Music Television is almost 40 years old. Aug. 1, 1981 marked the first day audiences had access to 24-hour music videos. The channel’s milestone is important as it marks a new medium for music, and exposed American audiences to a wide spectrum of music they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.
Early days of Music Television 1981-1985
Few television channels have their own guitar riff, or at least not one that sounds like authentic rock and roll. Music Television began with graphics depicting men on the moon, planting a Music Television flag. The first video that aired was “Video Killed the Radio Star,”– the irony of that is lost on no one by now.
Music Television offered the 1980’s youth contingent a reason to stay up late and watch television. Those who did stay up late were rewarded with videos of obscure bands, and better- known performers performing odd songs. For example, Neil Young’s “Wonderin.’”
The other thing that Music Television was doing in its early days was illustrate how far rock music, and popular music in general, had come.
When Music Television started, rock and roll was more than 30 years old. A few subgenres had entered the mainstream, but basic ideas about popular music hadn’t changed too much. With Music Television, audiences were exposed to bands and genres that were new to them.
The idea of who had access to Music Television in its early days is important to consider. The almost inherent racism associated with the channel has been discussed in various books and articles.
It was assumed that white audiences only wanted to hear and see white performers. The problem was, the audience wasn’t just white, and beloved artists represented a variety of races.
Musical integration 1981-1985
Probably the first video that aired on Music Television with any people of color in it was “Rat Race” by UK ska band, The Specials, a mixed-race group.“Rat Race” aired on the first day. Musical Youth and their catchy, if difficult-to-sing-along-with, “Pass the Dutchie,” was one of the first groups to integrate the channel.
Another early black artist was Prince. His video for “1999” was heavily rotated in Music Television’s early days.
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was a game-changer for Music Television in two key ways. First, Jackson was a black artist enjoying crossover success on radio airwaves and pop charts, and he still had to fight to get on Music Television. Then, “Thriller” discarded the idea of the standard video format, and was its own 14-minute movie. New barriers were broken with one video.
By the middle of the 1980s, rap group Run-DMC was a Music Television staple. Followed by Fat Boys, LL Cool J, and others.
Music Television: Music video “shows”
At first, the idea of watching a show comprised of videos sounded absurd. The channel showed viewers how. The show would be hosted by a veejay (vj—video jockey, as the hosts were called), famous or not, and he or she would introduce a bunch of videos related to the show’s theme, and more than likely, the musical guest. That was another thing, veejays were visited by popular musicians.
The first show on Music Television was “120 Minutes,” a show that aired late on Sunday nights and featured two hours of alternative music videos.
Here was where emo was born, and people could watch Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Romeo Void, and others. “120 Minutes” aired from 1986 to 2003. It was revived in 2011, when it moved to MTV2, and ended in 2013.
In 1987, two shows debuted—“Headbangers’ Ball,” and “Club MTV.” The first was a late Saturday night exploration of heavy metal, and the other was an early evening look at how people dance in a night club called The Palladium. In retrospect, between Duran Duran videos and “Club MTV,” the connection between pop and dance music and fashion is made abundantly clear.
By 1988, the popularity of rap was undeniable, and the genre got its own vehicle on Music Television. Hosted by Dr. Dre (not of Snoop Dogg collaboration fame) and Ed Lover. The series lasted until 1995.
In 1989, “MTV Unplugged” aired. The show would officially run until 1999, although a 2.0 version appeared several years later. A range of artists, from veteran rock acts like Eric Clapton, and The Eagles, to the then-new Nirvana, took to the sparse stage and stripped down their most famous tunes.
Music Television was not a perfect system—faulty ideas about whose tastes in music mattered most, and who would watch the channel are proof of this. However, it seems the powers that be at the channel learned, and now, music videos are a staple of a performer’s releases.
Music Television not only gave the public what it wanted, but showed the public what it didn’t know it needed, and that might be one of the reasons it has lasted 36 years.