘Hey, the dude who [allegedly] peed on the kids is singing some weird crap on TV, you gotta see this.”’
OH BABY, BABY
June 11, 2009
Sure, eyes rolled and pundits decried the debut of 16 and Pregnant, which was exactly what it sounded like — a reality show that followed pregnant teens, showing the real toll it took on these young people. But it immediately captivated an audience and led to the natural spinoff Teen Mom.
GTL ENTERS THE LEXICON
December 3, 2009
MTV has brought us hard partying young people for years — but the network seemed to have perfected that model (and stirred the controversy pot again) by following a bunch of fun-loving twentysomethings hanging out at the beach in Jersey Shore. Their idea of a to-do list was to go to the gym, work on their tans, and do their laundry. The Situation, Snooki, their friends and frenemies were soon everywhere, showing their abs, breasts, and poofs as they defended their place in pop culture.
THE HILLS GET REAL
July 13, 2010
About 3 million viewers tuned in for the buzzy (and revealing?) finale of the Laguna Beach spin-off but the talk was all about the final few moments of the show. The camera pulled back from a touching goodbye scene between Kristin Cavallari (who’d replaced Lauren Conrad as the star) and Brody Jenner, and showed that it was filmed on a Hollywood soundstage, sparking more questions about how much of the reality show was real, a familiar topic for the show.
KANYE INTERRUPTS TAYLOR SWIFT AT THE VMAS
Sept. 13, 2009
It was the moment that launched a thousand memes: Moments after Taylor Swift won for Best Female Video (”You Belong With Me”) at MTV’s Video Music Awards, Kanye West ran onstage, grabbed a mic, and interrupted her acceptance speech to announce his belief that Beyoncé’s ”Single Ladies” deserved that award instead. The 19-year-old Swift was baffled but gamely smiled through most of the uncomfortable experience. Kanye would apologize, repeatedly, for his huge misstep.