When Video Killed Radio Stars By Dwight Garner

Here is a pretty good article from the New York Times. Dwight Garner reviews the book, I Want My MTV. Here is the article:

When Video Killed Radio Stars

By Dwight Garner

Like almost everyone who was a teenager in the early 1980s, when the Music Television network first went live on cable, I wanted my MTV. I’d glue myself to the channel for hours, losing body mass, muscle control and self-esteem, the way my son gives himself over to video games today. MTV demanded that you linger in front of it for entire afternoons, because it tucked its few good videos amid so many horrible ones. You had to learn Zen couch potato patience.

Before MTV, scanning for new music on television was mostly a thankless task, even if you stayed up late, and stayed home, on weekends. There was “Saturday Night Live,” then as now hit or miss musically. There were the greasy, bell-bottomed bands on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” many past their prime. MTV delivered not just new music, constantly on tap, but also a jumpy new visual aesthetic. Directors began editing footage the way Edward Scissorhands trimmed hedges.

It’s been said that the music you listen to when you first begin steaming up car windows is the music you want to hear for the rest of your life. This explains why I and so many people I know still cock our heads wistfully at songs by — and especially acoustic cover versions of songs by — iffy bands like Men at Work, Tears for Fears and Thompson Twins. It’s a generational cross we bear, and we’ve come to terms with it.

All of this is a prelude to saying that I’m smack in the center of the target demographic for “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” by the music journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. The book is an oral history, like Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s “Edie: An American Biography,” and a volume this one more closely resembles, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s excellent “Live From New York,” about “Saturday Night Live.”

If “I Want My MTV” is not nearly as riveting as those earlier books, it largely has the network itself to blame. MTV and its ancillary channels (VH1 and MTV2 among them) have parsed this history so often in shows like “Behind the Music” and “Beavis and Butt-Head,” and in specials like “100 Greatest One Hit Wonders,” that we’re painfully familiar with much of the material here.

Yet I read this mild narcotic of a book, which covers the network’s glory years from 1981 to 1992, pretty happily. It reminded me of those long days watching MTV, back when it still played videos. Reading this, you prop up your eyelids with toothpicks and stick around for the good bits.

MTV went live on Aug. 1, 1981. Many cable companies wouldn’t carry it, partly because of its rock ’n’ roll content, and in the early days you could watch it in Wichita, Kan., for example, but not New York City.

The channel didn’t really crash into the national consciousness until 1983. Bands that got their videos played that year became famous almost overnight. Every sentient straight male in the country developed a schoolboy crush on Martha Quinn, one of the first V.J.’s, fresh out of New York University and so cute she could make your cranium detonate.

The authors encourage their subjects to dilate on MTV’s precursors, including the director Mike Nichols’s use of Simon and Garfunkel in “The Graduate,” and the “Born to Be Wild” chopper-riding scene in “Easy Rider.” They deliver a corporate history of MTV and marvel at its cagey business model, seemingly borrowed from Tom Sawyer and his white picket fence: It got record labels and artists to make the videos and give them to MTV.

When MTV started, there were so few music videos extant that the network scrambled for content. Many early videos came pouring out of Britain, from acts like Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls, ABC, Joe Jackson and the Police, in a parade the early MTV executive Bob Pittman refers to here as “the second British Invasion.”

Most of these European performers were decidedly un-macho, the antithesis of longhair American bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grand Funk Railroad, and they had an electric impact on young audiences. John Taylor, the bass player for Duran Duran, is eloquent about these early videos.

“They were dropping like bombs on the suburbs of Ohio and Texas, places that were so conservative,” Taylor says. “For people that were a little different — maybe they didn’t yet know they were gay, or didn’t know they were into art — the kinds of things that were on MTV were like life changers. All this stuff like Culture Club was the result of an underground, progressive, liberal, London art school sensibility.” Cheap videos gave way to expensive ones. The channel made international stars out of Madonna and Michael Jackson, who was the first black artist given substantial airtime on MTV. Hair metal arrived, with its attendant cleavage, firebombs and sodden double entendres. The authors deadpan: “Videos created ample work for Playboy playmates and for choreographers, dancers, mimes, animal trainers, pyrotechnicians, hairdressers, aestheticians, dry-ice vendors, coke dealers and midgets. (Midgets were a staple of music videos. Midget freelance work surely peaked in the ’80s.)”

This book is packed with mea culpas from rockers who had dreadful haircuts or made career-defining dreadful videos during the 1980s. About one of her videos, Patty Smyth says, “I had no idea it would look like an Off Broadway version of ‘Cats.’ ” Billy Joel says he got this order: “Dance around with a wrench in your hand.” Billy Squier’s career was ruined by his pastel outfits and giddy prancing in the video for “Rock Me Tonite.” The authors call this “the worst video ever made.”

Details like these pile up in “I Want My MTV.” Here are a few stray quotations, chosen almost at random: “I slept inside of a chandelier last night. What’s your excuse?”; “the cow flew out the back of the trailer”; “We fed Valium to a few cats and had them running around a table while we had a feast with sexy models and Playboy centerfolds, ripping apart a turkey”; “At one point I was drinking gin out of a dog’s dish.”

In the late 1980s bands began to run out of new ideas. MTV’s ratings sagged. Rap music helped for a while, creating in America what one record executive calls “the white homeboy nation.” In 1992 MTV had a hit with “The Real World,” an unscripted soap opera, and before long videos were a thing of the past. Today the network’s biggest star is Snooki.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing here about MTV’s current state. One of the network’s former executives, Abbey Konowitch, puts it pretty well, “MTV was the last national radio station.”

I don’t watch “Jersey Shore,” but I’m not among those who pine for MTV’s glory days. Most of the performers I care about still make videos, and many of these are lovely. You can track them down — as well as live performances, which are better than videos anyway — on YouTube.

VH1 still broadcasts a weekly “Top 20 Countdown,” which is worth taping. Good stuff sneaks in there, occasionally, by total accident. The experience of watching “Top 20 Countdown” is greatly enhanced by a bit of technology I didn’t have in the early 1980s: the fast-forward button.

3 thoughts on “When Video Killed Radio Stars By Dwight Garner”

  1. Good article. Although, unlike the author, I still pine for the glory days of MTV. Youtube (and Return to the 80s, of course) are fantastic, but it’s not the same as sitting on the couch watching the TV.

    I’d like to see a network bring back something like Night Tracks. I don’t have to have 24 hours of videos, just a few on the weekend. They could even throw in some new videos along with the classics.


    1. Thanks for the compliment! And it’s funny how you bring up airing something on TV. Earlier this year, Nickelodeon started airing a block of their old shows at night, and it was a huge success. About a month or 2 ago, I posted on an MTV wall (don’t know if it’s an official MTV page or a fan page) that they should do something similar. Instead of reairing those stupid “reality shows over and over a million times, they should set aside a block of airing the old videos, and maybe show clips of the VJ’s, and maybe even throw in some retro commercials. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that maybe I should create a page to petition MTV to do it. Hey, it worked to get Betty White on SNL!


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