I Had To Secretly Watch MTV As A Kid

The sad tale of a '90s childhood with overprotective parents. (And how it made me who I am today.)

I didn't think my parents were home, so when the door to my bedroom flung open, I was in a compromising position: I sat on the edge of the twin bed, mere inches away from my 10-inch tube television, watching...MTV.

I was in deep trouble.

I had weirdly protective parents. I was allowed to curse around the house...but I wasn't allowed to play middle school football. I could drive my car pretty much wherever I wanted...yet had to be home for a crazy early curfew. And when I got my own television as a birthday gift, I was forbidden to watch some of the channels. MTV was one of them.

It wasn't like they gave me a laundry list of channels I could and could not watch ("PBS: Allowed! Animal Planet: Disallowed!"); it was just known. Admittedly, most of the time I was in my room secretly trying to figure out how to carefully tune my 50-channel cable box to show unscrambled nudity. But when I wasn't, I was secretly watching MTV.


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I was absolutely obsessed with the MTV of that time. We're always obsessed with those forbidden fruits we aren't allowed, but the music video lineup of the early '90s was absolutely sick: Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Guns N' Roses and Metallica, and so many great rap acts (Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, 2Pac and Biggie, even Hammer was still 2 Legit).

Compared to my boring suburb, it was absolutely thrilling. Which I presume was why my parents didn't like me watching it. Anything thrilling to kids must be no good for them, right?

Most of this video watching occurred during that slim hour or two between the end of the school day and the time my parents got home from work. My good friend down the street was in a similar boat. "Nuthin But a 'G' Thang" was our favorite video of this era, and we could not watch it enough.

In fact, we loved Dre and Snoop's rap smash so much, we recorded it on a VHS tape so we could watch it whenever we wanted. Of course, we treated this tape like contraband, hiding it so our parents would never discover it. (I was too much of a coward, so my friend stored it under his bed.) Every day after school we'd pull it out and listen. "One, two, three and to the four..."


I also had a secret stash of "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" tapes and CDs. I was most proud to have secured a copy of Naughty by Nature’s epic "19 Naughty III" album. Unfortunately, I got too cavalier one day and my dad stumbled upon me right in the middle of rapping along to some incredibly profane lyrics. He immediately made me go return it to the record store; I can still feel the humiliation of walking into that Tower Records, receipt in hand.

My parents weren't religious fundamentalists or anything; they weren't even necessarily "wholesome." They just thought their tween son shouldn't be watching MTV all day long. They didn't care what "Teen Sprit" smelled like, or why "Jeremy" spoke in class, or whatever the hell "O.P.P." actually stood for. My mom wouldn't even let me get a "Beavis and Butt-Head" shirt in 8th grade. I wanted one so bad!

Sure, it does sound completely ridiculous; MTV is so ingrained in the culture by now, it's difficult to remember how intensely a generation of parents saw it as some kind of dangerous entity. And that's why, for my whole life, even now, MTV is so seductive as a channel to me. Not even a brief, terrible stint as a professional TV watcher got that out of my system.


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But, looking back, maybe Mom and Dad were actually right. Maybe an 11-year-old shouldn't have been idolizing grunge rockers and gangsta rappers. With so many bad parents out there in the world, maybe I should appreciate that my parents were actually involved in my life, that they actually cared about me enough to care about the dumb music videos I watched.

It’s impossible to know who I would've become if I had never secretly watched MTV and obsessed over all those Nirvana and Dr. Dre videos. What I do know is who I did in fact become: A mild-mannered adult, living on a quiet street in Brooklyn, with a career and a wife. (My friend whom I shared that VHS tape with? He become a locally prominent Republican politician, no less!)

So maybe popular entertainment doesn’t actually have the negative, long-term effects that my parents -- and my friends' parents, and probably your parents -- thought it did and would.

Still, if I have a kid any time soon, I probably wouldn't let him or her watch any Naughty by Nature videos. Even if I wish they would come out with some new ones!