I Want My MTV: The golden age of the iconic music channel

A new book paints a vivid picture of the music video in its first flush of youth. But who would have predicted that the channel's future, at least in North America, lay in lifestyle programmes?
VJ Damien Fahey, left, and rapper Andre Benjamin, of Outkast, appear onstage during MTV's Total Request Live.
VJ Damien Fahey, left, and rapper Andre Benjamin, of Outkast, appear onstage during MTV's Total Request Live.

It was, by all accounts, a terrible plan. A channel devoted exclusively to showing a type of short film that hardly yet existed? A channel whose attraction to advertisers was limited by the youth of its audience and their associated lack of spending power? A channel whose programming would be cadged and cajoled from multinational corporations - for free? "MTV," an early ad read. "It sounds like an asinine idea." It was. It also revolutionised television, the music industry, and youth culture around the world, made a fleet of new stars, broke another fleet of old ones, and changed everything in its wake, from Hollywood filmmaking to presidential campaigns.

MTV officially closed the door on music videos in the US last year, preferring the reality and lifestyle programming to which they have devoted themselves (hello, Jersey Shore!), but the channel's growth into the most imitated and beloved television channel of its time came on the back of its devotion to music videos. MTV was not just selling videos, though; it was also selling itself. MTV defined youth culture for approximately a decade and a half, its dazzling style, snarky attitude, and liberal social outlook indelibly stamping American culture of the era.

Now, in the year of its 30th anniversary, veteran music journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum have assembled a wonderfully entertaining and enlightening history of the channel's first decade, and the stars it made. I Want My MTV is explicitly modelled on pop-culture oral histories such as Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's Live from New York and Legs McNeil's Please Kill Me, and hot on the heels of Shales and Miller's book on ESPN, Those Guys Have All the Fun.

It is a magnificently enjoyable read, a loving cacophony of musicians, MTV employees, record-label executives, music-video directors, producers, VJs, and assorted hangers-on, each with their own story to tell, and axe to grind. For anyone who spent teenage afternoons bathed in the warm glow of MTV, this is undoubtedly your book.

Contrary to how popular impression would have it, the music video did not begin with the Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star, the first clip shown on MTV in 1981. Nor did it start with Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, whose famous magnifying effect, the book tells us, came from director Bruce Gowers using gaffer tape to affix a prism onto the camera lens. The drive to capture musical performance on film is as old as the sound film itself. After all, The Jazz Singer, which broke the sound barrier in 1927, was itself a musical. Proto-music videos took a number of forms: the discrete musical sequences in films like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon; short films shown in theatres before features, with stars like Jimmie Rodgers; Soundies, which played on video jukeboxes in nightclubs and bars in the 1940s; Snader Telescriptions, which plugged the holes in American television programming in the late 1950s. By the 1970s, they were a relatively common affair in Britain and Australia, where bands often submitted videos to avoid having to return week after week to top-of-the-pops countdown shows.

At the same time, performers such as Devo, Captain Beefheart and David Bowie were experimenting with video as a new means of expression. Born out of the avant-garde film, and inspired by Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues, these musicians, and the directors they worked with, saw music videos as another tool for artistic expression - a moving, singing album cover, or a live show seen from the comfort of your living room. Michael Nesmith, formerly of the Monkees, was one of those inspired by videos, and he began to dream of a cable channel devoted to short films like his Rio.

MTV was born indirectly of Nesmith's passion, as well as a collaboration between Warner Communications, seeking to expand into the burgeoning cable-TV market, and American Express, which foresaw a future in selling financial products to consumers directly in their homes, via cable transmission. No annuities were ever bought or sold via television, but MTV was an immediate youth culture phenomenon as soon as it was introduced in 1981. "We were very much the Facebook of our time," says former executive John Sykes. "Every kid loved us, but the financial model wasn't quite working yet." Premiering in mostly rural areas, where cable was easier to lay, MTV found itself making stars of previously unknown bands. Artists with MTV airplay were suddenly selling out live shows, and with no radio exposure to speak of, their albums were flying off the shelves.

