A few great moments in MTV (and, by extension, music video) history . . .
Aug. 1: MTV goes on the air with its first video, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and the prophetic correlation is clear: Talkies ended the careers of silent film stars; music video may do the same for camera-shy rockers. Ironically, the group Buggles, not terribly photogenic itself, never has another hit.
The first five “video jockeys” are perky Martha Quinn, the stepdaughter of Newsweek economics columnist Jane Bryant Quinn; her previous broadcast experience consists mostly of McDonald’s commercials); perky Nina Blackwood and Alan Hunter, former (and future) aspiring actors, and perky Mark Goodman and J. J. Jackson, former (and future) FM rock jocks. In the early years, these wholesome, happy-go-lucky hosts tape their segments on sets cleverly designed to look like the basement recreation room that Mom and Dad let the kids decorate.
At the time of MTV’s launch, there are only about 250 rock videos in existence to rotate on the material-hungry network. Of these, about 30 are by Rod Stewart. Thankfully, the ratio evens out a bit in subsequent years.
March 1: The infamous “I want my MTV” ad campaign debuts, urging pop fans who don’t get the network as part of their basic service to call their cable companies and whine . Among those sloganeering pitchpeople learning early on to suck up to the influential channel are Pete Townshend, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, Adam Ant, Pat Benatar--and the Police’s lead singer, Sting (who will a few years later reprise this refrain in song, as a background vocalist on Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”).
February: Out of 60 videos on the MTV playlist, the only ones by blacks are from Tina Turner (in light rotation) and the interracial English Beat (in medium). Astonishingly, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” has hit No. 1 on the pop charts without MTV having aired that or any other of his videos. Record companies and rock critics join in condemning MTV’s perceived “racism.” Founder Robert Pittman counters these cries by likening MTV’s format to that of an FM album-rock station, stating that R&B; music has no more of a place on the channel than does country and calling his critics “little Hitlers” attempting to impose their musical pluralism on the channel’s die-hard rock fans.
Rumor has it that Columbia Records issues an ultimatum to MTV: Add “Billie Jean” to the playlist or kiss all our videos goodby. True or not, the network does start airing “Billie Jean” in heavy rotation, and it’s a hit among viewers.
March 31: Not long after “Billie Jean” finally makes it to MTV, Jackson’s follow-up, “Beat It,” has its world premiere on the network. Budgeted at about $150,000, the clip is the most extravagant music-video production to date.
Dec. 2: Having started the year not even able to get his face on MTV, Michael Jackson ends it as the network’s once and future kingpin, having his 14-minute “Thriller” premiered there. This is the first video of any major popularity with an extensive non-musical, dramatic wraparound, and the first to be made by a major feature-film director (John Landis). At the last minute, Jackson--then still a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses--adds a disclaimer to proclaim that he didn’t intend to promote belief in or adherence to the occult with his werewolf and zombie movie homage.
Sept. 14: The first MTV Video Music Awards are broadcast from Radio City Music Hall with hosts Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd. Winner of best video clip of the year: The Cars’ “You Might Think.”
Fall: “Miami Vice,” a heavily pop music-laden NBC series that went into production under the unofficial working title “MTV Cops,” premieres. Every Friday, the TV listings of USA Today mention the songs that will be featured in that night’s episode. TV and movies will never be the same.
Jan. 1: “Adult-oriented” sister channel VH-1 goes on the air; over the years, the troubled network will change format from easy listening to grown-up hip to its current incarnation as a soulless Top 40 equivalent.
Spring: Dire Straits releases its “Brothers in Arms” album, highlighted by “Money for Nothing,” a song in which two lower-class moving men watch hot mamas shaking their stuff at the camera on MTV for the benefit of ugly “chimpanzee” musicians and decide that “that’s the way you do it: You get your money for nothing and your chicks for free.” To open and close the tune, guest singer Sting plaintively croons “I want my MTV” ad nauseam. It’s satirical, but lots of listeners miss the irony, and the channel--which obviously doesn’t--loves it anyway. MTV’s status as a cornerstone of ‘80s popular culture is cemented.
