Christmas on MTV
If you happened to stop by the Blake household between 1988 and 1994, chances are you would have found me in the basement, nestled in a beanbag, watching MTV. I watched entirely too much television as a kid, and I was particularly transfixed by the channel formerly known as “Music Television.” If scientists wanted to do an experiment on the effects of MTV on the young minds of America, I might have made the perfect guinea pig. From the moment when we got cable when I was in the second grade until my early teens, when I started pretending to be too cool to watch MTV, I was a voracious and precocious consumer of the music-video format. After I saw the video for “I Want Your Sex,” I asked my mother what “monogamy” was. (“Umm, it’s a good thing,” she offered timidly.) I made my own VHS mix-tapes, recording videos by Faith No More, Tom Petty, and Guns N' Roses over old episodes of Father Dowling Mysteries. This way, rather than depending on Adam Curry, I could conjure up Axl and the boys whenever I wanted, like an analog version of YouTube.
For me, watching MTV during its heyday was a formative pop-cultural experience: My fondest memories of Christmastime TV don’t involve an actual series or special, but rather the endless loop of holiday-themed videos that used to play on MTV on Christmas Day. Even before it became a network targeted at 14-year-old girls, MTV was obsessively on-trend; back in the “Music Television” days this meant constantly updating the videos in regular rotation on the network and ruthlessly tossing aside anything that seemed out-of-date. MTV wasn’t afraid to play a video to death, but it lived in fear of playing anything that seemed musty or unfashionable. By the early ’90s, it was a rarity for MTV to play a video from the dark ages of the mid-’80s.
Happily, this stricture vanished on Christmas, the one day a year when MTV’s programming was totally predictable and willfully uncool. Time was you’d turn on MTV on Christmas morning—which I did, with alarming regularity—and see one of the same two dozen or so videos, a loop interrupted a few times an hour by a Christmas-themed MTV promo. Then it was back to the videos, which remained virtually unchanged from year to year: Run-DMC, Ramones, Hall & Oates, The Pretenders, John Mellencamp, Band-Aid. Every few years, there’d be a new Christmas hit to add to the mix, like Mariah Carey’s holiday juggernaut, “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” but the mix was predictable and oddly comforting.
In the pre-Internet era, the videos also offered a thrilling glimpse into the not-so-distant past. The 1984 video for Wham’s “Last Christmas”—one of my all-time favorite holiday pop songs, thank you very much—looked hilariously dated by 1989, even to my untrained eye. His pro-monogamy stance notwithstanding, it’s incomprehensible to think that George Michael, with his Princess Di haircut and lavender Ugg boots, was straight, but, hey, it was the ’80s. More anachronistic still was David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s famously incongruous duet, “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth,” which was filmed in 1977 and reeked faintly of mothballs. Yet I was thrilled every Christmas when it popped up. For me, turning on the network on Christmas Day was a safe, affordable version of time travel.
Broadly speaking, MTV’s Christmas videos came in four varieties:
1. The Earnest Video
This is a pretty inclusive category, covering everything from Sting’s ponderous, deadly boring, and uncomfortably Jesus-y video for “Gabriel’s Message” to John Lennon’s lovely though heavy-handed “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” But, without a doubt, my all-time favorite is Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” less for its dubious Eurocentric lyrics (e.g. “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime”) than for the low-fi, home movie-quality footage of hungover British pop stars. What better way to fight hunger than by puffing on some ciggies?
2. The Comic Relief Video
For artists wary of appearing too earnest or exuberant at Christmastime, the wacky Christmas video offered an easy alternative. The video for Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” featuring a nagging, whiney girlfriend, was hardly a step forward for gender politics, but the final shot—a beard-clad Ramone puking into a toilet bowl—is funny and irreverent enough that I’m willing to forgive a lot. But the greatest example of this genre has to be “Weird Al” Yankovic’s seminal “Christmas At Ground Zero,” a holiday song that makes light of nuclear holocaust. The video, assembled from Cold War-era educational filmstrips, is a found-footage classic.
3. The Non-Denominational Holiday Cheer Video
The first made-for-MTV Christmas video was Billy Squier’s “Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You,” a boisterous spot recorded at the studios of the fledgling network in 1981. (Look for the original VJs swaying in the audience behind Squier.) The production value is negligible, but it doesn’t matter, because the video is so raw and exuberant. Lots of other artists would try to re-create this kind of secular cheerfulness, but nobody’s done it quite as well. Santa hats off to you, Mr. Squier.
4. The Sexy Santa Video
There are few things less sexy than a sexy Santa, but Mariah Carey and I apparently disagree about that. Over the years, she’s enthusiastically embraced this most insidious holiday cliché, starting with her insanely catchy 1994 hit, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” This holiday season, Carey, 41, released an updated version of the song, recorded with Justin Bieber, 17. The video, in which Carey dons the finest in Christmas-themed fetish gear while thrusting her rump in Bieber’s direction, may be the most egregious sexy-Santa video ever, but other examples abound. (See also: Destiny’s Child.)
I’m no culture warrior, but you could make a good case for the war on Christmas just by looking at MTV’s holiday schedule over the years. While the channel used to pause and commemorate Christmas with pre-programmed videos played on a predictable loop, this Sunday’s line-up is entirely indistinguishable from any other day on the network: reruns of Teen Mom, followed by reruns of True Life, followed by reruns of something called Ridiculousness. “Christmas In Hollis” seems downright heartwarming by comparison. No doubt MTV will tacitly acknowledge the holiday with an animated snow-globe or twinkly ornament in the lower third of the screen, but that will be it. Every other channel churns out holiday-themed episodes; whither the Jersey Shore or Teen Mom Christmas specials? (Likely answer: Nowhere, because MTV wouldn’t be able to replay those shows 450 times over the year.)
But it’s fine: This Christmas, I’ll just plop in front of my computer and watch this on repeat.
Tomorrow: The Gift of the Magi.