On Aug. 1, 1981 MTV aired its first music video and television was forever changed. Turns out that wouldn’t be the last time the upstart cable network-turned-media titan would change the TV game.
Below, we’ve gathered what we deem to be the most memorable moments in MTV’s 30 year history. Some are good (the raw talent Kurt Cobain and Nirvana unplugged captured on tape), some not so good (Interrupting Kanye) and others we still don’t know how to categorize (Snooki). And because we can’t think of everything (trust us, we’ve tried), we probably left out some important moments. Add them in the comments section below.
1. Boxers or Briefs? — In April 1994, one high school student had a burning question for President Bill Clinton. Luckily an MTV-organized forum facilitated an answer (“Usually briefs”). And we were just glad no one thought to do this when Ronald Reagan was in office.
2. Nirvana unplugged — In November 1993, Kurt Cobain, Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl (now a Fighter of Foo) proved they were more than just a grungy trio able to catchily combine power chords. Softer versions of their own songs, plus covers like David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” cemented them as virtuosos.
3. Thriller debut — Dec. 2, 1983 this John Landis-directed, Vincent Price guest-starring spectacle totally retooled the still young music video format. At the time, it cost a massive $500,000 to make and was worth every dollar — the song went on to become a monster hit for Michael Jackson.
4. Madonna and Britney Spears kiss — It was the kiss seen round the world. Madonna used her lips to pass the pop queen crown to the younger Spears at the 1995 VMAs. Turns out she should maybe have given it to Christina Aguilera — who was also on-stage and also did the whole girl-on-girl kiss thing.
5. “The Real World” — When it launched in 1992, we’d never seen anything like it. Cameras followed a group of young strangers thrown together in an MTV-funded New York loft and chronicled all of it in a tightly-edited show full of hook-ups, confessionals and more idiotic arguments than we care to remember. Twenty years later, the franchise is still going strong.
6. Pedro Zamora — And without “The Real World” we never would have met HIV-positive Pedro Zamora, who on 1994’s San Francisco incarnation of the show educated viewers about HIV/AIDS. He passed away shortly after the season finale.
7. Interrupting Kanye — It wasn’t the first time the guy had thrown a hissy fit at the VMAs, but it was the first time he interrupted someone else’s (Taylor Swift’s) acceptance speech to air his many grievances. We’re guessing it was the last, though.
8. “Is this chicken?” — It’s hard to believe it considering the astute businesswoman she’s become over the past few years, but there was once a time when Jessica Simpson showed off her ignorance on a weekly basis. The venue, “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica,” a show chronicling the misadventures of a young couple with too much money and far too much time on their hands.
9. “Yo! MTV Raps” — Remember when MTV introduced us to genre and made sure we were properly schooled? No? In that case, you must have missed out on “Yo! MTV Raps,” a two-hour weekly show hosted by DJ Dr. Dre (no, not that Dre) and Ed Lover.
10. “The Osbournes” — Just when we thought the whole reality TV thing was played out, MTV found a new way to reinvigorate the drama: resurrecting rock gods and letting us inside their home to watch them bicker and clean up dog droppings.
11. “Liquid Television” — Though hardly a ratings ace-in-the-hole, MTV used to take chances with things like, say, short-form indie animation. Without this show, which ran for three years in the early ’90s, we would have no “Beavis and Butt-head” (see below) and no “Aeon Flux.” And that’s just unthinkable.
12. “Beavis and Butt-head” — It’s still hard to believe this animated Mike Judge (“King of the Hill”) show ran for only four years because it’s star characters are so crucial to the pop culture lexicon they’re mounting a 2011 comeback.
13. “Jersey Shore” — With Snooki’s ascendence, the network again tweaked the reality TV formula, proving that nothing is in fact too crass to make good television. Season 4 launches Thursday (Aug. 4) and season 5 is taping now.