FEATURE: ‘Generation MTV’: Revisiting a Time When the Iconic Music Channel Ruled the World



‘Generation MTV’


IMAGE CREDIT: Crush Creative/Behance

Revisiting a Time When the Iconic Music Channel Ruled the World


I promise this will be the last of my pieces…


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

that take a very long, hard look at music’s past. It seems illogical that in the ultra-modern, fast-and-frantic arena of modern life there is not at least one music channel. That is unfair because we still have MTV and VH1! I will mention them but I am thinking about the way we digest music and how life gets away from us. There are so many shows across the board and channels coming out of our backsides. We have YouTube and websites that offer video content; there are countless T.V. channels and you can get anything you want with the touch of a button! It is all impressive and means the average consumer is spoilt for choice – one can get abreast of all the latest music happenings and news. I have been thinking about the way we consume and how gigantic the market has become. Music is growing all the time so it is only right T.V. and the Internet should catch up – to ensure all the data and visuals get to our eager eyes. MTV still exists, as I said, but it is a station that has a different role. Nowadays, there are music videos played on it but they do a lot of original programming. It seems like the majority of their content is some form of reality (T.V.) show – with a tenuous musical foundation.


IN THIS PHOTO: A promotional shot from the MTV show, Ex on the Beach/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

You can, if inclined, watch a show about Hip-Hop lovers and spurned girlfriends; U.S. upcoming artists and their interesting/highly staged lives. We have entered a time when ‘reality’ takes the form of scripted domestic dramas masquerading as real-life events. VH1 does the same and it seems like the words ‘music T.V.’ are fungible. It need only have a vague concept of music to qualify for a spot on the channel. The stations do have time for new music but it is galling seeing so many shows – not revolving around musicians and albums – taking so much time up. Maybe music has changed so much the nature of demand means sound has overtaken vision. We can get the latest videos on YouTube - so there is not a great need to see them on the T.V. I guess that is the consequence of an age that has fostered so much technology and machinery: we do not rely on more conventional options for our content anymore. I know MTV still holds a valuable place in music but, as other services have usurped its position; it is worth remembering a time when the station was the pinnacle of the music industry. It was in everyone’s homes - artists made videos just so they could get on the station. It was a huge time - and one that leads me to the start...

MTV was launched in 1981 and arrived at a time when stars like Michael Jackson were looking for an outlet. He is someone I will return to but, as the decade was starting to heat up; this exciting and new station arrived. It was, essentially, video jockeys launching the latest video – they would lead us into a track and then, like magic, the biggest video from our favourite artists. Nothing as youth-orientating and cutting edge had come into the world to that point. The station helped launch the career of artists like Guns N’ Roses and Michael Jackson. Jackson, in fact, caused controversy simply by being himself. The notion of putting a black artist on a popular channel seemed like a mistake waiting to happen. If it were to happen at this time there would be an outcry and the station would be in serious trouble – it was not seen as a huge deal by the public in the early-1980s. The only reason Jackson became a fixture on the station was the success of videos like Billie Jean. The iconic video resonated and got into the minds of the population. After such resistance and racism: the public reacted and, before long, that led to the inclusion of the fourteen-minute video for Thriller. Jackson helped open the door for black artists like Lionel Richie – acts who would have struggled to get their videos featured simply because of their skin colour. The first video on MTV was The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star and, in 1981, the idea of a music video was a strange thing.

Rock bands and idols were given a platform to put their music on. Bryan Adams, Blondie and Prince were featured; The Police, The Cars and Duran Duran were stars of the 1980s airtime. MTV was a place where classic Rock acts and newcomers could mingle alongside one another. The fact videos could get to the masses meant artists were taking risks. Michael Jackson’s choreographed promotional meant acts like Madonna and Kate Bush became more daring in their videos – the latter’s video for Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God) features a beautifully sumptuous and fantastic dance between Kate Bush and a male dancer. The fact artists of colour (color) had to struggle to get screen-time before 1983 – when the barriers were truly down – was a mixture of prejudice and the original notion for MTV: a Rock channel that was going to play the best bands around (who were mostly white artists). The early days were fraught and exciting but the 1980s beginnings did create landmarks. A safe-sex campaign was launched in 1985 and the rising AIDS epidemic meant a mainstream station took action to connect with its young audience – prompting them to use contraceptives and be aware of the dangers. Something like that would be radical in 2018: the fact a national campaign ran on a popular music T.V. channel was a huge move.

It was not until the 1990s when the channel began to really forge into the consciousness... Public figures like Bill Clinton became fixtures – helping him become President of the U.S.A. – so the station gained a huge sense of purpose and power. MTV also featured – in the 1980s – its annual Spring Break shows (starting in 1986) and broadcast feed from Live Aid in 1985. It was a multi-discipline station that was engaging in popular culture but did so with a serious bent. The station kept abreast with every wave and trend in music. By the early-1990s; a combination of Pop-friendly and Hard-Rock acts were featured: Michael Jackson, 2 Unlimited and New Kids on the Block could often be seen in the same segment. Rappers like Tupac and Snoop Dogg were given exposure and it meant genres like Hip-Hop and Rap could get to the masses. It was exciting seeing the full spectrum of 1990s music get airing on MTV. If anything; music television is more compartmentalised and segregated than it was in the 1990s. The station was all about putting quality videos up: there was not the viewpoint artists did not fit in; that it was all about Pop/mainstream stuff. Videos, because of MTV’s rise, became more adventurous, funny and creative. Directors like Michel Gondry, David Fincher and Anton Corbijn showcased videos for the likes of Madonna, Nirvana and Beck.

