Arts & Culturethe reader

The Revolution Was Televised


When MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, I was 13 years old, a rising freshman at my high school and a member of the new network’s key demographic. I was a made-to-order victim, a white suburban kid with lots of free time but limited mobility, into rock music but not yet old enough to be jaded about it and poised to spend hours in front of the television absorbing music videos like a sponge with acne. And I did, boy. Like millions of other kids across the nation, I sacrificed countless brain cells to the gods of muscle shirts, parachute pants and righteous keytar solos, and though we may not have understood the ins and outs of why, we knew that we were witness to a sea change in the world of pop music.

MTV Meant Something

These days MTV doesn’t stand for anything. The letters are simply the name of that cable channel that shows moronic teenagers getting pregnant and moronic adults deliberately riding bicycles into brick walls. Back in the day, however, it stood for “Music Television,” and it introduced the short-form music video to America. Concert films were nothing new, of course, but the concept of a video single was primarily a European invention, a short creative film built around a current song and aired on TV programs in the UK and on the continent when an artist was unavailable to perform live. MTV acquired a ton of this ready-to-go content, and thus we early viewers were deluged with post-punk and early New Wave and Eurotrash synth-pop we would never have heard of otherwise. American record labels were caught flat-footed and scrambled to crank out videos themselves, and by the time they caught up, the musical landscape had changed drastically.

The word “revolutionary” is a hard sell, but in the case of MTV it is completely apt. The demands of a 24-hour network devoted to promotional video meant changes in how music was packaged, how it was promoted, how singles were chosen and especially in predicting which bands and artists were destined for success. An especially artful music video could catapult an obscure but attractive band to stardom. Honestly, would we have ever heard Culture Club or Duran Duran on American radio if it hadn’t been for their videos? The Stray Cats, from Long Island, couldn’t buy a gig in the U.S. and were working in the UK until their videos hit MTV. On the other hand, bands that were otherwise staples of MOR radio suddenly found themselves needing to pretty up to be in steady rotation or fall by the wayside. In other words, it was no longer enough simply to rock; pop music victory now belonged to the most telegenic. Never in so short a time had the world of popular music experienced that kind of upheaval. Radical. Tubular, even.

Something New

The turbulent history of MTV has been covered in a recent book called, of course, I Want My MTV, but a new book has just hit the shelves that explores the phenomenon from the inside, in the words of the first made-for-MTV celebrities, the VJs who introduced the videos, reported the music news, and served as the channel’s public face. DJs J.J. Jackson (credited for being the guy who first introduced Led Zeppelin to the American airwaves), Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn, and actors Alan Hunter and Nina Blackwood were selected for their comfort talking about music, their screen chops and their looks. (For me and mine, the question of whether you’d rather do girl-next-door Martha or bad-rock-chick Nina was our generation’s “Ginger or Mary Ann?”) They were thrown onto 24-hour national television to do a job that no one had ever done before. Their story, captured and compiled in VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave (Simon & Schuster, 2013), is a breezy but fascinating look at the network’s early years and the unique experience of changing pop music one 30-second bumper at a time.

Transcribed by journalist Gavin Edwards from interviews conducted with four of the five original VJs (Jackson died in 2004), the book is a lively oral history about attempting to make television that looked and felt like nothing that had ever been done before, pushing a whole new kind of product. Within a year the VJs went from relative obscurity—though the MTV studios were based in midtown Manhattan, personnel had to travel to Jersey to watch it, as Manhattan Cable wouldn’t carry the channel—to taking limos to work and industry parties and doing coke with David Lee Roth while 40 people stood by and watched.

And the Stories… 

Here are stories about John Cougar Mellencamp (Jingleheimer Schmidt) attempting to seduce Nina, Bob Dylan attempting to seduce Martha and A&R executives attempting to seduce all of them. Here are the well publicized fights over the glaring lack of black artists on the network, which eventually resulted in the catapulting of Michael Jackson to godhood and the introduction of hip-hop to white kids in the Heartland. Here is the age-old question of whether MTV made Madonna or the other way round. And in the center of it were these five very different personalities, some media- and pop-savvy, some mere babes in the very weird woods, navigating their way amongst the massive egos, paychecks and excesses of rock stars, TV executives and record-company moguls. It makes for an engaging read and a truly unique insight into this vital slice of pop-culture history.

There are billions of good stories out there, but the best stories are always the ones that could only have happened once. Music video is now the province of YouTube, existing on TV only as nostalgia in the middle of the night. We sample and buy our music online now, and the VJ is a thing of the past. But for a few short years, five otherwise unassuming people ruled the rock and roll universe, and they have the best stories to tell.