MTV has been around for about 33 years, and for Generation Xers who were there from the get-go, the channel is a huge part of their shared pop culture memory. Through the decades, MTV has gone through three distinct phases:
The Early Years: Before it became a pop culture monster, and subsisted on low-budget videos by new wave artists
The Bigger Than Jesus Years: When a song’s success totally depended on its video
The Shit Years: When they replaced music videos with reality television geared toward semi-retarded pre-teens
The first two phases basically cover from 1981 to the mid-1990s when the wheels came off, and the channel began to lose any resemblance to its original incarnation. No doubt, there’s plenty who enjoy MTV’s present state, so I won’t dwell on the negative. I could have easily made this a “5 Reasons MTV Is Crap” list, but we’ll focus on the positive instead. There was plenty to love about the channel’s first decade, and here are the top five.
1. THE “M’ STOOD FOR MUSIC
Ask any Gen Xer what their prime complaint about today’s MTV, and it will almost certainly be its lack of music videos. Indeed, MTV officially changed its name to reflect this fact and the “M” no longer stands for “Music”. But is this criticism really fair? One wonders how successful the network would be if they returned to their all music video format. Plus, they still do play videos (although, not near as frequently), and their ratings don’t approach the success of their mindless non-music offerings. There is a reason The Osbournes, The Tom Green Show, Beavis and Butthead and The Real World surpassed music videos…. the novelty had grown tired, and I suppose it was just a matter of time.
That being said, 24 hour music videos (at a time when people actually cared about videos), was a beautiful thing.
2. MUSICAL FRINGES EXPOSED
I still recall first turning on MTV and landing on a music video by The Members (“Working Girl”). Who the hell were The Members? To an American, the bands that passed across the screen in MTV’s first few years were absolutely unknown. We knew Styx and Cristopher Cross, but we NEVER heard these acts on the radio (unless you happened to live in Southern California and listened to KROQ). Video after video of bands like Haircut 100 (“Love Plus One”), XTC (“Senses Working Overtime”), Talking Heads (“Burning Down the House”), Psychedelic Furs (“Love My Way”), and Wall of Voodoo (“Mexican Radio”) who had never made it to Top 40 radio, suddenly found heavy rotation on the television.
Ultimately, the New Wave explosion edged out the hold-overs from the previous decade. Thus, bands like America (“You Can Do Magic”) and Steve Miller (“Abracadabra”) still had chart success, but appeared stale and antiquated alongside much flashier acts like Adam Ant and Duran Duran. Suddenly, bands like Madness, Gary Numan, Men At Work and Culture Club were able to provide a breath of fresh air to music in the States, and diversify the musical landscape – which is always a good thing.
I should also mention that as MTV’s videos became more mainstream as the channel’s success soared, there was still room for “the fringes” via programs such as “120 Minutes” and “Headbanger’s Ball”.
3. A FRESH NEW DIMENSION FOR MUSIC
Initially, the videos were woefully low-budget. Watch Tony Basil’s “Mickey” or “I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses and witness music videos done on the cheap. There was certainly a charm to them that big money videos are lacking. However, sometimes a little extra cash could let creativity run wild, and the visions of directors and recording artists could be fully realized – the high-water mark being Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
Who can argue that pop music wasn’t given a lift by this visual extension? From the weird (ex. Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey”) to the jubilant (ex. Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It”), it’s hard to deny that the visual medium was adding an exciting new dimension to music. True, the art of music videos can be traced back to the Beatles, but for whatever reason, this outlet finally struck a chord with the masses.
Of course, there are many who claim the video was a plague upon the music industry. Ugly and uncharismatic artists were jettisoned in favor of flashy types who looked good in front of a camera. Would Jim Croce or The Allman Brothers have had a place in this age of style over substance? There’s validity to this argument, but one wonders if musicians like that would have survived in the 80s regardless of MTV. The 80s were an entirely different animal than the 70s – the music video just accentuated the pathos; it didn’t create it.
4. VIDEOS GONE WILD
By and large, it wasn’t about creating high art – this was the 1980s after all, so it was about fun. Who can forget ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’” or Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher”? They weren’t exactly artistic milestones, but we loved their exuberance nonetheless. Indeed, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” looks pretty cheesy today, but its fun-loving exuberance was contagious and we lapped it up and begged for more. You might say the (arguably superficial) buoyant effervescence that so characterized the decade was nowhere better captured than on MTV.
5. MARTHA QUINN ET AL.
I don’t think many would argue with the fact that radio was made more interesting and enhanced by the disc jockey. Sure, they could be abrasive and had a tendency to talk over the parts of your favorite song, but there’s something lacking, something just not quite right, about a radio station that doesn’t utilize them. The same principle holds true for music television. Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn truly added something special to the network.
You’ll note I put Martha Quinn’s name in bold – that’s because she was the Perky Queen of the 80s and should be heralded as a goddess.
So, on that high note, I’ll stop there and on a low one with the lyrics from a Dead Kennedys song:
“You’ve turned rock and roll rebellion
Into Pat Boone sedation
Making sure nothing’s left to the imagination
MTV get off the air”
I wonder if Jello Biafra is happy now. The MTV that he was singing about most definitely has gone off the air.
Would you like to support Flashbak?
Please consider making a donation to our site. We don't want to rely on ads to bring you the best of visual culture. You can also support us by signing up to our Mailing List. And you can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For great art and culture delivered to your door, visit our shop.