Music To Look At

One afternoon in December 1981, my partner John Maxwell and I were at the Bottom Line in New York, prepping two performances of our one-man show in which he played William Faulkner. Several expat friends from Mississippi wandered in. I remember my delight at welcoming Clif Dowell, who was working for Geraldo Rivera at the time and whom I hadn’t seen since college. Another was Alan Hunter, whom John and I knew from theater circles back home. “Whatcha doin’ these days, Al?” He flipped me a business card that read:

MTV

MUSIC TELEVISION

Alan Hunter

Video Jock

Four months earlier, Alan and four other “video jocks” had launched MTV – but of course, like most people we’d never heard of it. (In fact, it wasn’t yet available even in New York City: the staff had had to schlep out to Fort Lee, New Jersey to watch MTV go on the air at midnight on August 1.) I was laughing inside as I read Alan’s card: all I could think of was the Rick Moranis “video jock” character on SCTV, pushing a fader bar and spouting an exaggerated radio-announcer intonation. But, my friend, in the fullness of time, the joke was on me.

The lively, entertaining I WANT MY MTV is an oral history of the channel’s early days, from ’81 to 1992, when MTV debuted THE REAL WORLD and kind of became something else. It’s perfect for me, and for anyone else who was watching the young “national radio station.” The past two decades have seen MTV morph into irrelevance as far as I’m concerned (of course, I’m no longer within its target demographic), and I truly don’t care to go backstage for those years. But this book is about the era in which MTV actually played music videos (it quietly removed the words “Music Television” from its logo in 2010) and shook up the entire record business. There have been other books about this period, even other oral histories. This is the best one by far.

MTV was just feeling its way when we met Alan Hunter that day. Even that initial broadcast began with a flub: he was supposed to be the fifth and final VJ (their segments were taped separately; nothing about early MTV was live), but a technician loaded the tapes in the wrong order, so Al became the first MTV VJ to appear on camera – by mistake. It might have continued crawling along had not Bob Pittman, one of the founders of the channel, hired famed adman George Lois for a marketing campaign.

In those days, local cable providers – mostly serving rural viewers who were too far away for over-the-air signals to reach – held all the cards, and not a few of them didn’t care for the sex, drugs and rock & roll menu MTV was serving. Lois reasoned that it was a mistake to market “top-down” to the cable companies; MTV needed to go over their heads, to the viewers themselves, and create demand. One of Lois’s best-known campaigns was for a breakfast cereal. Based on an idea by animator John Hubley, the ads had famous sports stars sobbing into the camera, “I want my Maypo!” Lois simply trotted it out again thirty years later – but the key was turned by MTV’s Les Garland, who convinced none other than Mick Jagger to say, “I want my MTV!” into the camera. Other rock stars followed, and it didn’t take long before the cable operators were inundated. Round One to MTV.

Those heady let’s-put-on-a-show days are exhilarating to read about, because nobody was aware they were causing a sea change in the music business; they were just making it up as they went along. MTV was existing on a total library of just a few hundred already-produced videos when its executives made the rounds to try and convince the record labels that shooting a video was a legitimate bit of promotion. It took comparing sales to MTV playlists, but the correlation was so obvious that soon the labels were financing more and more elaborate videos themselves. In retrospect, perhaps that was an unwise decision, but MTV continued to get its programming for free. Round Two to MTV.

This book is especially useful in showing how music videos also affected the film business. The list of successful directors who started in music video is long and impressive, but unfortunately we only hear about David Fincher and Michael Bay in the words of colleagues (other directors, like Steve Barron, Russell Mulcahy, John Sayles and Tarsem Singh, are only too happy to talk). Video shoots even served as film schools for other people who just took the opportunity and ran with it, and since nobody at any label had any experience supervising videos, the job often fell to women, advancing their power in the industry.

MTV caused harm as well, and these issues are also covered. In my opinion, the worst thing about music video is that it prescribes a visual template onto a song. Whereas once music inspired different imagery for each listener – one of its most pleasant attributes – now a video director is, in a way, telling you what a particular song looks like. For example, it’s hard to forget the animated kaleidoscopic video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” on subsequent hearings. Also, the kinetic editing style that’s supposed to keep you glued to the set has seeped into feature films, with Bay being the poster boy, and made storytelling so much harder to follow, the technique even descending lately into cliché. Time and again we read about parties at which MTV played in the background with the sound off; I can even remember hosting a few.

Another consequence of MTV was more pernicious. It caused musical acts to worry more about how they looked than how they sounded. The term “hair metal” brings to mind dozens of lousy videos from lousy groups, and that’s strictly a cosmetic issue. Some people think the video era stunted the careers of perfectly great musicians who didn’t look so hot (and even one who did: the collective evisceration of Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite,” considered by many to be the worst video ever made, is hilarious). When your only view of a rocker was from the 40th row at an arena, appearance didn’t matter so much. But it didn’t take long for the MTV audience to tire of “performance” videos – in other words, just shoot them on stage playing a song – in favor of hot chicks and stripper poles.

But that’s all water under the bridge by now. And the full-force cultural flow is right here, those first insane ten years, from the Moonman to Dexys Midnight Runners to Michael Jackson to Madonna to YO! MTV RAPS. This is the story, from the people who were present at the creation. It’s one of the most delightful reads out there.

3 Responses to Music To Look At

  1. klhoughton says:

    “[Directors like] Steve Barron, Russell Mulcahy, John Sayles and Tarsem Singh, are only too happy to talk. Video shoots even served as film schools for other people who just took the opportunity and ran with it, and since nobody at any label had any experience supervising videos, the job often fell to women, advancing their power in the industry”

    I still fondly remember Sayles accepting a Video Music Award in the mid-1980s–after Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, Brother from Another Planet and probably a couple of other of his self-works (not to mention Alligator and his other pay-the-bills-to-make-my-next-film works)–and thanking Bruce Springsteen for “my first crane shot.” (Iirc, in “I’m on Fire.”)

  2. Thanks, Tom — glad to see that you liked my MTV book. Fincher and Bay declined repeated requests for interviews. Both seem to view that stage of their careers as embarrassing, in light of their current accomplishments (artistic, in the former’s case, and commercial, in the latter’s).

  3. Don says:

    Awesome article…must get the book!

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