Well, here we are: I finally finished this 572-page book. (Not counting the index.) The music video era has truly ended, brought on by grunge and The Real World. Of course, Nirvana did make music videos, but they were intentionally subversive. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” featured all the outcasts of high school, everyone that wouldn’t normally be in a music video. Music videos in general had just become more about art and less about big hair and other excesses.
Despite the shifting profile of the channel, an executive described 1990-1992 as another “golden era” of MTV. A reason for this is that MTV demonstrated its influence in the world beyond music. When they covered the 1990 election, it engaged a demographic that historically hadn’t been inclined to vote.
The artists, staff, and viewers of MTV have conflicting feelings about what happened to the channel after it became less about music. The final chapter is titled “You Have No Idea How I Miss It.” They acknowledge MTV for what it was when it started: a cultural revolution that brought people together, created and/or broke careers, and shaped a generation. That’s the version of MTV that they miss. And indeed, that’s the nature of nostalgia. We focus on the parts that we like and were meaningful to us.
Overall I’d give the book a 3.5 out of 5. I Want My MTV is great for behind-the-scenes stories and it’s amazing how many famous voices they were able to gather. That said, I think the book could be about 20% shorter. (For example, the chapter about that was exclusively about drugs didn’t feel necessary; I got the point from the other anecdotes.) As I said in a previous review, it got a bit repetitive.
This segment covers chapters 34-46. The ’80s are now drawing to a close, along with MTV’s first decade. I liked this section of the book because it’s the more obscure part of MTV’s history. 1984 has passed and the “big” acts that kicked off the channel have either been left to obscurity, or have gone mainstream enough that they’re no longer as splashy.
Now MTV is starting to look more like the channel that I grew up with. They’re branching out from music, with the Remote Control game show and Cindy Crawford’s House of Style. MTV also started airing 120 Minutes, which was the kind of programming I would have watched had I been around during that era. It was the home of the emerging “alternative” genre. They played The Replacements, Nirvana, R.E.M., The Cure, and others that wouldn’t have been as popular during regular hours. (120 Minutes was tucked away in a Saturday slot.)
But the channel was changing in other ways, too. There were new VJs that were crasser, louder, and less interested in the music itself. MTV invested in turning these VJs into celebrities in a way they hadn’t with the previous crop. Meanwhile, Club MTV was yet another excuse to showcase beautiful girls dancing. The camera tended to…linger. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap from the channel’s “coverage” of Spring Break, which was the channel’s attempt to garner ad space from alcohol companies. You can see how that’s a precursor to the kind of reality shows MTV airs now: people partying hard and hooking up in a variety of settings.
On a more serious note, Yo! MTV Raps was a non-music video program that was particularly influential. It launched Will Smith’s career as the Fresh Prince, which, as DJ Jazzy Jeff comments, “introduced a lot of white kids to hip-hop.” The show really did integrate MTV, and cemented the channel’s longevity as a result – for better or worse.
Up next: the end of the book and my closing thoughts.
Welcome back to my series reviewing the book I Want My MTV! This review covers chapters 21-33. We’re about halfway through the book at this point. Speaking of “we’re halfway there”: Bon Jovi makes an appearance in this section. There’s a chapter about hair metal and how, despite its often cheesy aesthetic, it raked in the cash and cemented a genre.
Here’s where MTV really starts to take a turn: they’re going corporate. Their influence is becoming even more wide-reaching. And it’s here that one-hit wonders start getting made. You either have the image or you don’t, and MTV is the channel that decides that fate. This was something I had never thought about before, or at least not to this level of detail, so I enjoyed that perspective.
One of the ways MTV exerted its influence was through the Video Music Awards, which were first created in 1984. (One thing that I started wondering as I read this section was, “why don’t they call it the Music Video Awards since that’s what the channel is all about?”) Superstars like Madonna and industry movers and shakers from behind the scenes got the best seats. Of course, there was also some money and backdoor deals that went into it.
