Thirty years ago today, MTV launched the 1980s by playing “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
If The Buggles’ clip portended a Jetsonsesque future, first-day fare by Leo Sayer, Andrew Gold, and Cliff Richard suggested that the cable upstart didn’t initially seek to revolutionize as much as fill airtime. Every hour or so, the network played a three-minute reminder of how much of a square Rod Stewart had become since leaving The Faces. And does anything say ’70s louder than the 29th song aired, Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”? But on the day the cable gods created Music Television, videos by The Pretenders, Nick Lowe, and Split Enz demonstrated a creature of the moment at least attempting to broadcast in its moment.
Early MTV exuded cool. The audacious expropriation of the lunar landing indicated that a network that reached just a few thousand cable subscribers in New Jersey envisioned itself as something out of this world. From a manic Pete Townshend shouting “I Want My MTV!” to a faux presidential run by Randee of the Redwoods, decade-one station promos made the perfunctory entertaining. In its forever morphing color scheme and polkadot-to-stripes-to-whatever patterns, the logo even broke the rules. It’s the small details that made MTV a big deal.
The channel served as the greatest promotional vehicle in the history of popular music. It made not just individual acts but whole genres. Crushes on synth-driven New Wave, power-ballad Hair Metal, anti-star Alternative, late-’90s Crunch Metal, and poppy Boy Bands ensured young America’s infatuation. It abruptly went from making bands to breaking the music industry. It is fitting that by the end of MTV’s music video run its heavy rotation consisted of Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and other “artists” best appreciated on mute. The Music had been conquered by the Television. Hadn’t MTV signaled this fate in its first minutes on the air?
The inaugural video’s foreshadowing was hardly limited to the visual trumping the audio. The plastic clothing, robotic vocals, and synthetic keyboards of “Video Killed the Radio Star” suggested an artificial future.
MTV’s staged authenticity fooled a global audience when a student asked Bill Clinton, “Boxers or briefs?” after producers had planted the question to the president’s high-school interrogators. In The Real World, producer-instigated scenarios present a spectacle in which the vicarious living of the viewer occurs through the intermediary of a behind-the-scenes controller vicariously living through an onscreen twentysomething avatar. The Hills honestly tackled this dishonesty by brilliantly concluding its run with the camera panning back to stage hands removing a set behind the beautiful people in whose supposed real lives the viewers had engrossed themselves and then fading to an image of the “Hollywood” sign. At least the housewives hooked on old-school soap operas grasped that the drama was, well, drama.
So when MTV called itself Music Television long after it had killed the music the name’s surface-to-substance disconnect meshed perfectly with its what-you-see-isn’t-what-you-get programming. The “M” stands for manufactured.
Viacom announced in February 2010 that MTV no longer stood for Music Television, a redundancy on par with China conceding that it’s not actually a People’s Republic. Music Television was born on August 1, 1981. When it died is a point of debate. In the mid-1980s when it axed its original five VJs? In 1987 when Remote Control, its first foray away from music, aired? In 1992 when seven strangers met on The Real World? Later that decade when programmers ran sexual indoctrination films on a weekend loop as though viewers lived in a closed-circuit reeducation camp?
At each step away from the music, the complaints grew. So did the ratings. Fueled by trash-TV favorites Teen Mom and Jersey Shore, MTV springboarded into this summer off of six straight quarters of ratings growth. Crap sells.
It would be understandable if the house guests who let Snooki, the Dog Brothers, and Gary and Amber into your living room would never again be welcome. But MTV also introduced us to Courtney Cox, Carson Daly, and Mike Judge, and aired high caliber experimental fare such as The State, Liquid Television, The Tom Green Show, and True Life. Occasional excellence ensured that, even after the videos had disappeared, habituated early viewers reappeared for their fix only to find a let down. The MTV that had initially attracted our remotes had, like that forever-fluctuating logo, become another station entirely.
Targeting the same demographic paradoxically caused its programming to forever shift. As one generation outgrows MTV, another one — with different interests — takes its place. A graduate of the class of ’81 creepily hangs out in the familiar teenage haunts. We grew up. MTV never did.
Amusements enjoyed at 17 — pool hopping, drinking in the football bleachers, random prank phone calls — get you arrested at 37. Watching MTV should be one such activity.
I want my MTV. I keep getting some younger kid’s MTV.