At the height of her fame in 1997, singer-songwriter Fiona Apple stood up in front of a live audience at the MTV Video Music Awards and made what should have been an obvious observation about the state of pop culture at that time, followed by words of wisdom.
“This world is bullshit,” she said in her acceptance speech for Best New Artist. “And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself.”
It was met with sprinkles of awkward yet somehow spirited applause from an audience that was likely only half paying attention to the words Apple was uttering. With “Criminal,” she had a massive song on the radio accompanied by an equally mesmerizing and highly sexualized music video that hurtled her right into the mainstream. And yet this image of her that we clung to so fanatically wasn’t who she was or ever wanted to be.
But none of that mattered. The VMAs were an opportunity for young people, both at home and in the audience, to attend a pop culture event that was tailor-made for us to ogle and devour, then spit out minutes later when we moved on to another unfulfilling distraction. The ’90s were rampant with these moments and particularly influential to a generation that lacked an identity and tried exhaustively to emulate pop culture. We unequivocally looked up to pretty much anyone on-screen, and MTV took that thirst to the next level.
A mere image or comment from a public figure could redirect our entire line of thinking. That’s what Apple was calling out. And it’s one of the few times we decided to tune out a celebrity, even though we should have been listening the hardest.
But it’s not that other MTV staples didn’t attempt to tell us about this superficial world that had us in such a chokehold. “Daria” heroine Daria Morgendorffer regularly called this out while skewering her empty-headed, mall-obsessed sister and her school that glorified eating disorders, toxic jock mentality and putting pressure on already marginalized overachievers.
As refreshingly acerbic and poignant as Daria was, even she wasn’t heard loudly enough over the increasing malaise her own network was perpetuating to a willing audience. She’d probably rather spend time with her bestie Jane at the pizza shop than another moment trying to talk some sense into her indifferent peers.
But that lack of interest is part of why characters like the disaffected stoners on “Beavis and Butt-Head” were so popular, whereas Jodie, Daria’s Black and ambitious classmate, was often overlooked. Well, that and the pervasive whiteness on the channel and across pop culture. It reflected a reality that not enough people cared to change.
Instead, we often took the images MTV gave us and asked very few questions about them. Rather, we often stared blankly at them and tried to adopt their philosophies as our own. Because it was the dawn of a new level of celebrity culture unlike we had ever seen before and we were desperately trying to shape our personalities to what we saw on MTV. Like when Cindy Crawford and other white supermodels talked way over our heads as they gave us the inside scoop on the fashion world and what was hot on “House of Style.” It was like catnip.
Fans tuned in as they bolstered all sorts of white beauty standards from their supposed higher plane of existence. And occasionally they’d drop painful factoids such as a photographer casually calling female models “bim” and male models “bo” because, apparently, that was funny. Or their real names didn’t matter because everyone eventually blended together. It was never made clear.
The same could be said about “TRL,” aka “Total Request Live,” a gargantuan though increasingly vapid music video countdown series that ironically helped facilitate the demise of music being played on the channel (great music-focused shows like “MTV Unplugged” took a back seat). TRL started out an obligatorily fun series where predominantly white pop stars with virtually identical sounds and images, from Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to the Backstreet Boys and Blink-182, came on the show and hyped their videos.
Then it became a show short on videos — they were literally cut in half or reduced to about 60 seconds of airtime — and inflated with gossip on the stars’ personal lives and information we were, yet again, told we should want to know. That led to toxic fandom. Because of course it did.
Pretty much everyone was a celebrity if MTV told us so, and celebrities were to be followed and admired no matter how awful they acted. So, reality shows like “The Real World” and “True Life” became go-to sources of morbid entertainment about “real” people who, as the former’s slogan goes, stopped being polite and started “getting real.”
To say the ’90s on MTV was a weird era would be an understatement. And yet the network, with all its bold-faced names and eventually demoted music, was can’t-miss TV. We were hooked on its low bar and unchallenging content and are only recently trying to break away from it. But back then, MTV took a flailing generation by the hand and led it straight into conformity.
So, of course teens began to dress the same and criticized anyone who didn’t look, sound and behave like the dominant image on MTV. Of course rock stars rapidly became the uncool underdogs because there were ultimately few and far between celebrated on the almighty MTV. Of course homophobia, toxic masculinity and celebrity worship were more normalized than ever. Because MTV helped validate each of these things.
And we let it. Fiona Apple tried to tell us buyer beware and we didn’t hear her. But she was right. About all of it.