The morphing of MTV
By Steve Spears, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Sunday, July 31, 2011
Thirty years ago, the music world changed forever with the words: “Ladies and gentlemen . . . rock ‘n’ roll.”
No longer would we just listen. Now we could watch music move.
MTV was born in the first few moments of Aug. 1, 1981, complete with footage of a rocket launch, a moon landing and the planting of an MTV flag complete with a grinding guitar riff that would serve as the network’s theme music during its early years.
Pretty heady imagery, comparing a 24-hour music channel to mankind’s reach into outer space. But looking back three decades later, it was entirely appropriate.
Suddenly, musicians could leap off a magazine’s glossy pages and show personality. Rod Stewart could seduce the ladies with his strut. Pat Benatar could spin around in her pixie-esque fashion. Michael Jackson could launch his fedora and moonwalk across the TV screen.
And then somewhere, between the airing of the Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, John Cougar Mellencamp playing cupid for Jack and Diane and the arrival of Snooki and her Jersey Shore pals, our entire understanding of pop culture changed again.
For better? For worse? The answer to both is probably yes.
Birth of a revolution
Everyone has an MTV story.
Millions probably claim to have been awake late that night to witness the event, but they’re most likely stretching the truth. When MTV began, basic cable was a luxury for much of America. It’s believed that on that first day, only a few thousand people in northern New Jersey were actually able to see it.
The first spoken words — “. . . rock ‘n’ roll . . .” — weren’t even spoken by one of its original five “VJs” or video jockeys. Rather it was John Lack, a 33-year-old news radio executive in New York, who would catch lightning in a bottle as one of MTV’s co-founders.
To him, the concept of watching (and rewatching) videos nonstop was a no-brainer. In 2000, in an interview with Vanity Fair, he recalled his pitch to TV executives who questioned the longevity of the format.
“When you listen to music, the first time is just to be introduced to the song,” Lack told them. “The second time, you get to know it. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth time, you think, ‘This is a great song.’ But it’s the 100th time you hear it that gives you all these psychological synapse poppings.”
Lack was overthinking it.
The reason people tuned in seems more simple. It was great entertainment. And it was brought to our TVs 24 hours a day by five soon-to-be familiar faces: Mark Goodman, J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn.
The Martha Quinn Years
“You know it’s funny, every once in a while, I’ll read an article, and if they’re talking about the ’80s, I’ve actually seem them refer to the ‘Martha Quinn Years.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s incredible’ ” Quinn told the St. Petersburg Times in a 2007 interview. “I was just some goofy kid off the street basically. It just worked out that way. I can’t explain it.”
The explanation is easy. The fresh medium needed faces to go with it; on-air friends a young audience could trust. Who better than the girl next door to explain Boy George? MTV’s fab five became wise sages — pop culture guides for a generation.
These days, Quinn and the surviving original VJs — Jackson died in 2004 — continue to cash in on their MTV histories, each hosting ’80s-centric shows on satellite radio. Their faces seem scarcely aged to original fans of the network because their personalities are fused with the music and events of the decade.
Consider any band or personality from that era that’s still popular today and there’s an MTV moment behind them.
• U2’s Bono waving his white flag at Colorado’s Red Rocks during the live video for Sunday Bloody Sunday.
• Madonna rolling around in a wedding dress while performing Like a Virgin during the 1984 MTV Music Video Awards.
• Michael Jackson and the phenomenon of Thriller.
• “World Premiere Videos” became the first must-see TV. A generation witnessed 1985’s Live Aid benefit for Ethiopia in nonstop coverage on MTV. Bands like Duran Duran were able to use the medium to convert good looks, fashion and music into Beatle-esque hysteria.
It seemed like the music could never end.
And then it did.
The next revolution
Beginning in 1987, MTV began airing its own game show, Remote Control. Compared with the relative innocence of MTV’s earlier years, the show had a decidedly mean streak to it. Contestants were razzed by the likes of Colin Quinn, Adam Sandler and Denis Leary. Losers were buckled into recliners and ejected from the show with all the pomp befitting a drunken bar patron.
