Friday, February 17, 2012

Oral History of MTV Reads Like the Channel

Chances are if you see a teen today that kid's attention is completely diverted by a tiny screen and thumbs moving a million miles an hour. Annoying, right? Well, that was me for a huge chunk of the '80s... without the portability. After seeing ads like this, I wanted and got my MTV.

I constantly badgered my cable company's local office with whiny phone messages, just as I had been directed to do on MTV's commercials. My town finally got the channel in August of '83, and I didn't leave the sofa, more of less, for three years. I learned that there was a definite video rotation. For example, I got out of school at 3:00, and I knew if I could be home by 3:05 I could see Paul McCartney's "So Bad." Can you imagine someone running home for that one? Well, I did. During vacations, I would often stay up until dawn because I was sure the next video would be one that I had to see. Shows like 'The Cutting Edge,' 'The Young Ones' and, eventually, '120 Minutes' shaped my taste at least as much as music magazines did. As record executive Mark Ghuneim said, "'120 Minutes' was the Pitchfork of its time." This brief peek into my childhood should give you an idea how much the channel once meant to me.

I got the whopping 600-plus page 'I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution' for Christmas from my mother, and I plowed through the first two-thirds of the book before the kids were back to school from break. It's an oral history in quick snippets taken from interviews of more than 400 people (VJs, music executives, video directors and the artists themselves) that begins with the idea for the channel and ends in 1992, when authors Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum feel MTV -- as a place for music videos -- died. Of course, those of us who watched from nearly the beginning (and didn't like hair metal) know it died quite a few years before that, but that's an argument for another day.

My reading slowed to a crawl during the last third of the book because the subject matter encompasses metal, rap, music/political news, reality television and other original programming that I cared little about at the time and care even less about now. You might say reading this book was a lot like the channel itself... very interesting at the beginning and, by the late '80s, an absolute wasteland.

Getting MTV off the ground was a daunting task not unlike an Internet startup, and that was the most interesting section of the book. The rock-and-roll lifestyles displayed on video sets were a close second because many of the book's participants enjoyed naming names. This book also confirmed a couple of things I always assumed: Second-generation VJs Adam Curry and Julie Brown were a couple of douches, and Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite" was, indeed, "a whopping, steaming turd." There is an entire chapter devoted to that clip, generally referred to as "the worst video ever made." How could he not know his manhood would be questioned after this one?

I barely finished the book when a press release from Atria Books announced an oral history of MTV from the four surviving original MTV VJs. They claim although each of them participated in 'I Want My MTV,' they saved their best stories for this unfinished tale. I wouldn't blame you if you waited for that one to come out, but I doubt it will be done as well as this one.

There are quite a few of you out there my age that lament the passing of MTV as a music-video channel. You shouldn't. MTV's ratings as a video channel were never as good as when they could capture youths in a 30-minute show format, and they make much more money from advertisers when these companies know you aren't turning the station when three minutes with the Cure is followed by three minutes with Whitesnake. Times change, and you have to credit MTV for keeping up with today's youth. MTV should always be for teens. As for you nostalgic video watchers, you can still see them on VH1 Classic. Heck, I have hours of '120 Minutes' on my DVR right now, and a particular video I want to see (of new artists too) is just a couple of clicks away on the Internet. The best part is I don't have to stay up all night waiting for it to come on again either. One click and I can see it all over again. I no longer want my MTV. Kids, you can have it, but it is fun to reminisce.

Let's take a trip to the early days of MTV. Amazingly, all of these made the Top 40. I don't think any of them would have without the influence of the video channel.

1 comment:

Echorich said...

Brilliant clip choices! Especially Everyday I Write the Book - EC going back to a riff on his original seemless white infinity look...
MTV Post Billie Jean was a struggle for me. Yes there was 120 Minutes with it's awkward hosts and valiant attempt to keep up with the fringes of new music, but it was the channel's naive and desperate attempts at programming in the early years that exposed the world to many of the bands I wanted to listen to and actually see - Modern English, Comsat Angels, Everything But The Girl, Style Council...