Thirty years ago, hardly anyone knew what a music video was. On the night MTV was launched, its founders – a ragtag bunch of music fans and rookie television execs – had to take a bus from Manhattan to New Jersey to watch the broadcast, because no New York cable company carried the fledgling channel. Veteran music journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum tell that sad little tale in their oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution.
Within just a few years, MTV had become a cultural juggernaut, transforming the music industry and creating a new generation of megastars. Two things helped turn around the network's fortunes: Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, and the "I Want My MTV" campaign – killer content and ahead-of-the-curve advertising. Marks tells Kurt Andersen, "It got people to call their local cable operators, like Sting told you to – 'Call your local cable operators and demand your MTV!' – and that's what people actually did."
Music purists dreaded the rise of a pop audience judging artists only on their beauty. Marks thinks it wasn't that simple. MTV favored musicians who had theatrical flair, which is why British New Wave bands were huge on MTV even as they were scarce on US commercial radio. Hair metal bands also knew how to put on a good show. Marks quotes Twisted Sister's Dee Snider: "We needed MTV, but MTV really needed us."
The introduction of Yo! MTV Raps in 1988 was another turning point for the network and helped drive mainstream acceptance of hip-hop. "That was the way that you found out if you were in LA, what New York hip-hop was about and what it looked like and what they were wearing," Mark says. "It was the social network of that culture."
Marks believes the golden age of MTV ended in 1992, when The Real World debuted, and MTV shifted focus from music videos to reality programming. In the nearly 400 interviews he did for I Want My MTV, most of his subjects were nostalgic for a time when a hit video would be seen by everybody. "They all mourn this sort of last gasp of the music monoculture," Marks says. "It's hard to imagine there's that one place now that could produce that sort of change."
(Originally aired: November 11, 2011)
What's your favorite music video from MTV's golden age? Tell us here.
Video: Geto Boys, "Mind Playing Tricks On Me"
Scarface – of the Houston-based rap group Geto Boys – told Craig Marks that having videos played on Yo! MTV Raps helped put Houston's hip-hop scene on the map.
Video: Billy Squier, "Rock Me Tonite"
MTV launched a lot of artists, but arena rocker Billy Squier told Craig Marks that the video for "Rock Me Tonight" undermined his hard rock image and killed his career.