Can you remember a time without MTV? Can you remember a time when MTV only played music videos? These questions may seem to be digging into ancient history, but really, we just need to go back to the ’80s.
For a whole generation of young people, MTV defined youth culture, and there is no doubt that the experimental television station changed the face of the music industry with the advent of the music video. But how did this come to pass? Let’s take a look back.
When MTV “Music Television” went on the air in August of 1981, it’s not clear how many people heard the now famous words of John Lack when he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”
At first broadcast, the channel was only available on local cable to a small collection of households in parts of New Jersey.
The early programming of these days consisted of a collection of basic music videos that had been provided for free by record companies and the presence of “VJs” (video jockeys) that introduced the videos as a radio DJ would.
The first playlist of very early (and, in 2019, cringe-worthy) videos included the first video ever played: a psychedelic and strange”Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. Also in the rotation were notably low-budget performance videos from Pat Benetar (“You Better Run”) and The Who (“You Better You Better You Bet) as well as a surreal offering from the band Ph.D. called “Little Susie’s on the Up.” (The Ph.D. video has both pig butchering and ballroom dancing).
The Heyday of Music Videos
It didn’t take long for record companies to see the value of videos as promotional vehicles and for young people to latch on to this new visual medium. Teenagers tuned in after school and on the weekends, and the money flowed into MTV.
Music videos suddenly became a powerful tool that could make (or break, sorry Billy Squier) an artist. Because of MTV, making a music video became an integral part of a band or artist’s image and publicity machine. Big-name and upcoming directors both began to work in the Music Video genre.
Throughout the ’80s, video music became iconic- from the early computer animation for Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing,” the black and white artistry of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, to the over-the-top psychedelic design of the Alice in Wonderland video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Music videos also gave New Wave pretty boy bands like Duran Duran, A-ha or Wham! a venue to showcase their good-looking members and catchy tunes. Michael Jackson, arguably one of these pretty boys, was a master of the genre, giving viewers amazing videos for “Bad” and “Billie Jean,” and of course the iconic “Thriller” video written and co-directed by horror master John Landis.
Pushing the Boundaries
In the late 1980s, some artists began to use the format to push the boundaries of culture and taste. Madonna, notably, used the video for “Like a Prayer” to create an art piece that was shocking to the modern Catholic church, and George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” showcased Michael and George in extremely sexual situations.
These videos (and MTV for their willingness to air them) would pave the way for later controversial pieces like Brittney Spears’ “Womanizer,” Jay-Z’s violent “99 Problems” or the Smashing Pumpkins’ demonstration of drug use in “Try Try Try.”
As a celebration of the new artistic format and the possibilities it held for artistic expression, rule-breaking and pushing the envelope, MTV conceived of and presented the first MTV Music Video Awards in 1984.
The Late ’80s and the Move Away from Videos
By the late 1980s, MTV had started to move away from the video-only format, starting with Music News and other short features. By 1992, the channel began to be taken over by reality series such as The Real World, The Osbournes, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica and My Super Sweet 16.
Today, in 2019, the music video, the format that made MTV, is confined largely to one show on the network: Total Request Live.
Music videos continue today, however, as YouTube and other internet services have taken over as the venue for releasing video versions of artists’ new songs.