We LISTEN to music, right?
We turned on the radio. We played singles, then albums, then 8-tracks and cassettes, eventually CDs. Now and then, we were treated to seeing our favorite artists perform on “American Bandstand,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Midnight Special,” “Soul Train.”
But on August 1, 1981, that all changed. Thanks to the latest thing: Cable TV. Suddenly, we could see and hear rock music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
We could watch MTV.
The notion that there would be an audience for music videos, sent out on some remote cable channel 24 hours a day, was ridiculed at first, just like other “narrowcasting” ideas of cooking channels, fishing channels, Christian channels, History channels, even 24-hour news channels. “Who will watch this all day and night?” was the question the businessmen asked.
As usual, many of them were clueless to the changing times. Bob Pittman, one of the executives who helped launch MTV, said, “Frankly, it sounded like an asinine idea.” MTV was an outlet for a product that barely existed; there were maybe 100 music videos in existence, mostly by unknown British and Australian bands, and the quality was generally abysmal. Who would care to watch this stuff?
Turns out, teenagers didn’t watch TV much, but they sure were eager to watch this. They were a great untapped audience, an invisible power. As my friend Holly put it, “We’d go to our friend’s basement and watch MTV all day long. It was on in the background, and we didn’t watch it continuously, but whenever a great song came on, we were mesmerized.”
Mike Nesmith, always the most intelligent and innovative of The Monkees, was among the first to recognize the wisdom of marrying music and video into a full-flung cable channel that offered 24/7 music videos. But it was a tough sell. “Back in 1979, we put together a pilot with a half-dozen clips — Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” and the like — introduced by comedians like Howie Mandel. And we were unable to sell it. The TV guys were resistant. They said, ‘Music doesn’t work on television. Never has, and never will.’ And up until then, they were right. But that was about to change, and in a big way.”
When The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” debuted as the first-ever video shown on MTV, it ushered in a new age, when songs would be introduced not only aurally, but visually as well. MTV started out pretty much offering films of bands performing their latest songs in a studio or concert setting. But within six months, maybe a year, every song that was released as a single had a dramatic, eye-catching accompanying video that MTV could play in their ever-changing rotation. Songs were no longer audio only. Now they had a visual component too.
At first, the only videos available were a weird brew of questionable stuff by the likes of Rod Stewart, Devo, Pat Benatar, Men at Work, Andrew Gold and others. And MTV played them in relentless rotation, because that’s all they had to show. But it didn’t take long for the record companies and their artists to catch on to this new marketing opportunity. “Hey, we need to shoot a video of our new song so they’ll play it on MTV!” they said. And the juggernaut was off and running.
When MTV first arrived, they realized they needed video jockeys — disc jockeys, but on TV. They needed to have stage presence, well beyond what DJs needed on the radio. And they needed to appeal to all facets of the potential audience. As executive John Lack put it at the time, “We need a black person, we need a girl next door, we need a little sexy siren, we need a boy next door, we need some hunky Italian-looking guy with curly hair.”
Martha Quinn, the youngest and perhaps most well known of the VJ stars of MTV’s early years, remembers the hiring process. “I was still involved with my high school boyfriend. That’s how young I was. I said, ”What’s a VJ?’ They said, ‘It’s like being a DJ, but on TV.’ I said, ‘What do I do while the records are playing?’ I was thinking it’s like ‘WKRP in Cincinnati.'”
For quite a while, MTV had scant viewership, and little credibility. But then, they went to Mick Jagger and got him to agree to go on air and say, with a tear running down his cheek, “I want my MTV.” And once they got Jagger, they got Bowie, and Pat Benatar and countless others, and suddenly, every cable provider in the country was being pressured into offering MTV in their basic cable packages.
MTV was a business, and like any business, they catered to their primary audience which, at first, was white suburban kids whose families could afford cable TV. So the artists MTV featured were almost exclusively white — New Wave, heavy metal, hard rock — but white. It was rather extraordinary, really. There were NO black artists on MTV in 1981-1982-1983, even though R&B and funk music were wildly popular at the time. And then came Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album, and, more specifically, “Beat It,” which was rock-oriented and featured the hard-rock guitar work of Eddie Van Halen. That opened the door.
“I loved watching MTV for the dance videos,” said Audrey, who was 19 when MTV first showed up. “We would tune in to see the newest ones everyone was talking about. They were like short musicals, and they held our attention.”
To be frank, I’ve never been a fan of the music video revolution, and here’s why: When I listen to a song, my imagination takes over, and I go to another place where the lyrics and music take me. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for example: “Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields, nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about…” I don’t need, nor want, some director, some film person, to give me their idea of what that might look like. I wanted to conjure up that image on my own.
