Happy 30th Birthday, MTV, For “Shore”

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MTV, which marks its 30th birthday today, has changed a lot since I wrote this Boston Phoenix article marking the channel’s 10th birthday.But one thing remains the same: it’s still a channel that’s all about the search for identity. Well, maybe “search” isn’t the right word; “shopping trip” might be more apt.

The biggest change isn’t necessarily the fact that the “M” doesn’t stand for “Music” (or anything else) anymore. Rather, it’s that MTV, which was so influential in terms of visual and film style in the ’80s, changed the face of TV in the last two decades by introducing reality TV as we know it with The Real World in 1992. Reality has since taken over the tube, almost all of it modeled on The Real World’s mix of combustible groups of people in a confined area and confessional individual direct addresses to the viewer. (Even scripted TV has copied this, most notably in such shows as The Office and Modern Family.)

But the quest for identity remains central. Only now, instead of music being the primary vehicle for expression of identity, it’s only one of many (including fashion, sexual behavior, and other lifestyle choices), all of which are displayed as consumer choices. (That self-definition was to be expressed through consumption was always implicit during the first decade of MTV; now it’s blatant.)

What’s interesting is that (to old farts like me, at any rate) the possible identities on display at MTV all look like cautionary tales of people you wouldn’t want to risk becoming: teen moms, teen werewolves, the juiceheads of Jersey Shore. I suspect this depiction of identity-shopping-gone-horribly-wrong is why there’s such fascination with Jersey Shore among people my age and others who are far outside of MTV’s target demographic.

To me, Jersey Shore is a hilarious comedy of manners, the only one we really have now on TV (aside from HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm). Snooki and the other seven Oompa Loompas in her tribe have a fine, detailed eye for the nuances of what constitutes proper social behavior in their world and what violates that code (even if the Shore cast are usually the ones violating it). Their observations are hilariously witty (if not intentionally so), and their rules of social interaction are as strict as Edith Wharton’s (if entirely different in substance). I’m looking forward to the fourth season (which starts this week, on August 4), which takes the gang to Italy to clash with their distant cousins. (It should play like Henry James to the first three seasons’ Edith Wharton.)

Are Jersey Shore and MTV forces for good or evil? Probably both. The message that you and your peers can make your own social rules but must abide by them is probably less dangerous than the message that the things in your life that you use to determine who you are are all reducible to marketable commodities. At least MTV has long been smart enough to make hits out of critiques of itself, like Beavis and Butt-head (which the network is reviving) and Daria.

That’s the thing about MTV; it’s always been smarter than anyone, including the network’s own programmers, give it credit for, and in ways that disrupt its dominant narrative. It’s easier, maybe, to see that in retrospect. Remember when pundits scoffed at MTV for reducing political interviews to the question of “Boxers or briefs?” Little did we know then, with the rise of cable news and the obsession with Al Gore’s earth tones and Hillary Clinton’s hairdos among supposedly august media outlets, just how trivial political journalism could become. (From today’s vantage, Tabitha Soren looks like Edward R. Murrow.) Around the same time as that Bill Clinton forum (years before everyone else was fixated on what was going on under his pants), MTV launched a show aptly titled Short Attention Span Theater. It was the first big break on TV for a young comic named Jon Stewart. After having launched the career of the Daily Show host, I think we can forgive MTV for unleashing The Situation.

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