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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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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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