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35 Incredible Things That MTV Gave Us

From VJs and Reality TV to ‘Nirvana: Unplugged,’ celebrating the channel’s legacy on its 35th anniversary

Thirty-five years ago today, viewers tuned in to see an astronaut planting a flag on the moon — a colorful, ever-changing banner for something called "MTV" — and, whether they knew it or not, witnessed the beginning of a music-industry gamechanger. When you think of the channel today, of course, you probably think of shows involving teen moms, ironic Nineties meta-horror and Nick Cannon hanging out with his famous friends; music videos are now things you watch on YouTube. But in the three-plus decades since folks starting screaming "I want my MTV!", the network has left a lasting legacy of everything from memorable on-air personalities and mind-warping promos to selling musical styles and subcultures to the masses. It's turned oddball characters into pop-culture icons, been a key career-booster for everyone from Madonna to Britney and invented TV genres. It even helped sway a Presidential election.

In honor of MTV's anniversary — and the kick-off of MTV Classic, a cable channel devoted to the revisiting and rerunning programming from the network's glory days — we've singled out 35 things MTV has given us since that first Buggles clip ("Video Killed the Radio Star") helped the channel plant its flag on the pop landscape.

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David Fincher as an Auteur

Long before David Fincher was the A-list auteur behind Fight Club and The Social Network, he was the go-to video director when artists wanted people to know how much money they were spending on their video: black-and-white special effects for Johnny Hates Jazz's "Shattered Dreams," a slew of lip-synching supermodels for George Michael's "Freedom 90," a Metropolis remake for Madonna's "Express Yourself," or pure old-school glamour in Madge's clip for "Vogue." Fincher even captured the evanescent moment when Paula Abdul was cool, with his video for her hit "Straight Up" — if you can pull that off, you can do anything. GE

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Men at Work

It's hard to remember now, but in the early 1980s, Men at Work had a sextuple-platinum album (Business at Usual) and were regarded as the tuneful pop-rock heirs to the Police. They were an Australian act that Columbia Records had no expectation of breaking in the States — until MTV discovered that their videos, which made the group seem like a cross between the Monkees and the Goodies, played huge on the channel. One of early MTV's secret legacies is pure silliness, which is why videos like "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive" became buzz-bin clips before they'd coined the term. Non-Aussies wouldn't know their name (or what a Vegemite sandwich was) without the channel airing their clips dozens of times a day. GE

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The “Words” Promo

Some of the best programming on MTV were the station ID spots: They could be blasts of hyperkinetic animation, or Denis Leary rants about Cindy Crawford, or avant-garde micro-dramas. One of the most riveting was the "Words" spot in 1988. It was a full minute of white text against a black background, but you couldn't look away from the critique of commercial messages: "THESE ARE WORDS / THAT COULD BE SAYING SOMETHING / FUNNY OR COOL OR INTERESTING / BUT THEY'RE NOT / THEY'RE JUST SITTING THERE / LIKE YOU." GE

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The 1999 VMA Awards

The Video Music Awards took over the Metropolitan Opera House and featured Prince introducing his favorite girl group (TLC), Diana Ross dandling Lil Kim's exposed breast, and a great Lauryn Hill performance. But 1999 had the best VMAs ever because it was the first time Chris Rock cut loose as host of an awards show, making fun of the Backstreet Boys ("who lives on the front street — Big Bird?"), introducing Johnny Depp as a rich man's Skeet Ulrich, bewildering David Bowie by saying "Our next presenter has a black wife," or saying Kid Rock "looks like a substitute pimp." GE

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‘Thriller’

"Jon Landis and Michael said they wanted to do a video, very expensive, about monsters. … A video about monsters? What are you, nuts?" That’s how CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff recalled the conversation he had with the Blues Brothers director and Michael Jackson when they pitched the idea for an ambitious 13-minute music video for the title track of the star's megahit 1982 album. The plot: A young man (played by Jackson) turns into a zombie and joins his undead cohorts in a choreographed dance set to the song. "Thriller" is now impossible to hear without picturing the funky dead-leg moves from the video, a routine that remains ubiquitous in the culture more than 30 years after the clip’s debut. MTV played the hell out of the clip, as well as its "Making of…" featurette. It's still one of the greatest music videos ever. TG

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Tony Bennett’s Late-Period Coolness

