Monday, August 01, 2011

Music Video Monday: MTV at 30



Today is the 30th anniversary of MTV. On August 1st, 1981, at one minute past midnight, the Music Television debuted on cable channels with the first music video, selected for posterity's sake: The Buggles "Video Killed The Radio Star." It was a wise and prophetic choice. Though I don't remember ever hearing that song on the radio, it has become the iconic "one hit wonder."

I was nine years old and my sister was two and half months old. I don't remember when I first learned about MTV, but it was probably in 1982 or 1983 when I went over to friends houses and they showed it to me. My parents did not have cable TV at all. In fact, they only got cable in 2008 or 2009. Though I felt deprived at the time (all my friends had MTV!), I'm kind of glad they didn't. To this day, I don't have cable. Though I did enjoy it in college (the late 1990s, when MTV and VH1 actually still played music videos).

MTV is truly the cultural event of Generation X. That channel influenced our generation the way the Beatles and Woodstock influenced the Baby Boomers or the way YouTube and Facebook has influenced the younger generation. When it debuted, it was basically a radio station with video images. Viewers got a chance to see songs performed and videos would play one after another, just like a radio station. Instead of DJs to select and spin the records, MTV had VJs to introduce the videos. The videos in the beginning years were cheaply budgeted, often concert footage. I've read some analysis of MTV's impact, in which the channel was blamed for killing the career of someone like Christopher Cross, who had a great voice, but was perhaps a little too "pudgy" for the superficiality of video. Its hard to say what might have happened to Michael Jackson or Madonna, if not for MTV. The three of them achieved perfect synergy and both Michael Jackson and Madonna's telegenic looks and innovative concepts took music videos to an entirely different level than what was playing on MTV in 1983 and 1984. They both turned music videos into mini movies, the biggest being, "Thriller", of course.

In my family, I was the big MTV fan. After all, I used to get excited watching "Solid Gold" (with the Solid Gold dancers being part of the appeal). I had to settle for Friday Night Videos that was played on ABC, if I remember correctly. Or, sometimes I would listen to the radio station while having the TV on with the sound off. It made for some interesting moments of synchronicity, when a song lyric might have matched an image on the screen (either literally or symbolically or even ironically). When friends invited me over the their houses, MTV was generally on. It was the one channel that everyone my age seemed to love, yet my dad seemed to hate.

In the summer of 1985, the Boy Scout troop I was in had scheduled the summer camp session over the same week in which I would miss out on the Live-Aid concerts. My dad let me quit Scouting that summer since we were moving to Germany, and I was grateful. Regular television showed parts of the concert, while MTV broadcasted the whole thing (the one in London and in Philadelphia. My cousin Anita had won tickets to see the concert in Philadelphia).

While living in Germany, I still managed to see music videos, even though there was no MTV for the American military and their dependents. The quality of videos seemed to get better and better. When we returned to the U.S. in the fall of 1988, the temporary housing that we stayed in on Ft. McPherson in Atlanta while looking for a house to buy had cable TV. I wanted to watch MTV, but my 7 year old sister wanted to watch Nickelodeon. My older brother wanted to watch something else. We had some intense fights over the TV during that time, which inspired our dad to not get cable when we moved into the house in Stone Mountain. Despite our fights over the TV, I did get to watch MTV a little bit during our temporary stay on the Army base. Of all the years I've lived, to this day, 1988 represents the best year in music by far. I loved most of the songs that made the Billboard magazine charts and I was truly mesmerized by some of the videos that year ("Rush Hour" by Jane Weidlin being one of them). I noticed on MTV that they had added a game show called "Remote Control", which was hilarious. Most of the topics were music related.

In the fall of 1990, Madonna managed to cross the line when her first video got banned by MTV ("Justify My Love"). This was such a huge shock that ABC featured the controversy on the program Nightline, where they actually showed the entire video. Its strange to see the video today and wonder what all the fuss was about. There have been plenty of other provocative videos that did not get banned. A couple years later, another Madonna video would get banned from MTV: "Erotica."

In 1992, MTV aired the first "reality series" that was a documentary of young twentysomethings living in a loft in New York City. "The Real World" was born, spawning dozens of casts in various cities around the world (I stopped watching after the New Orleans cast in 2000). The success of "reality" programming led to the current state of MTV, which seems to be "all reality TV, all the time." Unlike the early casts of "The Real World" (my favourite cast is still the Hawaii one in 1999, followed by the New Orleans one in 2000, and the Seattle one in 1998), the current crop of reality show castmembers all seem to be plastic. All bod, no brains (exhibit A: "The Jersey Shore" and its sequels is said to be the most popular show in MTV's history). Those of us who grew up on MTV (or, for me, a special occasion treat I got to experience through the graciousness of friends), we lament the lack of videos on MTV. The last time I saw MTV, I think was in 2005 when I was in a hotel in Independence MO. They only played music videos for one hour, and in that hour, I was shocked that they showed a Kanye West video TWICE! Another thing I noticed was that Julie ("The Mormon Girl" from the New Orleans season of "The Real World") was in all these other reality show contests where Real World alumni compete against Road Rules alumni. She seems addicted to "celebreality"!

Speaking of "Road Rules", I loved the Australia season the best, followed by the Semester at Sea season and the Latin America season. I wish they would release these seasons on DVD so I can see them again. Its interesting to note the degrading quality of the series. The earlier casts seemed more easy to relate to and even "real", while the ones since 2001 all seem to be fake and plastic. Its all about having the sculpted, perfect body and partying.

The tragedy, though, is that MTV has ventured far from its roots. They are firmly rooted in the 14-24 year old demographic, though. Once you reach the quarter-century milestone, you're pushed onto VH1. Perhaps the youth of today enjoy MTV as it is: a channel for the young (the important advertising demographic, that is). Whether music videos play or not is irrelevant. Its all about "The Jersey Shore" now. Guidos with permanent tans and missing braincells. But hey, who cares when you have abs that can wash a pair of Levis on them?!

When I think about the travesty that MTV has devolved into, I can't help but think of the lyric in an awesome Dire Straits song: "I want my, I want my MTV!" Oh well, at least we have YouTube, where we can watch any music video we want, whenever we want. No VJs required. So, "sussudio" that, MTV!

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