MTV turns 30 on Monday. To celebrate, we’re running a bunch of pieces on the channel, its legacy, and its future.
You may have heard by now that Beavis and Butt-Head are returning to MTV—a real comeback after years of cruel teasing rumors, none of them particularly believable. Mike Judge announced the show’s comeback at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, and MTV released the above clip of new footage in tandem with the announcement.
In a lot of ways, that clip seems like it could have come straight from Beavis and Butt-Head‘s ’90s heyday: bloody mayhem, charming stupidity, Cornholio. But it also came with one crucial difference. When it came time for the duo’s much-beloved mocking of music videos, B&B started ripping into… Snooki and Jersey Shore.
It’s actually a really canny move. At a time when the channel’s cultural pull was great enough that people actually bothered to critique it, Beavis and Butt-Head were always among the most astute (no, really) critics of ’90s MTV and ’90s pop culture in general. If you’re going to go after the inanity of 21st-century MTV, Snooki is the big, orange, obvious target. But the shift from mocking musicians of varying degrees of talent to mocking talentless reality TV trainwrecks also says plenty about the vastly different cultural context 14 years after the show first went off the air.
Despite the complaints of nostalgia-addled kvetchers like yours truly, MTV still does play videos. Sure, not with the kind of frequency they did during Beavis and Butt-Head‘s heyday, but you can still find them if you get up early enough. Still it’s kind of undeniable that music’s general impact on pop culture has decreased in the last decade, and not just at MTV. It’s arguable that Snooki is more recognizable to a wider swath of MTV’s current audience than all but the biggest pop acts at the moment. As a marketing strategy, at least, the shift to reality-TV skewering makes perfect sense.
Not that B&B stuck to mocking the biggest hits of the ’90s, but it’s hard to imagine these two doofuses attacking Best Coast or Wavves videos because you have to search them out. (It’s hard to imagine B&B even knowing how to use YouTube.) The whole point of Beavis and Butt-Head‘s video crit, aside from the hilarity, is that they were the much-derided stereotypical passive MTV viewers absorbing whatever the channel threw at them. In the ’90s you were as likely to happen on a Blues Explosion video as you were to see “End of the Road” a zillion times in 24 hours. In 2011, Beavis and Butt-Head sucking up endless hours of reality TV is realistic in a way that zinging the Arcade Fire probably isn’t.
You also get the sense that Judge has been let off the leash a little more in 2011 simply because MTV itself has gotten way more permissive about what it shows during daylight hours. In many ways, B&B were pioneers here. After all, this was a show eventually forbidden to use Beavis’s favorite word, “fire,” after some nudnik mother blamed her kid’s pyromania on a cartoon aimed at teenagers. Judge then memorably satirized MTV’s own attempts at censorship in the infamous Spike Jones man-on-fire clip for Wax above, where Beavis sounds pre-orgasmic for two minutes and yet never slips the offending word.
In the first 30 seconds of the new clip, Butt-Head drives a power drill right through Beavis’ hand. (No word yet on whether or not “fire” has been allowed back into Beavis’ lexicon.) The Jersey Shore-bashing is also a little nastier, though just a little, because it’s not as if two dudes who talked about what they’d do to themselves if they were Madonna were ever models of propriety. That also makes sense since blowjob chat on hypersexed MTV shows like Skins and The Hard Times of RJ Berger barely rates a raised eyebrow today, whereas hearing a cartoon Metallica fan talk about his masturbation habits was once kinda out there. (Take my word for it if you’re under 25.) It’s hard to say whether or not this will tip B&B’s basically clueless horndog take on women into outright misogyny, but I’d like to hope Judge has better sense and taste than that. Butt-Head was always the world’s most clueless wannabe lothario, but Beavis was weirdly one of the sweetest people you’d find on MTV back in the day.
None of that means that I think the property should have stayed in MTV’s mothballs. I admit I didn’t laugh as hard as I might like at the story bits, but I was cackling by the time they got to the Snooki stuff. And Judge has said that B&B will continue to mock new videos along with the reality-TV stuff and other bits of pop cultural effluvia. It’s just hard not to feel like B&B are a reminder of a time when music meant enough to MTV that the channel could devote part of a show to not only making fun of the excesses of music videos but celebrating them as well. Still, they’re back, and if that means we finally get Beavis and Butt-Head’s take on Lady Gaga, it’s hard not to say the world’s a lot better for it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 29, 2011