Sunday, July 22, 2012

I Want My MTV

I've actually been doing a fair amount of reading lately, and finally had gotten into John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River when I suddenly interrupted it to plow through another book I found at the library: I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. I had been meaning to pick up the 600-page oral history when it came out in paperback, but when I spotted it on the shelves at the Beverly public library, I couldn't resist. And it was a great ride that I plowed through in about a week.

The book covers the period of 1981, when MTV first launched, to 1992, when videos were giving way to the Real World and other non-music programming. As with the best oral histories, the authors weave in interviews with hundreds of folks to tell the story of MTV, from the executives who got it off the ground to the musicians whose videos were featured to the models who appeared in Robert Palmer and ZZ Top videos. And then are some great stories about coke-addled stars, debauchery in the MTV offices and the crazy backroom dealings that were involved in getting the station on the air and on cable systems. It also examines the back story behind many famous videos, good and bad, such as Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite," which effectively killed his career because of its decidedly unmacho dance moves.

My own experience with MTV is a mixed bag. I had seen plenty of videos while living in Toronto in the late '70s and early '80s. MTV launched in August 1981 while we were still in Canada and the city we moved to in Washington state a few months later didn't have MTV on its cable system (at that point, it wasn't on many systems at all). When we moved to New Hampshire a few years later, there was still no MTV. It arrived in Kingston in late 1985, at which I point I was already in college and could only watch it when I was home...because our dorm TV didn't have cable (and at that point, neither did the few of us who had our own TVs). My MTV viewing increased exponentially when I moved off campus in 1987 for my last two years at UNH. There were also regional all-video stations like Boston's V66, which I discussed in detail on the podcast last month with Eric Green, who's directing a documentary about the short-lived station (check out parts 1 and 2).

I watched it a fair amount after graduating because there were still videos, as well as shows like Remote Control and even the first few years of The Real World, and later Beavis and Butt-Head. By the late '90s, rap rock and boy bands had taken over the music scene and my MTV viewing dissipated to almost none; the station had gone to almost zero music content in the 2000s, relegating all that to MTV2 and VH1 Classic and going with reality fare like Real World, Road Rules, Punked, Jackass and countless other unscripted shows. I had no interest in any of that crap and I stopped watching. Of course, there's a whole generation of kids who have grown up on those shows so MTV lives on in the form of Jersey Shore et al.

As for rock videos, they're still made but certainly don't have the kingmaking power they once had. You can find just about any video ever made on YouTube for free now. And MTV realized early on it couldn't generate consistent ratings and attract big advertisers by just playing videos 24 hours a day. It's a business, after all. But those early years were a lot of fun, and I Want My MTV is a great inside look at the phenomenon. Two remotes up.



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