MTV turns 30 years old this week, an age by which most people have stopped watching MTV and moved on to more mature pursuits, like the History Channel, or a second job, or naps. So, while this means that MTV is too old to watch itself, what's up for examination is its undeniable impact on pop culture. Here are some overlooked items and debunked myths about the world's first 24-hour cable channel dedicated to the devil's music (which is exactly the kind of thing I discuss in my new book, I Love Rock 'n' Roll (Except When I Hate It))
MTV didn't exactly rock the world overnight.
There are certain bits of trivia that absolutely everyone seems to know, for example Pluto not being a planet anymore, President Taft being extremely overweight, and that MTV went on the air on August 1, 1981, with the cheekily titled "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. This is so etched into the collective consciousness that we would presume MTV launched nationwide, simultaneously to millions who looked on in awe and wonder as if it were the first rocket to the moon (footage of which MTV actually used at this very moment). It's not true in the least. In 1981, only about a quarter of American homes had cable TV service, but MTV wasn't even available in most of them. On launch day, MTV was part of the lineup of just one cable system, in New Jersey. So only a few thousand people even had the chance to watch MTV at zero hour, and only a few hundred people actually did.
MTV didn't force youth culture.
Rock music and pop culture are the provenance of youth, and so, by its nature, MTV influences and is greatly influenced by what the kids these days are into. But it's always welcomed older acts and Boomer bands. Early MTV playlists were dominated by Rod Stewart, not because MTV programmers loved Rod Stewart (fun fact: nobody likes Rod Stewart), but because they just had a bunch of Rod Stewart videos because he'd had the foresight to start making them for most of his singles in the late '70s. Even after developing a large library and a big-man-on-campus swagger, MTV still pushed the oldies. For example, the Monkees got back together and toured in 1987 after MTV started airing reruns of their awesome '60s sitcom. Unplugged featured mostly classic rock icons like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. And in 1993, a year in which grunge and gangsta rap were at their heights, MTV's most-played video of the year and the one that went on to win the Video Music Award for Video of the Year was "Cryin'" by Aerosmith, a band that had been around so long that they were more or less passé already when MTV debuted in 1981.
MTV single-handedly made musicians into stars... but only for a little while.
Another misconception about MTV is that it allowed us to see the musicians behind the music for the first time. I guess that's true if you don't count TV variety shows, TV talk shows, Midnight Special, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, American Bandstand, live concerts, or album sleeves. I think the idea that MTV let us see musicians for the first time comes from the idea that everybody wanted to forget that they did see musicians in the '70s and most of them looked like your uncle's drinking buddies (the Doobie Brothers), the bad kids who skipped class to smoke in the parking lot (Journey), or Oates (Oates). If musicians had been anonymous voices, then MTV itself wouldn't have been a viable commercial product. What the music video did was effectively tie-in a crafted image with sound; looks certainly had a lot to do with the success of those pretty boys in Duran Duran or the keyboard-playing haircuts of A Flock of Seagulls. It also led to a lot of bands coming out of the gate with a distinct visual style or one memorable video. But a video only carries the one song. The long-established rules of entertainment still applied: If the band couldn't offer consistently good songs or consistently good videos as it were, they wouldn't be long for fame. The '80s are then noted for a wide array of one-hit-wonders remembered only because they looked weird or had cool videos, such as Dexy's Midnight Runners, Toni Basil, Thomas Dolby, or a-ha.
MTV was edgy... but not too edgy.
MTV is not a college radio station; it's a carefully managed corporate entity with delicate financial interests, and it has been since day one, so not just anything makes it to the air. MTV simply can't go too raunchy, or there would be both angry parents and angry advertisers. Over the past three decades, the network has refused to play dozens of videos or, in some cases, relegate them to "late night rotation." But since MTV only airs a few hours of videos a day now, and usually after 2 a.m., that distinction has become largely meaningless. Some bans make sense: The Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up" aired just twice late at night in 1997 before being pulled because it features naked breasts, violent bar fights, a sex scene, and realistic-looking drug use. MTV can't show sex and nudity, it can only imply it. Or sometimes not even that. In the clip for Foo Fighters' "Low," Dave Grohl and Jack Black play lumberjacks who meet up in a hotel room, get drunk, put on women's clothing, trash the room, and then make love, presumably, and entirely off-screen. That still got the video banned from MTV in 2003.
MTV made high art out of advertising.
Before MTV popularized the astoundingly obvious term "music videos" to describe "music videos," the three-minute, no-budget clips of lip-synching pop stars or rock bands miming their instruments appeared as filler on variety shows and obscure channels were called "promotional clips," which sounds about as rock 'n' roll as the 53-year-old marketing director who coined the term "promotional clips." But that's what they were, these things: They were promotional clips. Or, you know, ads. Whatever we call them (if it were up to me, they would have been called "rocky talkies," which sounds pretty perfect for MTV's hokey, Rod Stewart-driven infancy), videos are ads for a song designed to get people to go out and buy the record. Of course, it's easy to forget that music videos always were and always will be ads because it fortunately didn't take long for filmmakers to elevate the short-form music video to high art. I can't tell you a single winner of the Academy Award for Best Short Film, but I can give you a complete scene-by-scene breakdown from memory for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" or Weezer's "Buddy Holly." Say what you will, but MTV pretty much invented a new art form. Sure, they did it inadvertently while trying to move some product, but still ? it's absolutely revolutionary.