My MTV, my friend: honoring the network on its 40th anniversary

The MTV Moon Man appears on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 20, 2018.
The MTV Moon Man appears on the red carpet at the MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 20, 2018, in New York.
(Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Here’s a fun piece of information, and I’m sorry for the way it might make you feel: MTV debuted 40 years ago, on Aug. 1, 1981.

When it first launched, Music Television played videos from morning till night and introduced us to everything that was cool: punk rockers with mohawks, hair metal bands in Spandex and all things Madonna. Later it gave us awards shows and reality TV, “Yo! MTV Raps” and “120 Minutes,” “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “Jackass,” Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt. Snooki and JWoww. All the things.

Lady Gaga in a green dress and wearing a face mask, holds an MTV award statue
In this video grab issued Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, by MTV, Lady Gaga accepts the award for song of the year for “Rain On Me” during the MTV Video Music Awards. (MTV via AP)

The summer of 1981 also happens to be when my parents got divorced.

MTV floated in like Mary Poppins, adding a heaping spoonful of sugar (and some spice) to a time filled with change and uncertainty. How can anyone be sad or anxious trying to learn the steps to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller?”

In San Diego, MTV first aired on Southwest Cable in 1982; Cox Cable added it in 1983. I’m not entirely sure when my house got it, but since that day, MTV has guided me through good times and bad — even after I aged out of its 18- to 34-year-old target demographic.

The Video Years

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of rock band Van Halen
David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of rock band Van Halen celebrate July 9, 1978, at the Long Beach Arena during the rock band’s return to town.
(Los Angeles Times/File Photo)

As documented and discussed in many think pieces, the first video played on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles (and the second was Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run). But for me, the band that defined the early days of MTV was Van Halen.

I loved frontman David Lee Roth’s Spandex outfits, long hair and acrobatic stage kicks. I spent entire Saturdays in front of the TV, sitting through Phil Collins, Lionel Richie and Night Ranger (not really processing the lack of women or non-White artists), just to see Van Halen’s “Jump” or “Panama” video. When it did come on, I’d run around the room so excited, then start the process all over again.

Now, when I explain to my teen daughters that I waited around to watch a music video and wasn’t even able to fast forward through commercials, they look at me with a blend of disbelief and pity.

Award show moments

In this file photo, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston present the award for Best Male Video during the MTV Video Music Awards
In this Sept. 10, 1998 file photo, Mariah Carey, left, and Whitney Houston present the award for Best Male Video during the MTV Video Music Awards, in Universal City, Calif.

The first “MTV Video Music Awards” show aired in 1984, which is remembered for Madonna writhing around in a wedding dress while performing “Like A Virgin.” (Looking back, though, her 1990 performance of “Vogue” was way more iconic.)

Madonna set a tradition for over-the-top award show performances: Britney Spears and the 25-pound snake wrapped around her shoulders as she sang “I’m a Slave 4 U”; Pink’s jaw-dropping aerial acrobatic and trapeze act for “Sober”; and Beyoncé announcing she was pregnant for the first time after her “Love on Top” performance.

The awards usually aired in September, right around the first day of school. So instead of fretting about who my teacher would be or if I’d have friends in my classes, I would obsess about who would take home the Moonman trophy for Best Video.

One year, before starting an entirely new junior high school where I only knew one person, the VMAs soothed my absolute terror with INXS, Whitney Houston and Pet Shop Boys all performing on the same night. (Van Halen was there, too, but without David Lee Roth I wasn’t interested.)

Eventually, watching the VMAs became a back-to-school tradition — an annual gathering of friends (who I met at that new junior high) to watch the awards, eat junk food and show each other our first day of school outfits.

Joining “The Real World”

MTV's "The Real World" San Francisco cast, circa 1994

“This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

The premiere of “The Real World” in 1992 marked a major shift in the way people watched MTV. Blocks of music videos were pushed aside for actual TV programs like “The Real World,” “The Osbournes,” “Road Rules,” “Loveline” and “Daria.”

It wasn’t an easy transition.

I avoided “The Real World: New York,” rolling my eyes when it came on and — gasp — actually changing the channel. But then there was one of those Saturdays when all my friends were hanging out without me. Once again, good old reliable MTV Poppins came to the rescue with a “Real World” marathon.

It only took two episodes before I was hooked, and hooked in a much deeper way. Music videos were like a fantasy world whereas the people on “The Real World” (at least the early years) were relatable in their struggles with identity and independence.

“The Real World” cast members — like New York’s Julie (Gentry), San Francisco’s Pedro (Zamora) and Seattle’s Irene (McGee) — felt like actual friends. When Zamora died in 1994 due to complications from HIV, it truly did feel like I lost a loved one.

In 2004, “The Real World” came to San Diego (and again in 2011) and in a truly full circle moment, I was one of the reporters assigned to write feature stories about it. Soon after that, I finally outgrew my dependence to MTV and eventually stopped watching altogether.

But that’s how it’s supposed to be right? Mary Poppins didn’t stay forever, either. Happy 40th birthday, MTV.