Who cares about music? MTV still top of the heap 28 years later
It’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for grown-ups, where a river runs vodka and Red Bull, the pizzas are topped with caviar, and you can play Guitar Hero against household musical names.
MTV is throwing an aftershow party in a Berlin airport hangar, and the guestlist is so big that there are 12 entrances depending on which letter of the alphabet your surname begins with. Earlier in the evening, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and U2, among others, were all present and correct for the award ceremony itself.
You attach your mouth to the vodka and Red Bull tap and chuckle to yourself, thinking: but MTV doesn’t even show any music videos these days.
When MTV debuted in 1981 with the synaesthetic slogan “You’ll never look at music the same way again”, it was Marshall McLuhan pixilated. Music was the medium and the message. MTV connected the most popular mass-media instrument (TV) with the multi-billion dollar youth spend on music. Within a year it had become the fastest-growing cable station of all time. It seemed impossibly exotic. It was as if we had gone overnight from watching The Riordans to Simon Le Bon in a canary yellow suit dancing on a speedboat in the Caribbean overnight.
MTV had a seismic effect on popular culture. It was a bespoke creation for a previously marginalised demographic (twentysomethings), and the advertising dollar embraced and French-kissed it. Back then, leisure spend wasn’t being lost to mobile phones, X-boxes and Guitar Hero.
MTV was “cool” television for “cool” people, and its modus operandi are more popular now than they ever were when the channel was a globe-straddling media monster. MTV debuted innovative graphics, quick edits, jumpy production values and a hitherto unknown irreverence towards the material it was covering. You see its influence over “youth-orientated” TV stations in both presentation and programming styles, and in how most of today’s web pages are designed.
The music industry and advertisers regarded it as The Second Coming. Pre-MTV, a band had to schlep around in a tour van spending months, if not years, breaking a “territory”. One big video hit on MTV could accelerate your international career by a good five years. Even acts such as A Flock Of Seagulls achieve charttopping albums on the back of it.
For the same reason that you still don’t see that many black faces on the covers of glossy fashion/beauty magazines, the advertisers exerted subliminal pressure to keep MTV “white”. Of the first 750 videos played, fewer than 25 were by black artists. This was totally disproportionate to the number of black acts at the top of the music charts.
It took the president of Michael Jackson’s record label, Sony, to ring up the station and tell them it wouldn’t be getting the Thriller video or anything by other Sony acts (Springsteen, Dylan, etc) if they didn’t do something about their nasty “Jim Crow” ways.
In other ways, MTV was progressive. It was the first media outlet to emphasise Green issues (which nobody was talking about in the 1980s), and it gave a platform to Amnesty International before rock stars thought it would made them look all caring and concerned.
Its most important move, though, was to ditch the music and embrace Reality TV. Pre-YouTube, iTunes, Napster and Spotify, MTV saw what was happening and cleared its schedules for the then-new concept of reality programming. Its decision was vindicated by the success of The Osbournes, which gave the channel its highest ever viewing figures.
For good or ill, Big Brother, I’m A Celebrity . . . , Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor would not be dominating the telly now if MTV, years earlier, hadn’t cleared the way and found an audience.
If you want music on MTV now, you’re redirected to the website. There may be periodic bouts of self-flagellation over moving from music to reality, but in a world where we already know what the Christmas No 1 will be, MTV got it absolutely right.
You can laugh at MTV’s “Thousands have died in an earthquake in China but meanwhile here’s Paris Hilton judging a lip gloss competition” image, but never underestimate its prodigious cultural weather vane. It’s why Beyoncé, Jay-Z and U2 still turn up to grip and grin.
Jacko and Sony gave a MTV a well-deserved scare over rights to air Thriller