This section of the book also goes into detail about the substances that fueled MTV and the videos themselves back then. It’s at this point that I started to not like the book anymore because of how repetitive it’s becoming. I’m not enjoying the endless stories about parties. There’s an entire chapter all about it, in addition to perhaps 80% of the rest of the anecdotes in the book.
What shook up this section is the chapter on the rise of Run-DMC. Rap was everywhere…except on MTV. Run-DMC and their remix of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” changed that. It made rap accessible to wide (i.e. white) audiences. I love stories about new trends in music and their origins. This is one of the ur-examples.
Up next is the gradual transformation of the channel into the reality show clearing house it is today.
As mentioned in the previous post, I’m splitting this review up into parts since it’s such a long book. This part covers chapters 13-20.
I feel like now we’re getting into the meat of the MTV story. Music videos had now established themselves as a way to get sales. Even the Boss finally caved and made videos for a few songs from Born in the U.S.A. Although his videos were mainly concert footage at first, “I’m On Fire” actually has something of a plot. Because music videos are so big, artists are having more of a say instead of just producers. See: Prince’s paranoia about his creative vision.
Because music videos were now mainstream, each one had to be bigger than the last. And perhaps one of the biggest music videos of all was (and is) Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” This is where the book, though admittedly bloated, is quite enjoyable: it dives into the minutiae of making something so iconic. You get to hear the story from the people who were actually there.
It’s also the fun part of the book because Madonna has now arrived. The interviewees make a good point that the Madonna/MTV relationship is something of a chicken-and-egg situation: MTV was just hitting the mainstream as Madonna became ascendant, but who really influenced whose success?
The authors continue to do a great job stitching together the interviews to make a coherent story. For example, in the chapter on Madonna, producers and artists describe how Cyndi Lauper could have been the next – or another – Madonna because they were both big at the same time and had a similarly weird/experimental sound. The only problem was that music was changing so fast back then and Madonna continued to evolve while Cyndi didn’t. Then they cut to a soundbite from Cyndi herself where she acknowledges that, too. It’s a quiet, sad moment in the midst of a technicolor era.
I’m reading I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. It is a monster of a book, clocking in at over 400 pages, so I thought I’d split up the review. This covers chapters 1-12.
The book is an oral history and features voices such as MTV executives, the original “VJs,” and a whole host of artists ranging from Stevie Nicks to Billy Joel. It brings the book to life and makes for a much more entertaining read. You can actually smell the tequila when they describe the office culture of MTV in the ’80s.
What strikes me most this part of the book is that MTV really was a startup. No one thought it would succeed, not even the people who founded it. People were running on coffee (and other stimulants) to get it off the ground for its launch in August of 1981. Even after it was on air, not all cable stations hosted it. Distribution was scattered; for example, a rural viewer might be more likely to catch the channel than someone in Manhattan. It wasn’t until the “I Want My MTV” campaign aired that people began to realize that wait, this could actually be a thing.
See, music videos weren’t a thing. Radio and physical records were dominant. The first music videos were clunky and awkward. Even as the format took shape, stories were disjointed and didn’t fully match a song’s lyrics. Not all artists cared: they were learning the ropes along with everyone else. Rod Stewart was one of the first artists to churn out music videos at any great volume, which is why most of his videos are what were aired in MTV’s early days. Duran Duran was another band who captured the zeitgeist with their infamous “Girls on Film” video. It was actually banned for explicit content. Some members of the band later complained that they were being pigeonholed as a mere “video band,” especially after “Rio” came out.
The “original” MTV is before my time. I came along when reality TV was taking over the channel. A music video release isn’t necessarily a big deal anymore – unless it becomes a meme. The book is an excellent and vivid exploration of another era that wasn’t really that long ago but feels like a different time entirely. The interview excerpts that make up each chapter have a tone of both humor and nostalgia. It’s well-crafted and hums along at a great pace. I’m looking forward to more!