Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Dec 8th 2011 4:00PM by David Chiu
Courtesy of Adam Curry
In 'I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,' their recently published oral history of the channel, authors Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum focus on the period from 1981 to 1992, which they describe as the "Golden Age of MTV." Featuring numerous interviews with musicians, actors, directors and former MTV executives and VJs, 'I Want My MTV' offers insightful perspective and outrageous stories about the network and the era. The book also reveals the behind-the-scenes stories of videos such as Michael Jackson's
'Thriller' and Madonna's 'Like a Virgin.'
Spinner recently spoke with Marks about MTV's early years and how things changed at the network when original shows like 'The Real World' and 'Beavis and Butt-Head' emerged in the '90s.
Why did you and Rob decide to write the book? Did it have to do with the 30th anniversary of the network?
That was one of the hooks. We were both the same age of viewers who grew up with MTV. We felt there wasn't a book that looked at MTV at a couple of different angles, one from the music-video angle and examined the genesis of the music video as we know it today. We also looked at the company, which was then a brash start-up, and how it grew into the behemoth that it is now. We also found there were a lot of people who feel very warmly toward that era when MTV stood for when all their programming was music video-related. They felt somewhat betrayed, I think, by MTV's current direction or no direction in the last five or so years. So we thought there was an audience that wanted to relive this golden era.
It was founded by smart, really young, very television-inexperienced people. They were almost all radio people, programmers from rock radio, all in their mid-20s, late 20's. They were shrewd and they were really energized. They made a bet on this medium that barely existed at that point. So they were starting a $25-million cable company based on 250 quite terrible videos that existed and 24/7 programming based on nothing but those videos. So their gamble was on A) people would be so knocked out by this new medium that they would sit there on their couch smoking dope with their eyes glued to the TV; B) the record companies would give them [videos] for free; and [C]) once the record labels saw that playing these videos sold records, that they would invest a lot of money in them and that every artist in the world would want to make them. All those things happened, but it was a real risk that they took.
One aspect of MTV's early days was that it broke a lot of the British New Romantic bands such as Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo.
Before these British bands started making videos, MTV was just playing videos leftover clips from .38 Special, videos that [David Bowie] made in '79, and Journey performance videos that were really awful. Luckily for all, these British bands loved the format, they loved making music videos and they were very theatrical, and they liked dressing up and looked really striking. They liked wearing makeup and teasing their hair, and they preened for the camera. [MTV] had 24 hours a day of programming to fill, and these bands put out really good videos. Duran's 'Hungry Like the Wolf' was a groundbreaking clip and so it was a prefect marriage. These bands would never have broken as they did without MTV playing them incessantly.
In the book, one of the controversies surrounding MTV back then were charges of racism because the network hardly aired videos by black artists. MTV executives Les Garland and Bob Pittman said that black musicians did not perform rock music. Who was right?
They're both sort of right, but it's a vicious cycle. Labels didn't put a lot of money into their urban videos because there was already segregation at record companies. Black artists didn't get the financial respect that the white artist got. If there's really one game in town, and it's MTV, and you're a record executive, and you know MTV is not going to play your Shalamar video or Earth, Wind and Fire video, why give Earth, Wind and Fire a lot of money to make one? It was kind of a catch-22. The main players at [MTV] were rock radio programmers [and] rock radio played a certain kind of artist: Guitar-based, white, sort of suburban-appealing rock music.
When Michael Jackson came along, he was already an established star. That was good for all. He put a lot of money into the 'Billie Jean' video. It looked great and better than everything else that had ever come out. MTV executives to this day contended they added the video right out of the box, there was never any doubt. Everyone else, including all the record company executives and Jackson's manager said that's not true. Walter Yetnikoff, who was the very powerful head of CBS Record, said to [MTV head] Bob Pittman, "If you don't play Michael Jackson's video, we're gonna pull all our videos from rotation," which would have been a significant loss for MTV.
It's kind of a "he said-he said" thing at this point. I think there was some initial reluctance in spite of MTV protestations. But to MTV's credit, they did play it and it went very well for them. Their audience was open-minded than they had projected, which was a great thing. Then they played "Beat It" after that, and [MTV] liked it even more because it had Eddie Van Halen on guitar, so they felt it crossed over to their audience. And then of course "Thriller" came out, and [it] became the biggest and most important video of all time. MTV played it literally every hour on the hour.
You touch on Madonna in the book. Certainly her relationship with MTV went hand in hand in those days.
It was mutually beneficial. She was really the first MTV star. Michael Jackson was already a star. Duran Duran were big stars in Europe. Madonna was an unknown. Her career began when MTV ascended in late 1983 and 1984. She knew the power of her own image and looks and how important that were. She was a provocateur. She merged pop music with incredibly provocative politics and imagery, and that was perfect for television. I think Madonna would have been a star regardless, but certainly her superstardom was the result of her fantastic videos.
Fast forward to the early '90s: MTV played an important part in the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992. It sort of established the network as a major cultural force.
As MTV matured, the thrill and the novelty of playing music videos and the tethering of their success to just music videos felt very limiting to them. Likewise, they really wanted to be taken seriously at MTV and the execs in charge were idealistic baby boomers and felt MTV could really make a difference. So they developed an MTV news department and that's how their political coverage grew and decided to cover [the election] with their own young reporters, not with seasoned CNN reporters. Luckily, in '92 they had a candidate in Bill Clinton who recognized the power of the youth vote and who would talk to them as equals. What their coverage did was give them a social platform that they still actively use today. And it convinced advertisers that MTV was for real, that it was a serious network with lots of power and it wasn't a bunch of dudes playing Motley Crue all the time.
So things started to change in the early '90s as MTV started focusing on original and reality-based programming such like 'The Real World' and 'Beavis and Butt-Head' as airing music videos began to decline.
That was era was almost exclusively focused on music and the artists who really were the bread and butter of MTV: Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Guns N' Roses, Nirvana. But once 'The Real World' happened in '92, MTV saw that the ratings were much better for 'The Real World' than playing one three-and-a-half-minute video after another. In order to sell ads, you need to convince advertisers that people are gonna stick around for a half-hour or an hour. And narrative shows like 'The Real World,' 'Remote Control' and then 'Beavis and Butt-Head' [were] better for their ratings.
What were some of your favorite stories or anecdotes as you worked on the book?
The "I want my MTV ad" campaign [from the early '80s] is a fascinating chapter. Here's MTV, things are looking bleak, they can't get people to carry their network -- and here's this really creative ad campaign, and here's the hubris of MTV to think they were going to convince rock stars to do TV commercials for them for free and say, "Call your cable operators and demand your MTV." It was like the hubris that they had and their ability to schmooze with rock stars to get them to do this thing, to get Mick Jagger to say "I want my MTV."
There were people who said working at MTV's music department in the '80s was the best job in the world. That strikes me as true. Some of the people I enjoyed interviewing the most were not the musicians, but the women in [Robert Palmer's] 'Addicted to Love' video and Tawny Kitaen [from Whitesnake's 'Here I Go Again' video], people who were the satellites in the music-video world but whose presence in these videos were part of music history. They're accidental rock stars in a way. It was fun to listen to them reflect on that era.
Overall, what made MTV so successful? Was it because of the videos, the network's business savvy or both?
I think what made it really work were the music videos, that's the real heart of it. It's a great form. People still go to VEVO and watch music videos all day long. It was a sort of fearlessness that the executives had, they believed wholeheartedly in what they were doing. They were brilliant strategists, but mostly they were just nervy motherf---ers. I find it fascinating that they built a whole network out on something that barely existed. And that's what vision is.