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TV Flashback Tuesdays: 1990s MTV Promo Spots

October 12, 2010

MTV used to be cool. That’s right, I said it. There was a time when MTV could introduce you to new music, maybe even new ideas. The channel of Justin Bieber and Teen Mom marathons once took pride in being a real alternative to what was available elsewhere on the dial.

It’s easiest to remember this when watching MTV’s old promo spots, 10-20 second bumpers that identified that you were indeed watching Music Television. There are certain spots I closely identify with my MTV-watching days in the early-to-mid 90s,  just as I was beginning to form my pop culture identity.  To someone whose tastes were as unformed as Jell-O, it was refreshing to see a network so full of bravado, so unafraid of being strange.

This 1995 spot, called “Crab Legs,” seems like it could have been a commercial parody on Adam Sandler/Chris Farley-era SNL.

“Disaster Dolls”  has sort of a Tim Burton quality to it. It’s also unapologetically nonsensical.

Most of the promo spots make no sense though, since its more about branding MTV’s “anything goes” attitude in terms of its programming. The bumpers were also about revealing the MTV logo in creative ways, like this 1992 animated spot that’s funny as it is gross. You can tell Nirvana and Guns ‘N Roses were in heavy rotation at the time.

One of my favorite ones was the Peter Lorre spot, because at the time I found it compelling and just a bit creepy. Thanks to YouTube, I just learned it was based on the classic 1932 film M. How interesting that MTV, a channel famously obsessed with youth, once used a decades-old foreign-language movie in its promo spots.

Of course not one of these would find its way onto MTV today. The channel, which is turning 30 next year–lets all take a minute to feel old–long ago smoothed out its rough edges to plastic perfection, embracing celebrity and flash over quirkiness.  But these promo spots will always serve as a tidy time capsule of its rebellious teenage years, not to mention the last time anyone from my generation said “I want my MTV!” and meant it.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 11:30 am

    thank you for digging up all these treasures! i recalled all of them while watching, but hadn’t thought of them since I last say them!

    the Peter Lorre part reminds me those moments when i’d learn about certain films as an adult and think “oh, NOW I get that Simpsons joke….”

  2. October 12, 2010 12:06 pm

    I remember all of these without even viewing the vids! (and why not? They ran these around the clock for years!) And really the MTV Animation elements were clicking on all cylinders during that time, after Liquid Television was going on, and of course, that series spawned Beavis & Butthead (now about to get their reboot) which launched Daria… but also Aeon Flux came from the Liquid as well.

    Really, I think the bigger point these promos prove is that MTV lost its way when it gave up the animation elements of their network and hasn’t been the same since. Will B&B bring them back from the ruins?

  3. metermouse permalink
    October 12, 2010 1:41 pm

    These promos are so awesome to see! thanks for rounding them up! Whenever we bbq crab legs I’m all like “yeah… we got crab legs.. heh heh heh” but nobody ever gets it ): I remember all of these, just as I remember switching on to MTV after school to see a new debut video, and staying up late to watch 120 minutes, and AMP! I remember if you happened to tune in at a time when they were not playing music, it was something at least somewhat interesting or weird/offbeat like The Maxx or Aeon Flux, Liquid Television, Sifl and Olly (excluding Singled Out, and anything that had to do with Spring Break…).

    How lame is it that even as a youngster in 9th grade, having a deep hunger for music, I decided that MTV was just not worth watching anymore for music?!

    Do they even play music anymore…?

  4. October 12, 2010 3:49 pm

    The “disaster dolls” spot I remember. I always thought it was a chirpier take on the short films by the Brothers Quay. (Or those Tool videos.) Thanks for digging these up. I was past my MTV years by the mid-90s, so some of these I’ve never seen.

  5. evmaroon permalink
    October 12, 2010 4:15 pm

    Because I’m about 10 years older than you, I remember MTV first signing on the air. I was suddenly the popular kid in my neighborhood because we had cable. Videos were often poorly produced, so the promos didn’t stand out as worse, and then there were a whole slew that came out that were life-changing. Something as quaint-looking as “Safety Dance” or “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” was freaking riveting to us just-teenagers. Through college I had MTV on in the background when I got sick of playing one of my 12 CDs (Oh REM, I still love you). When MTV stopped being music television, I felt sad. It’s still a gap in popular culture that hasn’t been replaced by anything else very well.

  6. October 12, 2010 5:07 pm

    That was a white knuckle ride in the way back machine. Like Penpusher, even without watching the videos I vividly recalled those ads. That was back when I still watched MTV and they still played videos. though at the time I seem to recall not being able to escape Green Day.

  7. Andrea Mildred permalink
    October 12, 2010 6:35 pm

    Nice!!! Thanks for digging those up. I was just reminiscing with some people recently about watching the music video and social activism pieces of MTV slip through our fingers until all that was left for videos was “120 minutes,” which aired at midnight and only featured white guys, i mean alternative music.

  8. Mary Alice permalink
    October 12, 2010 8:58 pm

    Anyone like Donal Logue’s Jimmy the taxi driver?

  9. Kawika permalink
    October 12, 2010 10:28 pm

    Wow, its been a long time, thanks. I was staying in a hotel this weekend and while I was getting ready for an event I thought, “I need music.” Flipping through the channel on the TV my first thought was MTV. Needless to say all I found there was Jersey Shore and NO Gaga. I want my MTV!

  10. October 13, 2010 5:36 am

    One of my favorite ones was the Peter Lorre spot, because at the time I found it compelling and just a bit creepy. Thanks to YouTube, I just learned it was based on the classic 1932 film M. How interesting that MTV, a channel famously obsessed with youth, once used a decades-old foreign-language movie in its promo spots.

    I’m sure like all youth vectored movements they assumed they “created” it and didn’t realize until someone pointed it out to them it was based on an classic film. M is a really cool flick!!!

  11. October 13, 2010 8:57 am

    I’m glad everyone enjoyed revisiting these spots. It’s amazing to me how by watching them I’m instantly taken back to that point in time, both MTV-wise and teen-wise.

    @Kawika Like you, I also stayed in a hotel last week for event, and watched MTV during down time, but instead of Jersey Shore, all I say was the Teen Mom marathon. That’s what helped inspired this post. (I got sucked into the show despite myself though.)

    @Penpusher I completely agree with you about MTV animation. Watching MTV in its current state, its unbelievable that the network once aired Liquid Television or even Beavis and Butthead and Daria.

    @evmaroon Like you, I was a major REM fan back in my college days. Probably listened to the same 12 CDs as you did back in the day!

  12. October 13, 2010 9:07 am

    I guess this will show my age, but here’s the promo that I always think of when I think about eMpTyV:

    I always got the impression that they created opportunities for a lot of young animators, and as an former amateur animator that made me very happy.

  13. October 13, 2010 10:10 am

    This makes me quite grateful that I was a young thing at the time in history when I was (early 90s), when things were still quirky and odd and not all plastic tabloid emptiness.

    How are young people these days ever going to feel nostalgia for their youth? 🙂

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