He was a contemporary of Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé and Dean Martin, an old-school crooner best known for leaving his heart in San Francisco. In other words, Tony Bennett was the last guy you'd expect MTV to embrace as the next hip musician in the post-grunge era. But after he'd made a VMA appearance with Flea and Anthony Kiedis in 1993, they gave the then–68-year-old vocalist an Unplugged special — and suddenly, Bennett had a new generation of fans and a new-school cool status. This literally was your grandfather's MTV star. DF

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Jon Stewart, TV Host

Back when The Daily Show was still a gleam in Lizz Winstead and Madeline Smithberg's eyes, the New Jersey-bred stand-up was playing M.C. to MTV's gonzo You Wrote It, You Watch It in the early Nineties, which featured members of The State re-enacting goofy stories from everyday folks. Several years later, the network would give Jon Stewart his own star vehicle — The Jon Stewart Show — and offer viewers the first glimpse of a guy who could more than hold his own on the late-night talk circuit. The gig was short-lived, granted, but watch these old clips — you can already tell Stewart was beginning to hone his wise-ass persona and rapport with guests and studio audiences. It was a preview of what was to come. DF

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‘The State’

Question: Does the phrase "Forget it, I'm ouuuuutttaaaa heeerrre" send you into hysterics? How about "I wanna dip my balls in it?" Or (a personal favorite) "Now that is the kind of pudding that only $240 can buy"? A sketch show written by a former NYU collective of the same name, The State was MTV's alt-SNL of the early 1990s — one whose skits could be as basic as Thomas Lennon's Old-Fashioned Guy WTF PSAs to an epic musical-theater bit about gamblers at a porcupine racetrack. It only ran for a year and a half, but the series' impact and alumna (David Wain, Ken Marino, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black) continue to influence folks who prefer their comedy eccentric as hell, and their pudding very expensive. DF

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ZZ Top’s Spinning Guitars

As a bearded blues-rock trio from Texas, ZZ Top didn't seem like the most natural candidate for MTV fame. But in a series of videos from their Eliminator album — "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man" — they built up a mythology where they were hard-rocking fairy godmothers who changed the lives of average dudes by showing up with video vixens and the keys to a flashy red car. "Legs" flipped the script — they helped a girl, not a guy — and added something gloriously insane: guitars covered with white fur that could do a full 360-degree spin. GE

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Britney Spears

There was the way "…Baby One More Time" ruled the peak years of TRL. There was that makeout session with Madonna. There was the snake dance at the 2001 Video Music Awards. And, of course, there was her drowsy performance at that same awards show six years later — which set up her eventual comeback triumph and path toward Vegas-residency notoriety. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Britney Spears might be the millennial Duran Duran, the artist whose career trajectory is fairly unfathomable when you remove the channel's existence from the equation. (Heck, even the Super Bowl halftime show where she busted out a bit of "Walk This Way" was an MTV production.) MJ

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‘Jackass’

In the late 1990s, a little-known commercial actor named Johnny Knoxville pitched to underground skateboard magazine Big Brother an idea to test self-defense equipment on himself. “It was like a snuff video,” director Jeff Tremaine later recalled of the final product, which included Knoxville braving tasers and pepper spray. “The cameraman didn’t even want to be there.” From there, Jackass was born, as Knoxville and the show's brilliantly moronic crew enduring all types of pain and humiliation for our (and their own) amusement. For the three seasons, the series turned juvenile, homoerotic slapstick into art, combining the lurid allure of car-crash gawking with a think-piece deconstruction of masculinity and male bonding. TG

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The Telegenic Band

Sure, their names are punch lines now. But in the 1980s, photogenic bands from Frankie Goes to Hollywood to Milli Vanilli became superstars-for-a-minute largely thanks to the channel, and were proof that a slick four-minute video could turn the most unlikely folks into stars so long as they had a look. “I looked at all the superstars,” the late Milli Vanilli singer Rob Pilatus once told Rolling Stone about his strategy to promote his band. “What is their different thing? Their hair.” Because of MTV’s commercial power, even the decade’s legitimate creative giants — Madonna, Prince, Springsteen — had to think visually as well as sonically, harnessing the medium as a potent new way to sell their look as much as their music. TG

