Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Dusty Henry looks back on 20 years of MTV2.
A couple months ago, we had some friends over at our apartment for pizza and beer. My wife threw out the idea of pulling up a stream of MTV2. An oddly specific request, but sure. I ended up finding footage from a 2005 recording of the network. Everyone watched as clips of System of a Down and Linkin Park concerts flooded our television screen, but I preferred watching everyone else. Their faces beaming and smiling, having a shared remembrance of this era.
“Remember when MTV actually played music?”
How many times have you heard that question posed? It’s a sentiment that’s plagued the network since it started branching out into different formats with serialized reality shows like The Real World and Road Rules and continues today with programs like Teen Wolf and Catfish. This entire “movement”, if you could call it that, peaked when Bowling for Soup released their hit single “1985”, which posed the question in the chorus. Oddly enough, the video went to heavy rotation on both MTV and VH1.
If we’re being real, it’s a boring argument to have. It’s the projection of one generation onto the next. Teen Wolf may not be what older generations think MTV should be, but since when does that matter? It’s hard to blame a network for catering to whatever audience will engage with them best. It’s especially hard to complain when MTV2 has existed all along. The only real complaint being that it was only available on cable.
MTV2 was born out of the “keep music on TV” idea that dissenters love to tote. Launching in 1996 as “M2,” it served as a non-stop 24/7 music video network. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a total hit. It tested well with audiences, but not enough to to get digital cable subscribers to sign up. By 1999, they’d re-brand as MTV2. These early years, however, set a precedent for what MTV2 would become. With the original MTV still the main focus in the public consciousness and needing constant attention, the second station left VJs with more freedom. In 2000, they’d play every MTV video in alphabetical order, and in 1999 they played Prince’s “1999” for 24 hours straight. These would later develop into specials featuring entire days or weekends dedicated to artists like Foo Fighters and Madonna. On the 10th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, the network played all Nirvana-related videos and concerts, with VJs reporting from Seattle. With no eyes on them, the producers and VJs could craft the network in their own image — creating something that music fans would end up adoring.
This made it an ideal outlet for the disaffected: those kids who loved to complain about how “MTV doesn’t play music.” I know I was one of those kids. I can vividly remember spending summers before I could drive cooped up at home. I’d keep it on during the day, just to hear something. Then I’d stay up late to watch shows like the Andrew W.K.-hosted MTV’s Most Controversial Videos, which played videos like Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, Madonna’s “Justify My Love”, and Eminem’s “Stan”. It felt dangerous. But mostly, it was an education. The beauty was that in constantly playing so much, they laid out a comprehensive history of music past and present. Nothing was without context.
Steadily, it became an artist-driven network. It was a place where artists could try adventurous projects. The short-lived Album Covers series paired artists together across generations, like Dashboard Confessional and R.E.M. The idea of Michael Stipe singing “Hands Down” is still mind-blowing today. This was also reflected in the aesthetics that they’d mess around with between re-brands. Given that “alternative” was still a term with relative weight around this time, they could be classified as that. Or else, just call the vignettes “weird.” It gave a sense that the channel wasn’t part of the “mainstream,” despite still being a Viacom property and sharing a name with their parent network.
Eventually MTV2 would start branching out from just music. They’d start syndicating MTV shows like Punk’d and Jackass. They’d even get adventurous by dabbling in anime with shows like Heat Guy J and Marvel Anime. It wouldn’t be long before MTV2 spawned more networks dedicated to genres. Eventually, MTV Hits and MTV Jams were created to play music videos 24/7 — thus completing the cycle. MTV2 still carries on with blocks of videos, but it serves mainly as a host for syndicated MTV programming.
This would be such a great time to start making an argument for missing when “MTV2 actually played music,” but that’s bogus. More than anything, the network symbolized and still symbolizes an idea. Music television is more than just montages set to singles. Music is ingrained in all aspects of pop culture. The line between reality TV and music is blurred, and not just because of the likes of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian but by how people engage with it. The outlets are still there for MTV to show videos. And if we’re being honest, they’re not really necessary with YouTube. But the fact that these networks exist to give greater freedom to how we look at music and give context to it, I’m sure there are plenty of teens and teen wolves who will continue to benefit from it in the future.