How ‘MTV Cribs’ rewired my brain, and maybe yours too
By Talmon Joseph Smith
What would you do if you got really rich?
Perhaps you’ve had a series of whimsical, wishful, naive conversations centered around this question. I grew up having a bunch of them: at pool parties and sleepovers, at recess and in the back seats of Chevy Suburbans on the way home. Then, lazily but dreamily, in study halls with high school friends. And after that, a bit nervously, with other underclassmen at the start of college, when the arc of life’s prospects begin to get more real.
There was a time among my cohort of ’90s babies when little of our energy was spent imagining vast riches. But then — at least in my middle-class corner of the American South — everybody started watching “MTV Cribs.”
“Cribs,” a documentary-style reality television program in which tours of celebrities’ homes are given by the stars themselves, premiered in September 2000, when neither Instagram, the Room Rater account on Twitter nor iPhones existed, when the music business was flush and ’NSync had recently sold 2.4 million CDs in a single week.
It must be said: The show was incredibly comfy to watch, and the vast majority of architecture and design on display was, by contemporary standards, incredibly bad. The clashing themes, the bedrooms with multicolored carpeted floors and Roman columns in random places. The oddly placed game rooms and monogrammed foyers, each one seemingly larger than the last. The garish dining areas decked out with fish tanks or ornaments like a fainting bed near the kitchen island — an actual scene from a famous Mariah Carey episode.
Seen with the binoculars of 2020 many of the cribs on “Cribs” may appear tacky, even emetic, to the sleek, refined minimalists — such as Marie Kondo, Kyle Chayka and Joshua Becker — who’ve proliferated in recent years. But so what?
For viewers and the stars featured on the show, wealth, especially when it’s newfound, is not about calculating then acquiring a set of signifiers — subtle or diligently visible — that aligns you with old money or the palates of the young college grads gentrifying your city. Wealth is instead a means of getting to have all the things and all the fun you have ever wanted but couldn’t yet attain.
In Mariah Carey’s tour of her reported 11,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, 5 1/2-bath, multi-walk-in-closeted tri-level penthouse in Tribeca in 2002, she opens the door to us, dressed to a tee, her hair music video flawless, and informs us coolly, “It’s an art deco apartment.” And that she loves the glazed orange walls simply because “they look like candy.”
She shows off a copy of “Architectural Digest” that features her apartment: “I didn’t grow up in a house that belonged in ‘Architectural Digest,’ trust me,” she says. Then, peeling back the diaphanous curtains of the nearest window, she reveals a lush northward outlook of the city at night, the Empire State Building gleaming.
“When I was little I always wanted a penthouse apartment in New York with a view like this. Took me quite a while because all the co-op boards kept telling me no,” she said, sarcastically dragging out the “no” with an affected posh tone. “Now it doesn’t matter because I got my own, hm-hm!”
On Cribs there is, blessedly, little talk of vintage armoires passed down or bought at auction. No chin-stroking about whether a property is actually a bit more Edwardian than Victorian.
Watching as kids, there was an unvarnished symmetry to what we would put in our big homes if we got rich and what these celebrities, who actually got rich, put in theirs. Watching now, in the midst of this decade’s suffocatingly granular obsession over cultivated looks — and its public policing of taste — the early to mid-2000s world of “Cribs” is an aspirational, if sometimes funny, breath of fresh air.
Just beyond the giddiness of getting a peek at the nouveau riche, though, was an insidious implanting of rudderless, capitalist instincts deep into our still-forming brains. I’d like to think that I watched “Cribs” with my siblings and friends solely as comfort food to be consumed, digested, then mentally excreted.
In hindsight, however, it probably affected the neural circuits in our brains that regulate motivation. When not awe-inspiring, the show was still inspiring in a simpler sense: If you didn’t want a crib like that (and there were plenty of eccentricities to not like), you definitely wanted the money to be able to own a crib like that.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation. But having never harvested thoughts about extraordinary wealth, after years of watching “Cribs,” “I’m gonna be rich when I grow up” became — along with the rote mission of doing good — a central life goal of mine for a while. In that, I’m sure I’m not alone.
Even once I entered adulthood and had to get a normal job, having failed at becoming a pro athlete, the show’s lavishness still probably inflected my decision-making. Like when, at 22, I rejected more stable employment in order to work at a glossy magazine, making little money but rubbing up against fame, wealth, art, excess and open bars as a matter of course.
Naturally, “Cribs” wasn’t alone in manufacturing what’s now called clout chasing. The decade it belonged to was flush with wealth worship, class striving and conspicuous consumption. MTV’s “Pimp My Ride”; VH1’s “The Fabulous Life of … ”; ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”; and NBC’s “The Apprentice,” hosted by Donald Trump, are all indelible.
But soon enough, the people watching experienced the lies a corporate-sold American dream can spin when the housing bubble — built on fraud, debt, earnest ambition and “Cribs”-like McMansion dreams — burst.
The jig seemed to be up for “Cribs” as well when the market crashed in 2008. The show went into syndication that fall (though it has had smaller reboots since).
In time, we discovered the details of the show’s deceit. There are now listicles scouring the rampant rags-to-riches humbug that was under our noses all those years, like “12 Celebrities Who Totally Lied About Their Homes On MTV’s ‘Cribs’” and a definitive list from BuzzFeed, “‘MTV Cribs’ Was Pretty Much Fake And Here Are The Receipts To Prove It.”
I rewatched “Cribs” this summer, half-quarantined in my Brooklyn apartment, mostly as an escape. The hope was to distract myself from the coronavirus deaths and economic woes that I cover on a daily basis by revisiting the come-ups of celebrities who feel on top of the world.
My favorite episode features Aaron Carter, the child pop star and younger brother of Nick Carter from Backstreet Boys. Wearing cargo shorts and a white graphic T-shirt adorned with Tupac’s face, he jauntily welcomes us to his family’s gargantuan 17-acre compound in the Florida Keys.
Recently, I made the mistake of Googling Aaron Carter, now 32, to see what he’s up to these days. I found that, like many child stars, he’s been in and out of rehab — struggling with addiction and money problems. In September, his brother Nick Carter filed a restraining order against him.
I almost went down the sadly substantial online rabbit hole about Aaron Carter’s struggles but stopped myself and flicked back to the “Cribs” clip of him, when there was still a boyish tilt to the cap hanging off his head and so many less serious thoughts in mine.
It’s better this way.