It’s hard to believe that it’s been a quarter-century since MTV debuted, on Aug. 1, 1981. Soon we’ll all be moping around in orthopedic Chuck Taylors and smelling of Icy Hot. Just think of what we’ve lived through so far: Madonna’s shenanigans; a lot of really big and bad hair; some unforgettable Michael Jackson videos, not to mention personal trials and tribulations; the unreal world of The Real World; partly exposed boobs; Ozzy Osbourne shuffling around and mumbling in his home; and even living vicariously through a bunch of spoiled Laguna Beach brats. To pay tribute to the network’s 25th anniversary, EW spoke to pop commentator Hal Sparks (of VH1’s I Love the 70s, 80s and 90s-dom) to help put some of it into perspective.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you remember you first experience watching MTV?
HAL SPARKS: Uh, wow, yeah. It was at my friend, Sean Cooper’s house. He was the first kid that had cable in Kentucky, where we were. There were two videos that really struck me as like, ”Okay, this is important for me to keep watching”: Scorpions’ ”Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and Def Leppard’s ”Photograph.” I think they were both shot in the same studio in England and used the same cages and the same light. It was pretty hilarious.
How old were you?
13 or 14. I got to see a lot of stuff on tape later. The big one of course being KISS taking their makeup off, which was a shock for young Hal. At once, [it was] freedom and a betrayal.
It was taboo to let your kids watch MTV back in the day. Do you remember any of that?
Oh, absolutely — there were marches against it in our town in Kentucky. There were Christian groups screaming it was the end of the world. Of course, it was, so I guess they turned out to be right.
What do you think the network has done for pop culture and society from then to now?
Clearly, the ultimate legacy, interestingly, of MTV is diversity. There’s nothing more damaging to racism and sexism than having an alternative viewpoint in your home all of the time. And especially when it’s three minutes long and aimed at kids. It turned out to be a lot harder for racist parents in the South to teach their kids that black people were no good when kids saw them all of the time and were like, ”I don’t know, he seemed okay.”
Same for sexual orientation.
Sure. Boy George and the whole new wave, glam movement. It softened the walls of prejudice, and a lot of people’s heads and hearts, and that can’t be overvalued. It’s funny that it would be him, but once Michael Jackson sort of established that a video could be a piece of art, a piece of film, it really raised the bar. And then you had people telling stories that mattered, from Madonna’s ”Like a Prayer” to the Van Halen ”Right Now” video — situations where bands were really making a point with their videos. The ”Jeremy” video [from Pearl Jam], I remember being really pivotal.
Are you bummed that it’s changed from being about music to reality TV?
Yeah, I am. I don’t mind so much that MTV and the production companies said, ”There’s a lot of money to be made in the reality market.” The only thing I have a problem with is: Start another network. Call it RTV. But as long as you’re going to be calling it Music Television, that should be your main focus.
Let’s go down memory lane. What are some of your more personal memorable moments?
I think first and foremost is Headbanger’s Ball. All of this pop stuff was playing constantly and dance music and Wang Chung. [When] Saturday night at midnight rolled around, [it’d be] a collection of videos you’ve been salivating to see. So getting to see the new Skid Row video or the new Medgadeth video or the new KISS video or whoever they were debuting — that week was pretty great. That was one of those things where you’d, like, videotape it. You’d record it on back then what was referred to as a VCR.
The moment that started all of the Unplugged series was when Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi sang ”Wanted Dead or Alive” at the Video Music Awards. When they did that, lights went off in people’s heads all over the place, like, ”This is a show. Let’s unplug all of these guys.” [That] led to the neutering of some acts — and the frightful underarm moment of LL Cool J. In LL Cool J’s Unplugged, he kind of had a deodorant buildup happening, and it was kind of disturbing because the whole time he had his hands above his head, kind of doing the rapper-rock move. And you’re like, ”Aw, dude, this is good but creepy.” And then of course, the neutering of ”Layla” by Eric Clapton. That’s the downside. The upside is that you have, like, the single recorded shows of acoustic performances by Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley and Alice in Chains and people that aren’t around anymore. Basically Unplugged and Headbanger’s Ball were my reasons for watching for years.
Do you remember the Milli Vanilli debacle?
They played the video of the CD skipping. What always struck me, interestingly enough, is that it could have been fixed with a really cheap, quick lie, along the lines of what the Ashlee Simpson camp learned. Just plead laryngitis and run off stage. This affected me zero. Because I was, like, This doesn’t suck any less because I thought the guys who I thought were singing it aren’t. It still sucks. It’s still this doofy, neutered, semi-hip-hop/R&B/pop garbage. I actually probably liked it more once I found out it was fake. I was like, ”Well, that at least is a lie, so that gives it some kind of an edge.”
And then reality TV hit. What’d you think at the time?
Honest to God, when The Real World came on, I could hear ”Taps” playing in the background. You could just see that they were taking the network out to the barn and shooting it like Old Yeller. They were like, ”This is a rabid dog that not everybody appreciates, so what we’re going to do is just cut its balls out, put some neuticles in, wash it down like a show dog, and parade it around like an idiot.” The Real World was responsible in many ways for the wave of ”reality” television. It’s managed and promoted and the story lines are manipulated. No one is under the illusion that that’s not true anymore, but to those who do, sorry to burst your bubble. And, uh, wrestling is fake too.
Now, there’s nothing left. It’s a carcass of itself and that’s a shame. But you know, who wouldn’t want to watch nine kids on a van being forced to do stupid little stunts, and poked with an electric cattle prod to make sure they hate each other? That’s not the real world, that’s the worst roommate service in the world. Who did I get put with? Awww, maaan.