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Hip-Hop, USA

By the late 1980s, hip-hop was part of MTV’s rotation — Run-D.M.C.'s boisterous cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" saw to that — but it wasn't until the 1988 debut of Yo! MTV Raps that the network fully embraced the art form that would alter the musical landscape. Hosted by graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy before handing the reins over to Doctor Dre and Ed Lover, the show featured interviews with emerging acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Public Enemy and Beastie Boys. Just as importantly, it gave other rappers hope that their music had a home in the mainstream. As Cypress Hill's B-Real recalled in the oral history I Want My MTV, "Hip-hop was the lowest member on the pole to get any love … and here came Yo! MTV Raps, which said, 'This shit is serious. This shit is real. And we ain't going anywhere.'" TG

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Lauren Conrad’s Single Tear

Predicting what pre-social-media pop-culture imagery will eventually be conscripted into the language of GIFs is a fool's game, but the image of The Hills' Lauren Conrad shedding a single black tear was made for too-sad-for-words reactions. The image, grabbed from a Season Four episode of MTV's reality soap where Conrad was having a heart-to-heart with her onetime bestie Audrina Patridge, was already one of the augmented-reality series' most memorable. But GIF culture cemented it in the popular consciousness, making even those who can't tell a Heidi from a Spencer turn Conrad's face into a marker for inner turmoil. "That day it was filmed I was really sad — and I wasn't wearing waterproof mascara. Whoops," she told Cosmo. Let this be a lesson: Sometimes, mistakes can actually result in the best outcomes. MJ

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A-Ha’s ‘Take on Me’ Video

For all the complaints critics leveled at MTV for emphasizing photogenic artists, some of those featherweight acts actually produced striking videos. Exhibit A: A-ha's "Take On Me," which was actually the second try for the Norwegian trio’s synth-pop single. It drew inspiration from both Disney animation and the surreal horror film Altered States to depict a world in which a lonely young woman jumps into the panels of the comic that she's reading, interacting with the band's dreamy lead singer Morten Harket. Videos such as "Take On Me" opened the door for cutting-edge animation in music videos, paving the way for other ambitious 1980s landmarks like Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" and Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," both of which won respective VMAs for Video of the Year. TG

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Beyonce’s Baby Announcement

Beyoncé introduced her 2011 VMA performance of the boisterous 4 cut "Love On Top" with an inspirational message: "Tonight, I want you to stand up on your feet," she intoned. "I want you to feel the love that's growing inside of me." It was an appropriately love-filled lead-in to the bubbly track, but only when the performance ended did B let the audience in on what she was talking about before she started singing. She rubbed her lower midriff with a huge grin on her face, letting everyone — including her husband, Jay-Z — know that the "love growing inside" was, in fact, a baby. Pandemonium ensued; Kanye West, seated next to Jay, congratulated his co-Throne-sitter; and Beyoncé proved herself, once again, to be a master of the big reveal. MJ

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Tom Green

Because who doesn't love an oddball Canadian that humps a moose carcass and sings about his bum bum? (Don't all chime in here at once, people.) Originally a public-access personality in the Great White North, Tom Green ended up bringing his show — a mixture of public-event pranks, outré stunts (usually ones that involved embarrassing his long-suffering parents) and hanging out on a couch with his buds from back home — to MTV in 1999. And as anyone who saw Freddy Got Fingered or followed Drew Barrymore's love life back in the day can tell you, the rest is history. My bum is on the rail! My bum is on the rail! DF

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‘Total Request Live’

MTV believed in democracy — specifically, by letting viewers calling in to vote for videos. In the early 1980s, the channel broadcast Friday Night Video Fights; in the late Eighties, they featured the Dial MTV countdown. But Total Request Live, the voter-driven show that aired for a decade starting in 1998, was American Bandstand for a new generation: essential after-school viewing for every kid in America, mixing up genres and making pop stars of everybody from Christina Aguilera to Blink-182. Carson Daly was the genial ringmaster of TRL, always keeping his poise in front of crowds of screaming tweens. GE

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That Epic ‘November Rain’ Video

"It was like Spinal Tap with money," said director Andy Morahan. For $1.5 million, Guns N' Roses made a nine-minute video with enough insanity and free-floating imagery to inspire a generation's worth of graduate theses. After Axl Rose married Stephanie Seymour (wearing a wedding dress engineered to show off her legs) and best man Slash stepped out to play a guitar solo, we learned that the huge ceremony was actually inside a much smaller structure. The inescapable conclusion: Axl Rose got married inside a TARDIS. GE

