A younger generation is being told that they are addicted to the internet, Smart Phones, iPod’s and iPad’s. But 30 years ago, kids amongst my generation were becoming addicted to a few new things. In 1981, many of us were enjoying the wonders of video games, either at the arcade or with an Atari 2600 but most of us were finding ways to make usre of those spare quarters we found in the parents’ car ashtray. It may have been minor bloops and bleeps back then, but this was being able to play with things on a television screen. But there was also something else that some of us became addicted to almost instantly. It was a cable network from New York City that called itself MTV: Music Television, and it made its premiere on August 1, 1981. Today, MTV is very different from what it was and represented 30 years ago, and MTV is a brand/household name. What some may not realize was that MTV did not make an immpediate worldwide impact, it would take a few years. It also did not premiere across the United States at the same time. It would be shown in the Tri-State area, but as it drew attention to itself, cable systems felt it would be cool to broadcast the network. As an 11 year old music fan in Honolulu, the idea of being able to “watch” music 24 hours a day, all day, in stereo seemed like an oddity. Can you do that? Back then, people had schedules. For us kids we went to school from 7:45am to 2:15pm, came home, did homework, played outside. We watched cartoons at 3 or 3:30pm, watched until dad came home from work and then it was news time. That meant “shower” and prepare for dinner. We may have watched a sitcom at 7pm, and after one or two shows, my sister and I would go to sleep. I already had my own record player and radio so if I was not allowed to be in the living room after 8, I could play my records. If my dad wasn’t home, I could play my records on the living room stereo. That was my means of entertainment. The fact that one would be able to listen and watch to music 24 hours a day: what does that mean? I watched shows like American Bandstand and Solid Gold but it was such a foreign concept to me, that it made me curious. My parents would receive cable guides in the mail, and one day I read that something called MTV would be broadcast beginning on January 1, 1982. It gave me the number for the channel, and I looked everyday leading up to New Year’s. Nothing. Then one day, in fact it was December 25, 1981, I received an unintentional Christmas present: the gift of MTV. Well, maybe not 100% MTV, but Oceanic Cablevision were testing the signal. Okay, maybe not the satellite signal as I later found out that MTV was broadcast in Hawai’i in the early 80′s on a one week delay, like most of the programming from the mainland at the time. What I saw was people moving around, dancing, singing, and rocking out. The first video I ever saw on MTV was The Toasters‘ “Lois Lane”, where one or two of the guys sported double-necked guitars that spun around like ZZ Top would a few years later. I knew of double-necked guitars from seeing them on Led Zeppelin covers, but this seemed cooler. I would watch a few minutes everyday just to see this music, and on January 1, 1982, the audio kicked in. I loved the radio back then, so to be able to see this thing called “music videos” seemed so grown-up. On top of that, much of the music they played on MTV was not the normal music I had heard on my Top 40 radio stations. No one was really playing Pat Benatar, The Pretenders, The Cure, and as an 11 year old my radio listening habits were moving from AM to FM, so I wasn’t aware there was something called college radio. MTV, in the early days, played a lot of music from England and Europe that would be called “college rock”, and that’s because Europeans made it a regular practice to shoot what was called “promotional film clips”. We were listening and watching grown-up music, and it wasn’t quite the music my uncles or aunties listened to, it felt younger but appealing to kids my age. Once school started up again (Christmas vacation had wrapped up), it was pretty much all my friends talked about. MTV would eventually influence what music was played on the radio stations I listened to, and in Hawai’i at least, there would be one or two stores that made their own clothing with MTV logos, I had two of them. When MTV played videos that would be a “World Premiere”, people would pay attention because it meant this would be “the next big thing”. MTV completely changed my 11 year old mind, so when they ran commercials where artists yelled out “I WANT MY MTV!”, a lot of us said “I DO!”
It was impossible to avoid, now record companies were forced to put stickers on their records and cassettes which said “As Seen on MTV”, and it became a part of marketings. MTV began to promote itself heavily as the original VJ’s (Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, and Alan Hunter) would visit various cities. In fact, I briefly met J.J. Jackson when he did an autograph signing at JCPenney at Ala Moana Shopping Center, and it made my year. I rocked because I met J.J.!!!
MTV would become a major part of my listening and watching habit for years. When I moved from Honolulu to the Pacific Northwest, I discovered that MTV ran live (or at least on a few hour tape delay) but it didn’t matter. I wanted to become a VJ, I wanted to “paint the mother pink” and win every contest they ever had. MTV used to ask for comments and I’d write to them every other week, never receiving a comment for years until one year, I received a call from Tom Freston, one of the founders of MTV. I don’t remember the exact letter which made him call me, but I wanted to know why MTV censored some videos and how some could get away with things. I was very technical, not bad for the average 15 year old MTV viewer, but we talked for what felt like an hour but was probably close to 15 to 20 minutes. In my mind, I thought “yes, I’d like to be an MTV VJ one day.”
