'I Want My MTV' Chronicles the Wild and Crazy Rise of Music Television
In their new book, out this week, veteran music journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum assemble an eclectic cast of characters to tell the story of MTV's influential first decade.
The arrival of MTV in 1981 was nothing short of revolutionary as the 24-hour music channel, a first for its time, promptly ushered in the creative golden age of videos. But what came next was even more extraordinary as the 1980s gave way to big hair, whacked out fashions and unbridled excess (particularly in the music industry), with many of the cues emerging from the network that would change the pop culture landscape forever.
No wonder it took veteran music journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, authors of I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolution (Dutton; out this week), 594 pages to tell a decade's worth of MTV tales, recounted oral history-style a la the popular ESPN tome Those Guys Have All The Fun, which topped bestseller lists earlier this year.
The writers certainly did their homework, chronicling the wild and crazy ride of the network in the words of its own eclectic cast of characters, albeit stopping way short -- 1992 -- of explaining the channel's transformation to reality TV brain suck. Still, there is plenty to sink your teeth into with this book, which is more anecdotal than analytical and makes for an easy read even in spurts. Here, 5 things worth remembering about the MTV of yesteryear.
1. Back in 1981, no one had any concept of "music video." When Bob Pittman, Tom Freston, and John Lack were hatching plans for the new network, the notion that a promotional clip of a song could be aired and possibly turn into a record sale was completely unheard of. I Want My MTV serves up a reminder of how influential MTV was. Not since the big three of ABC, CBS, and NBC were established in the 1950s had a network done more to shape the look and feel of pop culture. Sure, Elvis had starred in movies and the Monkees and the Partridge Family were hit TV shows, but before MTV, music and Hollywood were two separate industries.
2. There was a time when the “M” in MTV really stood for music. The channel barely plays music videos anymore but 30 years ago, it was the go-to destination for every great act looking to score a hit -- from Duran Duran, who introduced the first racy video with their uncensored "Girls On Film," to Madonna, Aerosmith, Tone Loc, and hundreds more. Many make an appearance in these pages where they recall how videos quickly became the most interesting creative medium of the 1980s. And wouldn't you know -- recalling the stinkers is as much fun as remembering the hits. Among the authors’ favorite bad videos: Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hit "Dancing in the Dark," starring Courteney Cox, Prince’s "Raspberry Beret" (1985), and the Pixies’ "Velouria" (1990).
3. Drug-fueled productions were the order of the day. Chapter 24 of I Want My MTV is titled “Gacked to Tits: Twenty-four stories about drugs.” Among the selection is story No. 13, recalled by Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates: "I’m sure the cameramen were doing blow. That’s pretty much the 80s. The artists were high, but not as high as the crew.”
4. While teeming with hip-hop visuals of sexy video vixens, fly cars and Benjamins in its later years, MTV was at first slow to embrace other races. As tempting as it is to idolize the channel's meager beginnings and undeniable influence, one can't ignore the fact that the network played so few videos by black artists in its nascent days that Rick James publicly complained. MTV executives claimed it was because of a lack of supply, and soon enough, Michael Jackson's Thriller solved that problem, as he became the first African-American superstar on MTV. Still, the channel hesitated to play rap and was surprised when Yo! MTV Raps became a hit. The issue wasn't so much about racism, however, as it was about MTV’s narrow Top 40 vision for its playlists. The channel was slow to get behind grunge and hair metal as well.
5. The Real World's premiere spelled the beginning of the end for music television. Although the book only covers MTV’s first decade, it's interesting to note that in 1992, as Nirvana's Nevermind was exploding and grunge was taking over radio, came the debut of the Real World, a pioneering program in the reality television format familiar to just about anyone with a TV set. The MTV of today, dominated by franchises like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom, is an entirely different animal compared to the scrappy music channel that debuted in 1981, which Snooki herself probably wouldn't have watched.
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