July 13: In MTV’s most ambitious broadcast yet, the all-day, all-star Live Aid benefit is telecast live from three locations. After what seems like the 50th interruption of a song in progress, it’s official: Millions agree that Nina Blackwood is the most annoying TV personality alive.
January: You get your money for nothing and your chicks for $550 million. . . . Viacom takes over ownership of MTV and sister channels VH-1 and Nickelodeon, at a reported price of more than half a billion dollars.
May 30: “Logan’s Run” redux. . . . The changing of the guard begins with MTV’s first new veejay since 1981, “Downtown” Julie Brown. Meanwhile, Nina Blackwood and J. J. Jackson are the first of the original veejays to quit or be “retired.”
Aug. 1: Marking the beginning of a wave of new imperialism, MTV Europe is launched.
Aug. 31: “Club MTV"--basically “American Bandstand” with more cleavage and Lycra--hits the air, giving recent acquisition “Downtown” Julie Brown a purpose in life.
Dec. 7: MTV has its first game show, “Remote Control,” featuring questions relating strictly to the kitsch culture of the last 30 years. Often witty almost in spite of itself, the high-energy show is especially popular in European countries where watching Americans being foolish and shallow is a spectator sport.
Winter: “Thriller” is no longer the only video preceded by a disclaimer. MTV agrees to air George Michael’s controversial “I Want Your Sex” after the singer agrees to tape a pro-monogamy prologue stating that wanting too much sex can have “deadly” consequences.
Feb. 12: Former Rolling Stone critic and rock journalist Kurt Loder joins MTV as “news” anchorman, boosting the channel’s credibility even as he suffers the slings and arrows of his video-phobic peers.
Aug. 6: It’s the end of an era as MTV, once accused of racism, debuts the weekly “Yo! MTV Raps,” which soon goes nightly and becomes one of its most popular shows.
Sept. 7: Arsenio Hall takes over as host of the annual MTV Video Music Awards, which now are broadcast from the Universal Amphitheatre.
November: Just how common a cliche is the “MTV-style musical montage” in movies now? So common that when the comedy film “The Naked Gun” features one, set to the oldie "(I’m Into) Something Good,” it actually concludes with the famous white-print credit block in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.
Feb. 14: Martha Quinn is the first original veejay to return to the network post-banishment, brought back as host of “Classic MTV,” a nostalgic show featuring antiquated clips from the olden days of music video (i.e., a few years earlier).
June 29: The dance-oriented “Club MTV” national tour begins. This is the infamous “live” revue during which Milli Vanilli’s tape sputtered and quit one night, leaving the luckless lads to lip-sync to nothing but the curious stares of uncomprehending 13-year-olds in bustiers. With the notable exception of Was (Not Was), the other acts on the Club MTV tour lineup--including not-quite-yet-a-superstar Paula Abdul--are also reported to be miming to backing tracks.
Fall: Martha Quinn joins the cast of “The Bradys,” the long-awaited sequel to “The Brady Bunch,” as Mrs. Bobby Brady (in contrast to her former real-life role as girlfriend of punk pioneer Stiv Bators).
Sept. 6: Performing on the MTV Video Music Awards show, Andrew Dice Clay gets in trouble for saying naughty words--surprise! Show producer Dick Clark comes out on the Universal stage (out of camera range) and glares at him, but Clay doesn’t quit. This gets him banned from the channel “for life.” As a result, the “Cradle of Love” video--a clip incorporating numerous shots from Clay’s “Adventures of Ford Fairlane” film--is later aired with all shots of Clay edited out, making it appear as if it’s promoting a movie with Wayne Newton in the lead role.
Also, during the same telecast, a popular male singer drops and quickly snatches up what appears to be a vial, fueling widespread rumors about a drug problem.
Fall: Motorcycle-riding money magnate Malcolm Forbes tapes an MTV promo, discussing how watching the channel as he gets up in the morning and prepares for his day keeps him young and vital. Upon his demise in February, of course, the spot is removed from the air.
Jan. 21: “MTV Unplugged” premieres as an acoustic outlet geared toward cult artists, founded by cult artist Jules Shear, who will soon step aside as host as the show takes on bigger proportions. Eventually, this becomes the half-hour that everyone wants to do; the future guest list includes Elton John, Sting, Don Henley, R.E.M., Elvis Costello, Aerosmith and L.L. Cool J.
