On Aug. 1, 1981, long before people were conditioned to want their MTV, Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment gave birth to a cultural revolution. It was televised, albeit just barely: The nascent music-video channel was unavailable through most cable carriers, so hardly anybody could bear witness to its glitchy launch even if they’d wanted to.
The first video was an obvious one: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles.Pat Benatar was next. MTV’s arrival as an unstoppable youth-culture juggernaut came later, to the surprise of, well, pretty much everyone. “Hardly anyone thought it would succeed,” we are told at the outset of “I Want My MTV,” an enormous, wildly entertaining book that covers the first 11 tongue-wagging years of MTV’s existence, before reality programming began to push the music out. (Making videos also became prohibitively expensive, and all the good ideas had already been done, according to people quoted in the book. So, then, video killed the video star?)
It seems almost unthinkable now, with multiple offerings of just about every artist available for immediate viewing on YouTube, but videos featuring musicians and their songs were rare in 1981. In fact, there were so few circulating — and especially so few good ones — that MTV in its infancy would play nearly anything save for videos by black artists before Michael Jackson moonwalked right through that wall.
But videos quickly became important calling cards, rather than promotional afterthoughts, and image was suddenly one of the most important parts of the pop calculus. According to Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, “MTV changed the architecture of being an artist.”
Before MTV hoisted Michael and Madonna onto the Mount Rushmore of pop idols; before it turned Duran Duran, Def Leppard and the like into stars and introduced the quick-cut aesthetic; before it spread rap to the suburbs and became one of the world’s most powerful and influential media brands — before all of that, MTV “sounded like an asinine idea,” according to Bob Pittman, one of the channel’s founding fathers.
Of course, Beavis and Butt-heads everywhere began to discover the channel’s exotic, around-the-clock servings of Spandex, guyliner, poofy hair, buxom video vixens and zoo animals (set to various iterations of rock-and-roll), and the mix proved addictive. MTV became a galvanizing force — perhaps the last one before mass culture splintered into a billion niches.
It also became very big business with a twist of genius: MTV paid nothing to the record companies and the artists for the content that fueled its enterprise. Not that the music biz was left in the cold completely; record sales doubled during the first decade of MTV’s existence, although the advent of the CD had something to do with it.
Presented as an oral history, which is a much harder reporting and writing exercise than it may seem, “I Want My MTV” is crammed with quotes from hundreds of record executives, artist managers, video directors, fashion models, MTV executives and staffers, and, of course, musicians, some (George Michael, Janet Jackson) more famous than others (that guy from Flock of Seagulls). Their recollections tell the story of the channel’s rise, with plenty of asides about bad hair, bad videos and bad attitudes. Former MTV News reporter Tabitha Soren’s old nickname? “Crabitha,” according to Adam Curry, one of the many fungible VJs who came and went at MTV.
The book is full of nostalgia and inside tidbits, with lots of bizarre stories about animals on video sets, such as the doves that may or may not have been sucked into a fan, chopped up and then splattered all over Prince during a long-ago video shoot. Music and culture fans of a certain age, who wasted incredible amounts of time in the 1980s watching awful new-wave, hair-band and Stevie Nicks videos, and loved it — you will want this book. Aqua Net sold separately.
Du Lac is a reporter for The Washington Post. He previously served as The Post’s pop music critic.