Video screenshot: The Buggles "Video Killed the Radio Star"
It's been 30 years since MTV inauspiciously launched on August 1, 1981 and I miss it—that eclectic musical wallpaper of pop and rock hits blasting into my living room. I don’t want to hunt and click on YouTube. I’m busy. I’m already working on my computer all day. I want MTV in the background—and foreground—at my discretion.
It’s the perfect accompaniment when on the phone, cooking dinner, having sex. I don’t need Cyndi Lauper, Billy Idol, and Duran Duran, as much as the new Beyonce, Bon Iver, and Bruno Mars videos, and well, maybe Weird Al’s send-up of Lady Gaga’s “Perform This Way.” I don’t mind if Pitbull comes up. I want to be surprised. I want to discover something new like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.”
When I mention that I worked at MTV from 1981 to ‘88, people often raise their eyebrows and say, “Oooh, when it still played music videos. When it was good.” In 2005, Justin Timberlake shook his Moonman award at the VMAs yelling into the mic: “MTV, play more damn videos!” He wanted his MTV back—but even he’s moved on to movies now. Perhaps it’s all nostalgic clinging, reminiscing over those wild early days.
Apparently nobody watches the videos that do air—at 1 a.m. (no surprise). Though people rail about Jersey Shore, it’s hard to argue with its 8.8 million viewers. It was easy for MTV to be a renegade when only two million watched—before it was a pop cultural phenom and mega-media entity.
Generation Xers may yearn for their Nirvana, hip hoppers long for more Snoop Dogg, rockers crave Journey, and metalheads want Motorhead. Okay, I admit I wouldn’t mind watching The Pretenders, The Clash, Madness, Eurthymics, Elvis Costello, and Squeeze. This weekend I’ll get my chance to look back at the last three decades.
A three-day tribute, called MTV30 scheduled on VH1 Classics, starts Saturday, July 30 at 6 a.m. and runs through midnight on August 1. Like a greatest hits version of MTV—starting with The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first-ever video played on the channel—it will re-air the original hours of programming. (Be forewarned, there was a lot of Rod Stewart back then.) The promos, the contests, the “I Want My MTV” campaign with Mick Jagger and David Bowie. It will be great fun to see how far it’s come—or gone.
So, set to record: shows being dug up include Headbangers Ball, Club MTV, Remote Control, YO! MTV Raps, and Beavis and Butt-Head (which returns this fall on MTV after a 14-year absence). I’ve no love lost for those animated morons but at least the dopey duo played videos and “curated” the hour. Thankfully, MTV will also soon relaunch 120 Minutes, the alt/indie showcase. So, for anyone who clamors on about the irony of MTV handing out video music awards—watch!
I support culture filters, not what algorithms imagine I’d like. I want a VJ cluing me in to what’s hip and hot—even if I don’t agree. To visit the “art gallery,” as Bob Pittman, the then-president called it. I want genre-blurring and randomness, from LMFAO shufflin’ to “Party Rock Anthem” to Adele’s wailing “Rolling in the Deep.”
That’s what MTV did in its day—from Madonna’s strut to Boy George’s sashay, Don Henley’s cool brooding to Janet Jackson’s pop-locking to The Smiths' whine. I want to turn on my MTV to stare at Thom Yorke’s mesmerizing moves to Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower;” I want to be moved.
Billy Idol’s sneer was replaced by Eminem’s scowl. Katy Perry took over for The Go Gos. Nicki Minaj is the new Missy Elliot. Some things don’t really change. But much has on MTV. For a channel that turned the conventional 30-minute program into 3-1/2 minutes—the length of a song—the barometer of hip, where style was substance, is now an institution.
After more than a decade since music videos faded from MTV, I miss that magic combination of sound and fury—from Robert Palmer’s chic band of models to Tom Petty’s Mad Hatter. I can’t be alone, but are there enough who share this sentiment? Can music videos be compelling again on TV with a revamp of TRL and Guest VJs? Perhaps I’m biased. I’m a TV baby, not an Internet kid.
“The internet era may have made music accessible to all, but only on TV can songs be given the kind of emotional backdrop to unite such a broad audience at once,” said Tim Jonze in The Guardian. We all sang “Party like It’s 1999” together. Visuals enhance a song—the same way The Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album jackets sold records. Banning Nirvana’s Nevermind cover artwork from Facebook illustrates some absurd rigidity and a lack of dimension. Michael Jackson’s dancing was contagious, Madonna a turn-on, Christopher Walken soaring to Fatboy Slim inspiring.
I want my MTV back.