While it’s easy to forget that there once was a time when there was no such thing as a music video, when the station that practically invented the idea of a song having a visual component rarely shows one, it’s perhaps just as easy to forget videos ever existed in the first place. So though it may be hard to know what the “M” in MTV stands for these days, lest one forget the station’s halcyon days of music television 24/7, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s new book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution does a superb job of recounting those glory years.
MTV was launched 30 years ago by a group of music industry veterans who shared a similar vision. With cable television itself still in its infancy, MTV struggled to stay afloat and convince its investors of its solvency. Fortunately, with the slogan from which the book takes its names catching on, cable expanding into bigger markets and the record labels climbing into bed, the station soon became something of a phenomenon and even helped turn around the music industry’s declining record sales. By the mid-80s, MTV was as important—if not more important—than radio in determining the course of any given release. It became both a barometer and propagator of pop culture and fashion, and helped popularize to genres as varied as new wave, hair metal and hip-hop. At the same time its content became more sophisticated and eye-catching, and videos were soon treated as serious art (and business).
Presented as an oral history, I Want My MTV is a fascinatingly in-depth exploration of the network’s development and musical and cultural significance. Marks and Tannenbaum interviewed more than 400 people for the book, and there are extensive quotes from all of the station’s founding principles, as well as countless record executives, directors, artists, models, and of course, the beloved VJs. The authors have sculpted this no doubt mountainous amount of material into an entertaining read that captures the spirit of the station and the times. From the escapades of Duran Duran shooting “Rio” to Van Halen almost causing permanent brain damage to the winner of MTV’s Lost Weekend contest to many more humorous and revealing tales of coke-fueled debauchery, the nearly 600-page volume spares no detail.
For those of us who spent much of our teenage years absorbing such masterworks as Steve Barron’s “Take On Me” video, Mary Lambert’s clip for “Like a Virgin” and Marty Callner’s short film for “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the book is a reminder of how such imagery—however trivial it may seem now—was truly captivating. MTV may have been slow in some respects (incorporating artists from outside the rock spectrum, like Michael Jackson, for example), but in many ways, it was ahead of the curve as it siphoned content to the masses. The station’s video premiers were like mini-events, and without an internet on which to find them archived minutes later, were attended in-person and en masse, if only in millions of living rooms. Sure, there were the same backroom shenanigans at the network that have long been par for the course in the music industry, but as the book shows, there was a sense of adventure, in addition to desire for profit, that motivated the network’s original architects. I Want My MTV is a gusto-driven read that illustrates the extreme importance, as well as the gratifying ephemeralness, of the first music television station.