Some bands who didn’t really have all that much to offer still became big because they were fun to look at — artists like A Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, Billy Idol and Culture Club. As producer Rick Rubin put it, “In some ways, MTV hurt music, in that it changed what was expected of an artist. You started to see artists break who were stronger visually than they were musically.”
My friend Sean, who was 15 when MTV debuted, said, “I loved the diversity and randomness of it. You never knew what you would see or hear next. I remember hanging in with music I didn’t really like, not only because something I did like might come on next, but because I was absorbing all the creative imagery. And there’s no question that MTV’s influence was massive. Bands like Men Without Hats were suddenly selling CDs in places like Iowa, where the radio stations were never playing them.”
Metal bands like Motley Crue took the ball and ran with it in a different way, using women in a slutty, demeaning manner that turned on some people but alienated many others. “The videos were poppy, and silly, and we got a kick out of them,” said Holly. “But then they got sexist and kind of gross, and we were turned off by that side of it.”
The british band Dire Straits went so far as to use guest vocalist Sting singing the ad tag line “I want my MTV” in its #1 single, “Money for Nothing.” The song’s lyrics daringly featured two working class stiffs sitting in a pub watching MTV and grudgingly referring to the rock musician this way: “That little faggot is a millionaire.”
By 1984, the budget for videos went from $50,000 to well over $500,000, and eventually, $1 million. Everyone wanted to emulate Jackson’s “Thriller,” even if their work didn’t deserve that kind of expenditure. No one wanted to watch four guys singing into microphones anymore. There had to be a grand concept, with half-naked women, flamboyant fashion, artsy lighting, or serious choreography, or all of the above. The music was almost an afterthought.
Some artists saw the potential and went wild with it, most notably those that could include elements of dance and fashion to their presentation, like Jackson, Madonna and Prince. They all freely admit that their mid ’80s superstardom owed a great deal to their omnipresence on MTV during those years. Indeed, the debut of the 13-minute video for “Thriller” in 1983 attracted MTV’s widest audience.
Eventually, up-and-coming film directors saw MTV as a potential entree and resume builder. Oscar-winning directors like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme saw the value in doing high-quality music videos for top name bands like the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads in order to boost their reputation in rock music circles.
“The videos gained the artists followers as much for what they were wearing as what they were singing,” said Chris, a music industry insider from Cleveland. “The videos gave life to some of the songs well beyond the meanings of the words.”
Artists that would’ve otherwise been ignored were suddenly a big deal, thanks to their video exposure on MTV. Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and Men at Work’s “Down Under” gave those bands the kind of attention agents would kill for.
Sure, sometimes the videos were wildly imaginative, well beyond whatever feeble effort our own minds could come up with. Witness these award-winners: “Sledgehammer,” Peter Gabriel, 1986; “Take On Me,” a-ha, 1985; “Like a Prayer,” Madonna, 1989; “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Cyndi Lauper, 1984; “You Might Think,” The Cars, 1984; “Rhythm Nation,” Janet Jackson, 1989; “Addicted to Love,” Robert Palmer, 1987; “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Duran Duran, 1983; “When Doves Cry,” Prince, 1984.
After four years on the air, MTV diversified, and came up with additional spinoff options like VH-1, which aimed toward an older demographic that enjoyed classic rock bands and vintage footage from “Ed Sullivan” and films like “Woodstock” and “Monterey Pop.” This not only attracted another older audience but allowed MTV to become even more targeted toward current, younger bands. As Holly explains, “Once VH-1 appeared, I probably never watched MTV again.”
By the 1990s, even the MTV suits knew the bloom was off the rose. They watched other cable channels enjoying huge profits from airing original programming, and decided they too should start reaching out to their demographic with something other than music videos. “We knew we needed to move on, even if it alienated many of our core audience who had come to expect music videos all day and all night,” said Amy Finnerty, an MTV exec. “We came up with a teen soap concept — ‘TheReal World’ — and the numbers were through the roof.” It started slowly, but within two or three years, Music TeleVision no longer showed music videos, except for maybe an hour a week at a predetermined time.
By then, there were other ways to see music videos, and by the mid-’90s, the Internet was in full bloom, with YouTube and other avenues for viewing music.
Today, many TV shows and most commercials use rock music and the quick-edit stylings that MTV pioneered in the early ’80s. It’s not necessarily the best thing that ever happened to television, but it sure has had a major impact.