As for MTV’s current programming lineup: I hate it. I fondly remember when MTV played 14 music videos an hour, and today it’s far less than that in a week. In fact, I don’t know if they have specialized hours at 3 or 4 in the morning where it might show… something. Truth be told, MTV were already testing the waters by showing programs that weren’t created by MTV,including IRS’ The Cutting Edge, but it was still music. They had Half Hour Comedy Hour, Remote Control, but again it was still music. Once they started doing The Real World and realized people watched something other than music, and that people reacted to it more than the videos, that’s when things changed. MTV had a lot of glorious moments in the late 80′s/early 90′s with the explosion of hip-hop, “alternative”, dance, and heavy metal, but there was also something called Black Entertainment Television. The only black people you saw on MTV in the early days, outside of VJ J.J. Jackson, were bassists, drummers, and non-lead singers for British bands. Name them? Sure:
Deon Estus (bassist for Wham!)
Tony Butler (bassist for Big Country and Pete Townshend)
Blair Cunningham (drummer for Haircut 100
Mikey Craig (bassist for Culture Club)
Neville Staple (vocalist for The Specials and Fun Boy Three)
Lynval Golding (vocalist for The Specials and Fun Boy Three)
Ranking Roger (vocalist for The English Beat)
Even longtime David Bowie bassist Carlos Alomar, who is Puerto Rican, was considered exotic in those days.
I mention this because for years, MTV had been pointed out for being a very white cable network. Arguably it’s true, but this was also at a time when most Americans felt ska was “white man reggae”, not realizing that ska was actually an ancestor of reggae, not a white version of it. In the early days of MTV, it ran a hell of a lot of artists who were heavily influenced by ska and reggae, including Culture Club, The Specials, The English Beat, The Police, The Clash, and of course the almighty Madness. Even Paul McCartney, a champion of the music video, embraced ska and reggae for years, so one might be able to watch the video for “Take It Away” and not realize the intro is one of his many odes to the island of Jamaica. MTV seemed to treat anything black as if it was a taboo subject, look at the success of videos for Modern English‘s “I Melt With You” and Squeeze‘s “Black Coffee In Bed”:
“I Melt With You” became the group’s first and only U.S. hit, and it’s still played to this day. While “Black Coffee In Bed” was not a giant hit for Squeeze in the U.S., in retrospect it seemed like a touchy subject for a very “sanitary” cable network like MTV to be covering. Then there was INXS‘s “Original Sin”, where part of the chorus goes “dream of white boy, dream of black girl”. It seems so oddly tame today, and yet as a kid it wasn’t something you normally heard on the radio or even on TV. It was like the stuff on All In The Family you weren’t allowed to watch or see, which is odd considering I’m multiracial and lived in a place with a very diverse amount of ethnicities. It was as if my mind was opening up to the reality of the world outside of my immediate vicinity, and it was great.
MTV did not mind featuring a few Asians here and there:
Regardless of what was shown, I ate it up and it opened up my world to a lot of incredible music, and it was cool to share your interests with friends at work. As I became “of age”, I kept watching, loved 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, and YO! MTV Raps, I even watched Club MTV but that was more for eye candy. Hated when the mid-90′s came and YO! was removed and the network seemed to be possessed by the power of Carson Daly. I foolishly hated what he represented, as someone who had taken away by MTV, when all he was doing was trying to hustle, work, and keep making money, not being aware that he had roots in radio. I don’t hate him anymore, and I’ll watch Last Call With Carson Daily on NBC from time to time.
Maybe with ego, I can say that when MTV removed the Music from their equation, it was a long time coming. I remember reading that they felt a need to take it away because it was obvious music was not paying the bills. People watched shows, MTV puts on commercials throughout the shows, MTV charges for that advertising, and the more people watched, the more money they could charge. The influx of mundane reality shows we suffer through today had its roots on a music cable network, but I can also look at Robin Leach and Lifestyles of The Rich & Famous and blame that show for the push to fetishize celebrity fandom. Then again, I roamed magazine sections (remember those?) at supermarkets as my mom would shop. I’d look for music mags but also see Rona Barrett rumor magazines and I’d ask myself “who cares?” But in MTV’s case, a lot of people cared for what they did, even though many rejected the notion of what they were doing. On one hand, they brought more music to people at one time than ever, back when radio airplay was based on local/regional tastes from the public. MTV became a national and global radio station, which was something the music industry was pushing for in a new way to market/sell their music. MTV made it official, and both coincided with the changes in the music industry, all without carrying about such new things as the compact disc and eventually the internet and the MP3. When the internet became the primary way to discover music, when it became a source of music and information that MTV no longer provided, the network eventually jumped ship and was more than happy to make everyone swim to wherever. With new technologies, it lead to new interests so it seemed music became less important, or not the “hip” thing kids flocked to these days and yet music remains a declining money-making industry. In a few years, perhaps all music intellectual property will be owned by non-music related entities, but then again, Warner Bros. Records were once owned by a company that specialized in parking lots.
Anyway, MTV was once a beautiful woman, or at least a lot of us believed in the myths she helped to create. A lot of us now wish the woman would either change her name completely or have some serious plastic surgery done to itself. MTV: I used to love H.E.R., but it eventually killed itself, with apologies to Axl Rose. In honor of MTV’s 30th birthday, let’s sing a song which showed Jello Biafra spoke the truth back in 1984.
You allowed many of us to never look at music the same way again, back when looking at music was limited to having an imagination while staring at record covers, inner sleeves, and magazines. MTV: you broke my heart, but I’m thankful for what you used to mean.
In the words of the honorable Beck Hansen, fake it till you make it, indeed. Weedwack that thing.