MTV was a starmaker, even as the record labels grudgingly entered into the business of making videos. American record sales expanded from $3.9 billion in 1981 to $7.8 billion a decade later. "Rarely has an industry benefited so well from an innovation it rejected," Marks and Tannenbaum archly note. MTV also grew rich from the accommodation they had originally made with the record labels, whereby content - new videos - would be delivered to them free of charge. "It was like the Indians selling Manhattan for $24 worth of beads," grumbled one veteran music executive. Musicians also were required to take a risky gamble, with an unknown payoff. "I was going in the hole millions because I had to deliver videos to promote my singles, and they weren't giving anything back," remembers Tom Petty. "They looked at it like airplay was your payment, but you weren't guaranteed that airplay."

MTV's starmaking capabilities were limited at the outset by the videos available to be screened. The channel showed videos by mostly British and Australian artists, because they were the only ones with videos to show. Duran Duran became the first MTV-generated superstars because their glitzy, lush, effortlessly sexy videos offered precisely the image MTV was hoping to generate for itself. The virus spread. "It had glamour, it had polish ... it had good-looking boys, girls sliding on poles," said the director Kevin Godley of his video for Duran Duran's Girls on Film. "In hindsight, it had the ingredients that became MTV-able. If it was influential, I'm sorry. I can only apologise."

It was influential - enormously so - and MTV became a channel devoted to selling a lifestyle as much as anything else. "The job changed," the legendary producer Rick Rubin said of making music in the era of MTV. "It became a job of controlling your image." As Marks and Tannenbaum scrupulously describe, artists with any hesitation about their looks, or about the power of the music video to sculpt careers, were left behind, replaced by a new, MTV-savvy fleet of superstars. MTV was little more than a disaster for major performers such as Bob Seger who were uncomfortable with their looks; like the advent of sound in film had spelled the end for actors with poor speaking voices, the arrival of MTV often meant an untimely conclusion to the careers of those musicians with faces made for radio.

In their place came artists such as Madonna, U2, and Guns N' Roses, who understood the power of video to burnish reputations, to create mythologies, and to reach enormous audiences with unparalleled ease. Music videos became the arena where larger-than-life performers exchanged one persona for another, treating stardom as a series of masks to be donned and abandoned at will. The channel would soon expand worldwide, opening numerous outposts in Europe and Asia, and eventually launching MTV Middle East (formerly known as MTV Arabia) in 2007.

I Want My MTV is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the music video in its first flush of youth, offering a panoply of juicy stories, behind-the-scenes access, and ample self-critique. Drugs are ingested in quantities so massive that readers will consider a round of pre-emptive rehab, and sexism is astonishingly rampant, both in the corporate offices and on the sets: "Why did I put the girls in a cage?" director David Mallet rhetorically asks himself of one shoot. "Girls belong in cages, come on."

Racism is evident too: acclaimed director Don Letts had an interview summarily cancelled by MTV when he arrived in their studio and they discovered that the man behind The Clash's Rock the Casbah was British and black.

Their names may have been unknown to the overwhelming majority of MTV viewers, and they were rarely thanked at the Video Music Awards, but the music video was a director's form. "Video directors were the new rock stars," said the director Lol Creme. The music video was a heretofore unknown hybrid of the feature film and the advertisement, but ultimately it adhered to the formalities of neither parent. "Some video directors made little versions of movies," observed Creme's directing partner, Kevin Godley. "I never felt that worked; it's not an ideal medium for telling a story. We saw it as something that existed outside cinema, with its own set of unknown rules. You don't have to tell a story. You don't have to abide by any rules at all."

For most directors, as for their predecessors on the Hollywood lots, the job was simple: make women look as beautiful as possible. This was true of MTV-created stars such as Madonna, as well as the "video vixens" in the background of videos, who provided the necessary eye-candy for the adolescent boys who provided the channel's core audience.