It was a place where inventive creatives could push boundaries and dazzle viewers. As Grunge swept and artists like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains took the reins; they were wrestling with popular stars like Tori Amos, PM Dawn and Björk – it was a magic time for music videos! The 120 Minutes show featured Alternative sounds Alternative Nation focused on underground videos. Older stars could find a place but it meant their music was becoming more inventive and bold – so they could keep up with the younger generation. Consider an artist like Peter Gabriel launching the Sledgehammer video in 1986. Few could claim that was anything other than an attempt to make a mark and rival the big names out there. Artists were not sitting back and producing limp, uninspired videos. From A-ha’s Take on Me to Madonna’s steamy and provocative videos of the 1980s/1990s – it was a time when artists were throwing their all into videos. That was mirrored in the music itself - and that relationship was part of the reason the scene changed and strengthened. Artists had another outlet – apart from radio – where they could speak to the public. By 1995, the station was playing over a-third fewer videos than ever. The ‘novelty’ of only videos meant people were going elsewhere. The introduction of social media and YouTube – the following decade – meant the station had to modernise and adapt.

It was inevitable the station would slump at some point but that near-fifteen-year period of rule helped change music and redefine the music video as we know it. So many young artists today source MTV as inspirations: seeing it as a youngster and those artists inspire and campaign. It was an exciting time and, even towards the end of the 1990s; there was still an important role for the station. A great article in Vanity Fair looked at the rise of MTV and testimony from people who were around at the time – and what it was like being part of the phenomenon:

Billy Idol, musician: Radio guys would take one look at my picture with the spiky hair and say, “Punk-rocker. Not playing him.” Then MTV airs my videos, and kids start calling up radio stations saying, “I want to hear Billy Idol!” It really broke the thing wide open. We’d never touched the charts, and the next minute we had a Top 10 album. It was amazing. Nobody’d ever noticed me before. Now I’m walking down the street, and people are yelling “Billy!”

Stan Cornyn: It was reported back to us that records were selling in certain cities without radio airplay. We asked “Why?” and it turned out that there were music videos playing on MTV. An act like Devo is dancing around in their funny masks and stuff like that—and they take off in a market where nothing else is happening. You got to be an idiot not to say, “Something is happening here, let’s pay attention to this.”

Marcy Brafman: I knew we were doing something right when I gave my dad an MTV T-shirt. He’d wear it, and the kids would want to mow his lawn for free”.


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

Despite the fact the MTV rollercoaster made history: labels and bosses were not impressed by its debut in 1981. It was not the most fashionable idea, and so, an advertising initiative was pitched. There was scepticism – but something had to be done:

Les Garland: George comes rolling in with his easel and says, “Garland, who does MTV belong to?” Warner Amex. Wrong. “Pittman, who does MTV belong to?” He’s got this trick-question thing going with everyone in the room. Finally he says, “MTV is the color-TV phenomenon, you guys. If you are the kid on the block with the first color TV, all the other kids come to your house to watch it. Same with MTV. It’s that cool. It’s theirs, the kids’, it belongs to them. I came up with a campaign for a breakfast cereal called Maypo. We had sports stars like Mickey Mantle and Wilt Chamberlain saying, ‘I want my Maypo!’ This campaign is going to be a bunch of rock stars saying, ‘I want my MTV!’ Garland,” he goes, “can you get Mick Jagger to say that?” I go, “I think so.” He goes, “That’s who we got to get first. Mick Jagger is the most important rock star in the world. If we can get him to do it, the rest of them will be easy.” And I go, “I fucking love it”.

The rest is history - but I can understand why it was not fashionable and marketable at the start. When big artists started putting their voices to the cause, and genres/big artists mixed with one another – it became a hit and embed itself into the fabric of popular culture.

I wonder whether we could ever see another MTV again; something that captured the mood and flavour of the times. If the station is, essentially, a portal for poor reality shows and the odd video here and there – back in the 1980s and 1990s; it was a truly revolutionary station that opened up music and helped launch the careers of some legendary artists. The fact they gave a voice to black artists (eventually) was groundbreaking; showcasing myriad genres on the same station was unheard of. It made directors more inventive and reactive; artists made their music more ambitious and controversial – just so they could put that into a stunning music video. The world of music has changed but there is still a desire for a music station that pulls together old and new; the freshest promotional clips and the classics we all know and love. Maybe that will not happen on MTV but who knows: perhaps a new station will crop up that mixes videos with features and spots; news, music shows and documentaries. That would be awesome and I, for one, would do anything to see it happen. Dire Straits talked about – on Money for Nothing – about free chicks and money for nothing. You can forget all of that: all I really want is…


IMAGE CREDIT: Crush Creative/Behance