BARNHART

How MTV Branded the ’80s and a Generation (It Wasn’t the Music)

A&E’s Biography: I Want My MTV looks back on the iconic cable channel that changed the culture.
  • Original MTV VJs Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, and JJ Jackson.
    Original MTV VJs Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, and JJ Jackson.
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    For me it was “Sledgehammer.”

    In 1986 MTV — or as it self-identified then, MTV: Music Television — had been going for five years, but I hadn’t seen a minute of it. We didn’t have TVs in our dorms and when I went home on break, MTV wasn’t on the grid. That was the thing about cable TV back then. The bandwidth was pitiful, and dozens of channels were clamoring for shelf space, so whether you spent hours glued to MTV or just read about it in Rolling Stone depended entirely on the whims of your local cable operator. 

    Somehow, though, I managed to get in front of a television set when the video of Peter Gabriel’s biggest single was in heavy rotation on MTV. It was, and remains, one of the most celebrated animations of its time. Aardman, the production shop that would go on to create Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run, used claymation, stop-motion, traditional animation and a tractor-trailerful of props to create a spellbinder that people just wanted to watch over and over.

    Like most of MTV-unplugged America, I’d just assumed that MTV was about music videos, and hell, you could watch those on regular TV, at least every now and then. NBC, for instance, launched Friday Night Videos in 1983 to capitalize on the MTV buzz. Those early videos often featured artists in painfully literal interpretations of their songs’ lyrics (“Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” “Whip It,” “New Frontier,” etc.), and did not seem to justify the relentless hype being generated by this music television thing.

    The first chief executive of MTV was Bob Pittman, a radio guy who envisioned the new cable channel as the successor to album-rock FM. The first song to air on MTV when it debuted August 1, 1981, was “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a sophisticated pop lament for discarded technologies and also, a precocious assessment of MTV’s place in the world.

    Eventually Pittman and his successor Tom Freston — widely regarded as the person who made MTV MTV — came to realize the channel’s true model was not FM but AM, specifically Top 40 radio. People kept Top 40 on all day not to hear that deep cut off Deep Purple’s last LP but to hear the catchiest tunes over and over. Like, say, “Sledgehammer.” It’s commonly done now, but back then MTV was a marketing innovator, taking one small slice of the audience and paying close attention to its tastes, its ever-changing likes and dislikes. All day long, MTV let its audience know that they understood their desire to be cool and relevant. This wasn’t a music brand or a television brand — it was a lifestyle brand.

    And this was no ordinary audience. MTV research had revealed them to be tastemakers, kids who could shape their peers’ spending habits, viewing choices, and cultural preferences for a generation. MTV quickly opened up a direct line of communication to these influencers, something no television network had done before. MTV and its marketing partners became, in the memorable phrase of PBS’s Frontline, the merchants of cool.

    MTV also played a huge role in shaping the then-nascent platform of cable TV. Along with Ted Turner, whose CNN had launched the year before, MTV refused to pay for content that it could get for free or cheap. It hired five unknowns as its first veejays, figuring that viewers would make them famous. It was a miserly employer. Gideon Yago, who reported for MTV News, recently described himself as a glorified temp when he worked on the network. Not surprisingly, MTV was immensely profitable from the start. As the recent obits for Sumner Redstone point out, his ViacomCBS empire was largely built on MTV’s cashflow.

    And soon the culture bent to the desires of MTV nation. Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, and Billy Joel were among the pioneers who spent money on music videos designed to get heavy airplay on MTV. Clever artists with smaller budgets figured out how to pick MTV’s lock — Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” and, of course, Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing,” a song allegedly about mocking MTV but one that cleaned up at that year’s VMAs and arguably did more to take the brand mainstream than anything else that decade. When Redstone expanded his empire in 1987 with MTV Europe, the network did not launch with the Buggles’ one-hit wonder but with “Money for Nothing.”

    And then — so goes the old story goes — MTV abandoned music videos and switched to non-music programming. Well, it’s true, to a degree. The reality genre in the U.S. started here with The Real World, and arguably no one advanced the form in all of its crazy subgenres like the MTV family of cable channels. But once you understand MTV as a lifestyle brand above all else, then the pinball-like bounces from Real World, to Beavis and Butt-Head, to Jackass, to Tom Green, to The Osbournes, to Nick and Jessica, to Jersey Shore, to Shot at Love, to Teen Mom, to Catfish make more sense. MTV has always cultivated a young audience that is figuring out what it wants as it goes.

    In a similar vein, the channel’s notorious indifference to Black artists — for which it was called out by Rick James and others — was quickly corrected, as white suburban kids started buying hip-hop records and Billboard adjusted its charts in 1987 to correct underreporting of rap sales. Thirty-two years after Yo! MTV Raps launched, it lives on as a branded channel on PlutoTV. (Ironically, the video that caused MTV the most grief, James’ video for “Super Freak”, was nixed by the channel’s music director, a Black woman who called it “a piece of crap” and added, “I did not want that representing my people as the first black video on MTV.”)

    I have no idea if any of this will be covered in tonight’s heavily-promoted A&E special, Biography: I Want My MTV. But I do know that it’s impossible to think of the Eighties without thinking about MTV. That’s remarkable since, for most of that decade, many of us did not even get MTV in our homes. When it launched on August 1, 1981, fewer than one in four U.S. households had cable. By 1990 it was barely half, and MTV was far from ubiquitous on cable lineups.

    But it seems that the people at Biography — one of a dwindling number of iconic cable shows not owned by MTV’s parent company — have come to a realization that it took me a while to realize myself: MTV branded the Eighties generation. It’s their world, and the rest of us are just living in it.

    Biography: I Want My MTV airs on A&E September 8th at 9:00 PM ET 

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: MTV, A&E, Biography