Music Diary Notes: MTV Turns 30 … What is YOUR Favorite Music Video?

MTV Launched 30 years ago today, on August 1st 1981. Over the decades, the music video art form has changed in some ways yet remains a product in service of a song. The channel itself has become somewhat of a joke in many ways, as in the late 1990’s the ‘music’ part became a minority share, and now we have a channel more focused on Snooki (Jersey Shore) and Amber (Teen Mom) than Katy or Kanye.

But over the decades MTV has done many other things as well. While it wasn’t the originator of music videos as art and entertainment beyond just watching a group play – there were concept videos made by the Beatles and The Who in the mid-60s, but these were called ‘promotional clips’, with the Beatles clips ending up in their movies, and some of The Who songs ending up in ‘The Kids Are Alright’. What MTV brought about was a revolution – cable was still new and proving its worth for consumers, and here comes the concept of a 24-hour music channel. It was presumed to be a neat concept that would quickly fizzle – but instead it flourished into one of the most iconic TV networks ever!

I recall reading an interview with Wynton Marsalis and Herbie Hancock in Down Beat magazine in the 80s in which Marsalis talks about the racism still present in the music industry mainstream as exemplified by MTV. Hancock addressed the fact that he was only seen in the video as an image on a TV screen, and very rarely at that, by saying it wasn’t important for him to be visible in his music video … causing Marsalis to wince and have nothing further to say. One MTV exec said that the perception of racism on MTV was misplaced, that the network simply came from AOR (album oriented rock) FM radio roots and was transitioning, and in fact they spent loads of time fostering artists and labels to produce videos and since few black artists had videos available and since the station was mostly rock music, it meant mostly white artists got played until things caught up.

It is a great story – but it is crap. Rick James actively shopped ‘Super Freak’ to MTV, which passed on the video claiming it was ‘over the top’. Yet viewing it now in the context of Whitesnake or Robert Palmer other early 80’s videos shows that perhaps it was more the inter-racial innuendo than anything else that made it objectionable.

Whatever the history of racism at MTV, in early 1983 it took a dramatic change that opened up the station for good: Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was just released, and while many expected it to fall short of ‘Off The Wall’ (really!), it quickly became clear that Thriller was truly a transcendant release. And so when CBS records brought the first video ‘Billie Jean’ to MTV, they had to make a choice. There are two stories: one where MTV execs felt the music was a bit off the core audience genres, but the video was so excellent and the song such an emergent hit that they couldn’t ignore it; the other story is that they DID try to ignore it but CBS execs threatened to pull everything from MTV if they didn’t air the videos from Thriller (CBS became Sony-BMG which now controls ~1/3 of music sales, to put it in context).

Like most stories, I think there is likely some truth to both sides … but the result is clear – we got multiple videos from Thriller, including the title song which is perhaps the greatest music video of all time. And soon we had ‘Yo! MTV Raps’, ‘Headbangers Ball’, and other specialized genre-focused segments on the channel.

In commemoration of this milestone, I thought it would be fun to walk through a dozen or so of my favorite MTV moments … in video form, of course! And yes, they are weighted towards the era when MTV stood for MUSIC TV, rather than Miscellaneous Trash Viewing …

Let’s start with the very first video clip played on MTV!

Which let right into The Buggles ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’

And here is the ‘too hot for MTV’ video for Rick James’ Super Freak

Max Headroom – quintessential character for the burgeoning digital age … undecipherable for kids today:

Certainly not jazz, but I have always loved Herbie Hancock’s Rockit! The official video is only available on MTV, but here is the song live at the 1984 Grammy Awards:

And of course … Michael Jackson’s Thriller:

Aha’s Take On Me presented a unique art style:

Run DMC and Aerosmith historic cross-over video on Walk This Way

MTV also ran a great ‘Unplugged’ series (well, it was great until it started including non-acoustic instruments), and Nirvana was one of the best:

Back to unique art styles, Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer … yeah.

And what can we say about MTV without Beavis and Butthead … this time making fun of Michael Bolton:

A video that is at once entrancing and disturbing – Nine Inch Nails ‘Closer’:

Another artist closely linked to MTV is Madonna – with songs like Like a Prayer, Like a Virgin, Borderline, and more she was the iconic face of the video music age. This video was directed by David Fincher, who made Social Network, Benjamin Button, and many more … but got his start with Express Yourself:

In 1986 a band who bridged rock and rap and all-out party spirit broke BIG on MTV – The Beastie Boys and ‘Fight for Your Right’

As more and more people watched music videos, the competition to make creative and memorable videos – with real directors and larger budgets. Here Weezer got Spike Jonez to create a ‘Buddy Holly’ video that inserted the band into an episode of Happy Days!

Many folks forget how the 80s jumped back to classic Buddy Holly late 50’s rock & roll. Here is the Stray Cats:

And along the same lines, Adam and the Ants:

And in 1984 a German singer without English skills had us all singing about 99 Sich LuftBallons:

And in the same year 70’s rockers ZZ Top added synthesizers and sequencers and produced a song and video that took aim directly at the predominantly young male MTV audience:

Another iconic 80’s band, Duran Duran went to Sri Lanka for this historic video:

The classic cult film Repo Man included this great song from Suicidal Tendencies, with a video that starts like a typical band song but build much like the song itself:

And to finish, it only took a few years for music to come full circle, singing about how much fame there was on MTV. Dire Straits dominated the radio and MTV with their ‘Money for Nothing’ which made the claim ‘That’s the way you do it, play the guitar on MTV’

So what are YOUR favorite memories of MTV and music videos in general?

Categories: Music Diary

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5 replies

  1. Take On Me by Ah-Ha has always been my favorite video. Before we were able to get MTV, I loved seeing that video come on Night Tracks.

  2. Great post Mike and a must-read for anyone in our general age group. I remember fondly when MTV was actually about music videos. For me some of the great bands MTV led me to…
    Adam and the Ants
    Duran Duran
    Stray Cats
    Culture Club
    The Cure
    Pat Benatar
    Billy Idol
    Pet Shop Boys
    Thomson Twins
    Spandex Ballet
    Joan Jett


  3. So many, where to start.

    “Groove is in the Heart” by Deeeeeeeeelite
    “The Call” by the Backstreet Boys”
    Various Lionel Ritchie Videos. They always make me laugh.
    Some of the Journey and Survivor ones. They also make me laugh.
    The Red Hot Chili Peppers one where they roll around a lot naked except for the socks. Played all the time on USA Channel’s Night Flight.

    The list goes on and on.

  4. “Money for Nothing” defined the network, but I have to go with “Sledgehammer” for my favorite.

  5. You’ve hit on all of the videos that I consider the “best”.

    Madonna back in her prime was both more popular and more edgy than Lady Gaga could ever hope to be. Of her videos, I thought the most intriguing were “Bedtime Stories” and “Frozen.” Both were graphically superb and utilized high tech effects without appearing cartoonish.

    And don’t forget the music video parodies that Weird Al Yankovic produced. His parodies of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” and “Beat It” were gold.