February: The unbearable lightness of beat music . . . MTV Europe launches in Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Winter: Veejay “Downtown” Julie Brown is seen being squired about town by pug Billy Idol.
June 4: Surfer lingo-laden “Totally Pauly” premieres, giving nightly forum to the sub-Bill-'n'-Ted-isms of Jeff Spicoli clone Pauly Shore, self-consciously vacant son of L.A. comedy club entrepreneur Mitzi Shore. The show is a hit and spawns a mildly successful Shore comedy album in 1991.
Sept. 6: Performing a Victorian-dress “Vogue” at the climax of the MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna grabs her crotch (twice), has a male dancer dart under her dress (twice) and has pushup bra cleavage rubbed by another dancer (once).
Oct. 5: MTV joins the Rock the Vote public service campaign. It is later revealed that a good percentage of the rockers taping promos urging viewers to register and cast ballots--including Madonna, who drapes her nude form in a flag and promises that anyone who doesn’t vote is “going to get a spanky"--have, according to public records, failed to practice what they preach.
Nov. 15: Quintessential made-for-the-video-era act Milli Vanilli finally ‘fesses up to not having sung a lick; later gets new, slightly less lucrative career mocking itself in chewing gum commercials.
Nov. 24: All five original veejays return for “Reunion Weekend.” But only Martha gets to stick around after Old Home Week is over.
December: MTV exercises its option not to add Madonna’s over-the-top “Justify My Love” video--which includes a stray nipple (not hers) and intimations of S&M;, among other distractions--to the playlist, raising cries of “censorship.” More importantly, it raises the Material Girl’s coffers, as she and Warner Bros. quickly respond to the crisis by making the four-minute video available via home video for $9.98. Not nearly so prudish as those bluenoses at MTV, ABC’s “Nightline” airs the unexpurgated clip during half an hour devoted to the “controversy” and yields its best ratings yet.
Spring: MTV Europe becomes the first non-Soviet channel to broadcast 24 hours a day in Russia, sparking the inevitable question: How’re we gonna keep ‘em down on the Arctic plain once they’ve seen Poison?
April 3: “MTV Unplugged” has its best catch yet: Paul McCartney, who likes his live acoustic performance so much that he issues it as his next album, “Unplugged--The Official Bootleg,” intended as a limited-edition lark. Said album enters the charts at No. 14 in June and is his biggest out-of-the-box hit in nearly a decade.
Spring: Sales sagging, tail between his legs, idealistic holdout Joe Jackson finally reneges on his anti-video pledge and makes his first new clip in nine years, for “The Obvious Song"--a video parodying other MTV videos (as if that lets him off the hook). All too “obvious” after similar satirical clips by everyone from Neil Young to “Weird Al” Yankovic, it gets little play, and Jackson’s album is a commercial dud.
June: VCA Cable, a Tyler, Tex.-based company with 420,000 subscribers in six Southern and Western states, makes news by taking the in-recent-years unthinkable action of dropping MTV from its basic service--with one station manager attributing the move to the need to protect children from the channel’s “borderline pornographic material.” Cited as an especially clear and present danger is, of course, Madonna. MTV’s parent company responds by holding Mr. Ed and Donna Reed hostage, telling VCA that it can’t have the popular kiddie channel Nickelodeon and sitcom oldies outlet Nick at Night (or VH-1, for that matter) without taking MTV too.
July: No need to resurrect that old “I want my MTV” campaign after all, kids! Aforementioned heartland cable company gives in! Borderline pornographic material rules, even in the Bible Belt!
“Gramma Martha” Quinn, still on the air and now making personal appearances with the aid of a walker, hosts a 50th anniversary visit to the Viacom Home for Retired Veejays, where Adam Curry shows off a quilt made out of his long-departed bouffant and Nina Blackwood chafes against her neck brace. The network was sold some years ago to Sony for several billion yen; its former 18-to-34 target demographic has been upgraded to the 40-to-56 pocket most desirable to 21st-Century advertisers.