It was only the beginning. Videos quietly became scarce. Mopey grunge-rockers from Seattle wanted little to do with the perky airwaves of MTV. Cookie-cutter boy bands ruled concert arenas. Dancing and posing suddenly became more important than singing. Actual music suddenly was as popular as a pet rock.
MTV needed a new niche for a new decade.
In 1992, The Real World — following the hormone-soaked lives of young adults crammed together in a house — began transforming reality TV. It would be the first of more than 70 reality shows to appear on the network. A year later, Beavis and Butt-Head began devolving the world of cartooning. In 2009, a self-proclaimed group of “guidos” and “guidettes” descended upon the Jersey Shore to deliver the wisdom of “smushing” and “GTL.” (If you have to ask, just consider yourself lucky for not knowing.)
And in February 2010, MTV formally dropped the words “Music Television” from its logo.
MTV’s pop culture revolution was continuing. But ladies and gentlemen . . . rock ‘n’ roll? It was gone. Music, it turns out, wouldn’t be the medium of expression for the next generation.
Marking its birthday
Things change. Time passes. The teens of the “Martha Quinn Years” have teens of their own today. The boys from U2 are busy writing music for Spider-Man on Broadway. Madonna is off selling Kabbalah and helping her daughter push a fashion line. And what once was “Music Television” these days concentrates on selling the nonmelodic reality of Jersey Shore, Teen Mom and The Hard Times of RJ Berger.
Chances are that if you witnessed those first few hours of MTV programming and were asked to draw a fever line showing the quality of programming since then, the line would be a straight one — from heaven to hell.
But if you’re older than 25, complaining about MTV today is as productive as whining about menu options at Chuck E. Cheese’s; it’s not about you anymore.
Music videos have migrated to smart phones and YouTube; social media has taken over. The VJs are gone; MTV has a “Twitter jockey” now.
Thirty years later, MTV is still essential to teens, who dare not hop on the school bus until spilling the latest from 16 and Pregnant or reading Kanye West’s latest tweet.
Vinyl records, 8-track tapes and cassettes. CDs and DVDs. On-demand video, iTunes and Auto-Tune. MySpace and Facebook. If there’s a single constant in the entertainment world, it’s evolution. Adapt, or perish.
Earlier this month, the four surviving VJs gathered in the Sirius XM studios in New York to record a special for MTV’s 30th birthday. The session between old friends became a period of new reflection.
“Here’s the thing about MTV today vs. MTV then,” Quinn wrote afterward via e-mail. “Let’s say MTV still played videos 24/7, never stopping, all music . . . it still wouldn’t be our MTV. It’d be Pitbull and Rihanna and the Glee cast. It’s not like they’d be playing the Fixx.”
Yet a few tethers to its start remain. A new show called Teen Wolf is a nod to the 1985 movie that starred Michael J. Fox. And the face of music video fame today, Lady Gaga, unabashedly borrows her nonsensical fashion sense and catchy music hooks from the original Material Girl.
“The spirit lives on in MTV as an ode to its scrappy start. Each and every one of us on the original MTV crew — VJs, cameramen, secretaries, executives — were rebels with a cause,” Quinn said. “Today the ‘rebel’ bit is an act. Nobody’s job is on the line, and the dream has long since been realized. The ‘we’re crazy kids’ routine has become shtick. It’s totally expected for MTV to be unexpected.”
Through all its changes, Quinn says, she and the network’s pioneers will probably always remain fans.
“It’s always fun to watch the Video Music Awards,” she said, “just like it’s still fun to see the Stones even though Mick Jagger gets tons of satisfaction.”
Rock ‘n’ roll survived after all — just not on cable TV.
But MTV goes on. Long after the thrill of music television is gone.
Steve Spears’ blog, Stuck in the ’80s, celebrates the music first played on MTV and the pop culture of the decade. Read it at tampabay.com/blogs/80s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: Jul 29, 2011 10:14 AM
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