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Pauly Shore

An L.A. kid who exuded a bratty, stoned, beach-bum vibe, Pauly Shore hit MTV in the late 1980s and was an instant sensation; his lackadaisical way of speaking — "Hey buddddddy…." — and blasé petulance was the product of a well-honed stand-up persona he dubbed the Weasel. (“I don’t know, maybe I was stinky or something,” he said in 2011 about the childhood nickname’s origins.) Thanks to his MTV show, Totally Pauly, Shore became his era’s Jeff Spicoli, reframing youthful rebellion as just kicking back with your buds and not giving a fuck. The act was short-lived, but the Weasel’s culture ubiquity in the early 1990s rivaled that of Nirvana, Seinfeld and the first Iraq War. TG

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The Alt-Nineties

MTV helped usher in the Hair Metal era, so it was only fitting that the network was also on the frontlines for the musical movement that swept away the mascara brigade. Debuting in 1986, a weekly program called 120 Minutes replaced the channel’s once-a-month show The Cutting Edge in championing left-of-center bands like They Might Be Giants and Jesus and the Mary Chain —groups that didn’t have much in common except for the fact that none of them sounded like mainstream rock. But as the 1990s took hold and groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. started going platinum, the so-called college-rock sound became a hot commodity, pushing a subculture into the limelight. Soon, grunge, industrial and indie-rock filled MTV's playlist. The Lollapalooza-in-your-living-room era had begun. TG

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The Second British Invasion

Twenty years after the original British Invasion introduced America to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, MTV brought the music of brilliant-to-bizarre U.K. New Wave acts like Haircut 100, A Flock of Seagulls and Kajagoogoo into households all over the U.S. The new network was desperate for content and the music video culture hit England long before America — which meant a disproportionate amount of airtime was given to the Brits. Soon after, Culture Club and Duran Duran were headlining American arenas. It was labelled the second British Invasion — and without the channel it never would have happened. AG

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‘Headbanger’s Ball’

You could catch some hard rock clips in the very early days of MTV, when they were still trying to find content to run over a 24-hour programming day and find their footing as a channel. Metal, however, was tough to come by — until 1987, when this Saturday night showcase started pumping thrash, British steel and other fly-the-devil-horns music into households across the nation. Everybody from Slayer to Soundgarden, Motorhead to Metallica did time on the HB couch; Guns 'N Roses actually trashed the studio during their appearance, and Kurt Cobain showed up in a formal gown (because it was a ball, he said). You can actually trace the history of the genre by the hairstyles of the show's most popular host Riki Rachtman. DF

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Jimmie the Cab Driver

You know Donal Logue as the character actor from the late, great Terriers, Sons of Anarchy and Fox's life-before-Batman show Gotham. But in the 1990s, the Boston-based comedian gave MTV one of its more memorable pitchmen: A greasy, dirty-looking cab driver named Jimmy who'd try explaining the network's most popular videos to his passengers. "He's a real innocent character," Logue said in 2014. "Total enthusiasm, but zero circumspection." Regardless, he became a bit of music-fan folk hero, thanks to his hilarious breakdowns of clips for Smashing Pumpkins' "Today," Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" and Alanis Morrisette's "Ironic." (The latter of which gives us the best Jimmy line: "It's like meeting the girl of your dreams, and finding out she's five!") DF

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The Miley Twerk

The VMAs are a great stage for breaking free of an innocent public image, and Miley Cyrus twerked her way out of her Disney history by emerging from a giant bear and grinding on Robin Thicke at the 2013 ceremony. With tongue out, hair buns in and and animal onesie on, the former Hannah Montana creeped her way across the stage while singing her hit "We Can't Stop." Then Thicke — seemingly cosplaying as Beetlejuice — joined just as Cyrus stripped down to a nude bikini as they gave a naughty delivery of "Blurrred Lines." Cries of cultural appropriation filled social media and Op-Ed pages for days, but regardless, Cyrus' appearance did the trick: She immediately shed her teenage image in seconds, reminding everyone that MTV has long been the perfect platform for pop stars to shed their old skins. BS

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‘Liquid Television’

You probably know that before the rise of YouTube, MTV was your best source for music videos. But it was also your best source for mind-bending animation: From 1991 to 1994, an era before animated clips went viral on Monday mornings, they had a showcase on Sunday nights. Liquid Television was the first place anyone saw Beavis and Butt-Head, but its defining star was Aeon Flux, the impossibly leggy secret agent moving through a surreal landscape. Charlize Theron played her in a 2005 movie, but she was never meant to be rendered in imperfect human flesh. GE

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