The MTV style - lightning-quick cuts, stylised lighting and framing and wall-to-wall music - became enormously and instantaneously influential. Films such as Top Gun quickly adopted the aesthetic, and music-video directors moved en masse to Hollywood. Today, both the most financially successful filmmaker currently working in Hollywood, Michael Bay, and the most critically acclaimed young filmmaker, David Fincher, are music-video alumni. Music videos were also commercials - for a band, for a lifestyle - and their attitude and technique were ransacked in turn by advertisements, which sought to capture something of the music video's sensuality and energy. Videos were gorgeous and occasionally nonsensical, and the rocket-powered triumph of style over substance became the default mode of Hollywood from the 1980s forward. If MTV style no longer feels as ubiquitous as it once was, it is because its lessons have been thoroughly imbibed by practically every filmmaker under the age of 50 working today.

MTV originally conceived of itself as a rock radio station with pictures. Soon, African-American musicians such as Rick James, and their record labels, began to tag MTV for its perceived racism, which was only exacerbated by the channel's perverse unwillingness to play videos by the most popular artist of the early 1980s: Michael Jackson. "MTV would always say, 'Well, it doesn't quite fit our format,' remembers one executive at Jackson's label. "They'd use every euphemism for 'He's black!' It was really sick stuff." Eventually, MTV caved, and Jackson became the most popular artist ever on the channel.

Michael Jackson saved MTV from irrelevance, and also played a notable part in the channel's growing stealth political influence. When it comes to politics, MTV is best known for discrete but memorable moments: Bill Clinton discussing boxers versus briefs during the 1992 presidential campaign, or the Rock the Vote campaign to mobilise young voters. More significant than either, though, has been MTV's casual embrace of racial and sexual diversity. Heavy-metal videos were placed next to hip-hop videos next to grunge videos next to R&B videos, with no distinction made between Soundgarden, Dr Dre, and Mariah Carey. MTV made diversity hip.

Its programming helped to create the permanent-shuffle musical world we now all reside in, and reflexively associate with the introduction of the iPod. The channel also embraced an open-minded approach to gender, with the most famous example being the presence of an HIV-positive gay man, Pedro Zamora, on the third season of its groundbreaking reality series The Real World.

The only major misstep made by I Want My MTV is its unceremonious conclusion in 1992. One more than sympathises with Marks and Tannenbaum, for whom the job of researching MTV's first decade must have been crushingly vast, but their arguments for drawing the story to a close with the emergence of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and the debut of The Real World, are flimsy ones. "For us, 1992 marks the end of MTV's golden era, which was brought to a close by a series of unrelated factors. Video budgets rose steeply, leading to wasteful displays; digital editing arrived, making it a snap for directors to flit between shots and angles; all the good ideas had been done; record labels increasingly interfered in video decisions; many of the best directors moved on to film; Madonna made Body of Evidence."

All joking about Madonna's filmography aside, MTV's central role in pop culture had hardly expired in 1992, nor had the music video run its course. Marks and Tannenbaum argue that "offering MTV to a kid in 1993 was like offering a board game to a kid in 1981", but they have jumped the gun by a good half-decade - a five-year period that happens to coincide with the richest flowering of the music video as an artform. The period 1993-1998 coincided with the heyday of video directors Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, and Jonathan Glazer - five of the greatest directors (or directing teams) to ever grace MTV, and all of them now graduated to notable success on the big screen.

By leaving off in the early 1990s, I Want My MTV misses out on two essential twists to the story of the music video. Directors such as Jonze and Gondry are only mentioned in passing here, and their rise is dismissed as part of a shift in priorities, from the music to the medium: "Novice directors increasingly saw videos as a way to showcase their own talents, rather than the band; music video had become an internship for Hollywood employment. In December 1992, MTV began listing director's names in big, bold credits. Videos had been ads for a song, a band, a way of living and dressing. Now that their names were credited at the beginning and end of each video, directors were also making ads for an additional product: themselves." That is precisely what happened, but rather than see it as a calamity for the artform, suffocated in its cradle, it is clear that classic videos like Jonze's Sabotage (for the Beastie Boys) and Praise You (Fatboy Slim), Gondry's Everlong (Foo Fighters), and Romanek's Closer (Nine Inch Nails) were the rejuvenation of a genre temporarily knocked sideways by the misogynist frenzy of the hair metal video.

