MMM Top Ten: 10 Standout Moments in MTV History

#10. Van Halen Reunion(ish) (1996) 

Photo Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

A decade after leaving, original lead singer David Lee Roth reunited with Van Halen… as presenters on MTV’s annual VMAs (Video Music Awards). They received a standing ovation, but the real drama came in the aftermath: when it was announced that Roth was not being reinstated as a permanent member of the band, the singer publically claimed that he was “tricked” into VMA appearance under false pretenses (the band countered that everything had been spelled out to Roth clearly all along). Still, Roth did end up re-joining Van Halen for good eleven years later.

#9. Bevis & Butthead/Daria (1993-2002) 

Photo Credit: MTV

Two of MTV’s most popular original scripted shows of the ’90s, animated series Beavis and Butthead and its spin-off Daria, presented very opposite looks at teenage awareness: Beavis showcased the binary form of adolescent thinking (everything is either “cool” or “sucks”), while Daria explored the deep introspection and cynicism which often defines one’s high school years (oh yeah, and both shows were very funny). 

#8. Rock The Vote (1992) 

Photo Credit: MTV

MTV was supposed to offer younger people an escape from those boring subjects that they had to learn about in schools like politics and current events. But in 1992 MTV found huge success and acclaim with Rock the Vote, its ongoing news series focused mainly on the presidential election at the time. Only one candidate, then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, had the foresight to take full advantage of it (doing numerous interviews and starring in entire programs), which helped greatly in getting him elected after a record number of eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds voted that year. 

#7. The Real World (1992) 

Photo Credit: MTV/Courtesy Everett Collection

Although the franchise has lasted for decades, featured hundreds of participants, and spawned many spin-offs and variations, the 1992 original series is now rightly seen as being groundbreaking in terms of its depicting frank discussions on issues like race and sexuality (there was even a six-episode reunion series in 2020). Ironically, some original reviews claimed the show was boring and that not enough actually “happened” (this “We want to see blood!” attitude is exactly how we ended up with the current state of reality TV). 

#6. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991) 

Photo Credit: YouTube

Only a few individual songs in rock history can be said to have pretty much instantly altered the musical and cultural landscape, but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, which helped define the ’90s and beyond, is unquestionably one of them. The innovative and haunting (and unique) Samuel Bayer-directed video became an immediate staple on MTV, who became major supporters of the band… even (or especially) after Kurt Cobain referred to them on camera as “Empty TV.”

#5. Riki Rachtman Takes Over Headbanger’s Ball (1990) 

Photo Credit: MTV

In its first few years Headbanger’s Ball, MTV’s weekly two-hour hard rock show, was hosted by the network’s regular veejays (first Kevin Seal, then Adam Curry), who during their normal shifts also introduced videos by Debbie Gibson and Rick Astley. Thus, the show gained considerable integrity after Riki Rachtman – the owner of the hard rock club the Cathouse in Los Angeles – was installed as a permanent host in 1990 (this happened supposedly after Axl Rose personally made the case for him).  

#4. Yo! MTV Raps! (1988) 

Photo Credit: MTV

In 1988 MTV introduced Yo! MTV Raps! a daily block of hip-hop videos originally hosted by genre pioneer Fab 5 Freddie before being turned over to radio personalities Doctor Dre (no, the other one) and Ed Lover. Although the first version of the show actually aired on MTV Europe, the overall franchise helped to secure hip-hop as not just a mainstay on MTV but as the major musical and cultural force that it remains today.

#3. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983) 

Photo Credit: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/Alamy

At the beginning of 1983, Michael Jackson became probably the single biggest star on MTV thanks to the classic videos for “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” But despite what was a winning partnership with MTV, Jackson declined to make videos for his next three singles (which all went Top 10 regardless). But when he did return, he went all-out with “Thriller”, a nearly 14-minute short film directed by John Landis (Animal House), with a seven-figure budget. With this, Jackson introduced both the long-form video as well as the idea of creating an event around a single video. 

 #2. “I Want My MTV!” (1981) 

Photo Credit: YouTube

Probably the first time most people ever heard of MTV was at the end of the sentence “I Want My MTV!,” the network’s original slogan and battle cry which became instantly synonymous with it. Lifted from a cereal commercial from the ’50s (“I want my Maypo!”), critics claimed that this represented the most shameless form of advertising manipulation (“telling” people what they want and then letting them believe it was their idea all along). Nonetheless, it’s still a household expression and has been paraphrased for countless ’80s nostalgia products and programs. 

#1. Its Mere Existence (1981) 

Photo Credit: MTV Logo, 1981. Photo by Fred Seibert

Music videos (originally known as “promotional clips”) had been around since the ’60s. They were fairly standard practice in the UK through the ’70s, and by the end of that decade, American bands like Blondie, Devo, and the Talking Heads were also filming them. In 1980 PopClips, a half-hour show on Nickelodeon, demonstrated that viewers might be interested in watching them one after the other. Still, going from that to a channel that was just music videos twenty-four hours a day – MTV premiering in August of 1981 – was clearly a quantum leap… and just as big a gamble, which ultimately paid off. 

Written by: Richard John Cummins

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