Saturday 25 January 2020

How MTV rocked the world

Michael Jackson in Thriller.
Michael Jackson in Thriller.
MTV VJs Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn and JJ Jackson.
1986 Madonna.

Joe O'Shea

At midnight on August 1, 1982, a group of extremely nervous TV executives watched as a new US cable channel opened for business with the words: "Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n' roll!"

As footage of the recent launch of the Space Shuttle Columbus segued into the video promo for 'Video Killed The Radio Star' (by one-hit wonders The Buggles) nobody watching in the studio in New York or on their TVs at home could have realised the magnitude of what they had just witnessed.

Music Television or MTV would rocket from minority cable-TV channel to pop-cultural phenomenon, first revolutionising the music industry and then changing TV itself.

From profoundly influencing the way music was made and marketed, MTV would go on to foster the era of reality TV, making celebrities out of "ordinary" people, while inspiring endless copy-catting across a bewildering range of satellite and cable channels.

And three decades on from its launch, MTV today is a multi-media behemoth and the favoured target for those outraged at the dumbing-down of popular culture.

From what many deem the first reality TV show, 1992's The Real World, through to Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Hills, Paris Hilton, My Super Sweet 16, and 16 And Pregnant, MTV created the formats that all others have followed.

And it is easy to forget that when it started and for almost a decade afterwards, the station was simply rock radio on TV, a 24/7 rolling music video channel with video jockeys or 'VJs' doing old-style DJ patter and interviews in between the Duran Duran, Madonna and Michael Jackson videos.

MTV launched with five VJs – Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, and JJ Jackson – and a very small selection of rock music videos on heavy rotation.

Four of those five original faces (JJ Jackson died in 2004) have just released a collaborative memoir; VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV's First Wave, which captures some of the craziness and relative innocence of the early days of music television. The anecdotes tend towards 1980s rock excess, including tales of presenters doing cocaine with the industry's rich and shameless on private jets.

The former VJs dish on how they were exploited by MTV bosses even as they became the most famous young TV faces in the US, earning as little as $26,000 a year.

Alan Hunter says he and his fellow VJs were shocked at the impact that MTV quickly made on pop culture in the pre-internet era.

"MTV became the epicentre for almost everything in media after a couple of years," says Hunter.

'It focused people, it homogenised the country in a way – that is to say, kids in Idaho knew what was going on with fashion in New York."

The VJs themselves were in the strange position of hanging with '80s rock royalty, but taking home what almost amounted to minimum wage from a channel that was struggling in its first few years to break even. And it was only when MTV started to move away from the video jukebox format towards the end of the '80s that the real money started to roll in, by which time, most of the original VJs were on the way out.

The channel's bosses eventually realised that they could stop playing music videos and move into generating their own, often very cheap content, usually involving 'stars' they didn't have to pay or even worry about, career-wise.

"Ultimately, there would be no reason to play videos on MTV," says original VJ Mark Goodman.

"That's why you're not seeing them now. What's the point of showing videos like that when there's Vevo and YouTube?"

The MTV memoir also tackles a very controversial element of the station's early history, the almost total lack of music from African-American artists.

Those who ran the station in the 1980s always denied accusations of racism behind what many in the music industry called "MTV's Blackout".

They claimed that as a rock 'n' roll-orientated music station, they simply didn't have any music of black origin to play.

MTV co-founder Les Garland told one US magazine in 2006: "We had nothing to pick from. Fifty per cent of my time was spent in the early days of MTV convincing artists to make music videos and convincing record labels to put up money to make those videos."

However, this version ignores at least one mainstream black star, Michael Jackson, who was making videos as early as 1979 (for 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough').

Jackson and his management were more than ready to make the kind of music videos that MTV said they wanted.

But it would take some major arm-wrestling by Jackson's record company to eventually get MTV to play the video for 'Billie Jean', the second track from Jackson's 1982 album Thriller and the first video by a black artist to get heavy rotation on MTV.

Released in January 1983, the classic single would go on to top the Billboard 100 chart for seven weeks. But US magazine Rolling Stone has claimed that CBS Records group president Walter Yetnikoff had to threaten to remove all other CBS videos from MTV before the network agreed to air 'Billie Jean'.

The irony was that Jackson would, in December of 1983, give MTV its biggest-ever hit and one of the iconic moments of the 1980s, using the channel for the worldwide premiere of the epic video for 'Thriller'.

MTV may have just been reflecting the climate of the times, when music tastes were still heavily segregated in the US and before the rise of hip-hop and mainstream R'n'B changed the game. Today, the many MTV stations are happy to welcome any and all races, especially if they can generate cheap, usually sensational and almost always dollar-grabbing content.

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