Quarterlife crisis

We don't mean to be a downer on your 25th birthday, MTV, but when will you grow up? An open letter.

Published August 4, 2006 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear MTV,

This week, you turned 25. We've spent a lot of time with you over the years -- we're 25, too -- and we wanted to wish you a happy birthday. But we also want to say something else. It's a request, really, or a plea:

Please. Stop. For the good of the country, stop what you're doing.

Let us explain what we mean.

There was a time, MTV -- we remember it well -- when you stood for something. In the '80s, you introduced us to new music and cultural ideas through shows like "Yo! MTV Raps" and "Headbangers Ball." In 1985, you covered all 17 hours of the Live Aid benefit concert for famine relief in Ethiopia. We were 14 when you got President Clinton to talk about issues that were important to young people, and we remember your introducing slogans like "Rock the Vote" and "You Decide."

When we were growing up, you provided a vision of something beyond the narrow and often painful confines of adolescence. If we weren't the best-looking or richest kids in our class, you showed us there was more to life than that. You showed us funny-looking or intelligent people who were cool. You made being different seem cool -- even cooler, in a bigger and more substantial way, than being good-looking, popular and rich.

But you wanted a bigger audience. Your former president, Judy McGrath, told New York magazine that in the early '90s, "we had influential content, influential music, things were changing, but we had low, low ratings ... Back then, our steady diet was a lot of leading-edge stuff, and not a ton of people were watching."

So you gave up on changing things. You brought in producers who created shows everyone would want to watch. Rather than challenge cultural norms, these shows reinforced and legitimized the materialistic values of your expanded viewership with fare like "Tiara Girls" (aspiring beauty queens torture themselves into shape for pageants); "My Super Sweet Sixteen" (rich brats throw gigantic birthday parties); and "Room Raiders" (suburban boys and girls "raid" each other's possessions to decide who they should date).

Your most smashing success, "Laguna Beach," glamorizes shallow, cruel and stupendously wealthy boys and girls as they vie for popularity at an elite California high school. In the latest seasons of "Real World" -- once an innovative look at people in their mid-20s with artistic aspirations moving to big cities -- a bunch of college kids hang out in places like Key West or Las Vegas and devote themselves to drinking, sex and self-indulgent breakdowns.

We'll be the first to admit these new shows are entertaining. We watch some of them religiously, just like everybody else. The problem is, MTV, these shows aren't good for us as adults, as young people attempting to become healthy adults, and we can only imagine how they affect your core audience: adolescents still in the midst of deciding who they are.

What MTV thinks it means to be cool, as the kids who watch the newer "Real World" or "Laguna Beach" discover, is exactly what the small dominant clan in their own school (not to mention their parents, and our president) also think it means to be cool. Intelligence, thoughtfulness and generosity are irrelevant. The important thing is to look good, have "fun" and annihilate one's enemies ("Laguna" star Kristin Cavallari furnished a brilliant example of how you should do this). Far from offering an alternative vision, your new shows tell these adolescents that the "right" life is the one that confers popularity (the kid version of celebrity), sexual success and material wealth.

Maybe that's why so many of these kids -- when they emerge from high school or college to suddenly discover that they aren't celebrities, that they have to make a living for themselves and no longer have a consistent audience for their regressive emotional mood swings -- are so lost. We're speaking from experience here.

Look, MTV, we don't mean to be a downer on your birthday. We know you faced the pressure to change. It happens to us all.

What we're suggesting -- and we realize it's very un-"MTV generation" of us -- is that, just maybe, now that you're 25, you ought to take some responsibility for what you're doing. Because if you merely made bad TV, none of this would matter. But you don't make bad TV. You make TV so good it's created a generation. You have the chance to show that generation there's more to life than spring break in Cancún, more than getting wasted, picking up girls and swimming nude in the hot tub (fun as that always looks, no matter how many times we see it!), more than beauty pageants, decadent parties and manipulating friends. Something beyond all that.

Like you, we're 25 and still searching. Help us.


Jon Baskin
Zeke Hawkins

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------