The second, and more significant, is MTV's eventual abandonment of the music video. The groundwork for this move had been laid decades before, when market research indicated that a half-hour of scheduled programming - any programming - would regularly beat 30 minutes of videos in the ratings.

MTV began slowly, rolling out game shows such as Remote Control and fashion programmes such as House of Style that offered at least a tenuous musical link. But with the introduction of The Real World in 1992, the sluice gates opened, and the tidal wave of reality was loosed - not only on MTV, which would soon introduce the likes of Singled Out, Road Rules, and yes, Jersey Shore, but across television as a whole.

"That's really when MTV ended," says Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes of The Real World. With the buzz generated by its reality programming, MTV realised it had outgrown videos, and slowly began to jettison them from its schedule. Journalists penned obituaries for the video, and it was widely assumed that once MTV was no longer interested in playing them, neither would anyone else. They were completely wrong. The music video, left for dead after MTV abandoned it in the late 1990s, reinvented itself in smaller, fitter, fleeter fashion for its new patron - the internet. Where once the music video had devoted itself to spectacle on the Hollywood model - ever-bigger budgets, ever-more-grandiose sights - it has now recreated itself in a fashion appropriate to the era of YouTube, with videos suitable to be watched on 13-inch computer screens, and of a kind to fit in with the barrage of hilarious, absurd and momentarily diverting videos that fill our inboxes and Facebook feeds daily.

It was no longer about the superstars, although JT, Beyoncé, and Jigga still dutifully made them. Videos were now stand-alone works of art, only loosely related to the songs they illustrated, or the bands they promoted. The spotlight had shifted from performer to video. With the arrival of a new wave of indie-rock performers, the music video ushered in a new golden era of artistry - albeit one that went unseen by the overwhelming majority of MTV's erstwhile audience.

The heyday of the multimillion-dollar music video epic - November Rain and Black or White - has come and gone. But the level of filmmaking talent in the music video is as high as ever, with talented young directors such as Chris Milk, Jonas Akerlund and Vincent Moon reinventing the form for the 21st century. With no guaranteed place in the cultural firmament, videos by mainstream artists must attract controversy in order to attract eyeballs; witness the recent, and instantly forgotten, tempests in teapots over purportedly shocking videos by Lady Gaga, MIA, and Erykah Badu.

But most music videos of note from the post-MTV era have grown more intimate, and more comfortable with their artistry, while simultaneously displaying an innate understanding of their new medium; just check out Moon's homespun Take Away Shows, or The Wilderness Downtown, Milk's Google Chrome-assisted, individually personalised video for Arcade Fire's We Used to Wait.

The music video did not begin with Bohemian Rhapsody, nor did it end when MTV broke off their relationship. "There are many ironies within the history of MTV," remarks the acclaimed music-video director Kevin Kerslake, "and that is one of them: the revolutionary fights the dictator, and ultimately becomes the dictator. It's just swapping chairs." Kerslake is referring to the ascendancy of Nirvana, and the overthrow of hair metal on MTV, but he might as well be referring to MTV itself.

The channel made its name as an insurgency attacking the stale clichés of television, before succumbing to the siren song of lifestyle programming and wall-to-wall reality shows. The music video, too, once the crown prince of television, has had to reinvent itself in a new medium with less money, less hoopla, and less attention from the culture at large. Consider the music video, then, the channel's spurned lover, reinvented and rejuvenated, with a new boy-toy on her arm. Remember when music videos used to be on TV? I Want My MTV is a rip-roaring, hilarious, and mostly spot-on tribute to the cable channel that changed pop culture. But let readers and critics view it as an obituary for the music video at their own peril.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes.

Published: September 30, 2011 04:00 AM


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