Feature: MTV: The Birth of a Cultural Phenomenon

Heather Tondreau

April 29, 2015

Wikipedia (Public Domain)

“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!” these were the first words uttered on August 1, 1981, the premiere night of Music Television (MTV). After these words, the rest was history
MTV is a cultural phenomenon enjoyed by the young and old alike, but that was not always the case. In the first year it was only aired to 1.5 million households as many big name cable companies would not carry MTV due to its hard rock and roll content (Meuller 1999, 81). Soon after it became a staple in households across America.

MTV has a profound impact on today’s culture. It has influenced music, entertainment, movies, fashion, and other parts of today popular culture. I believe hat MTV has positively shaped the lives of the American youth culture.
The concept of MTV was created by a non-cohesive, inexperienced group of American businessmen and former radio personnel. John Lack stated, “Teenagers were the demographic group least interested in TV” (Marks & Tannenbaum 2012). Children had their cartoons and adults had their nightly news and talk shows but there was no definite TV programming geared towards teenagers and young adults.

Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company (WASEC) was the driving force for the creation of MTV. John Lack, the executive vice president of WASEC, pitched the idea for MTV to Robert Pittman. Pittman accepted this idea and so the venture began. John Lack, Robert Pittman, Tom Feston, and Les Garland were the “founding fathers” of MTV. They formulated the idea for a 24-hour music television channel due to the need for an adolescent directed TV program. Pittman stated in a Vanity Fair interview, that he wanted to “build a brand, a channel that happened to use video clips as a building block, the stars wouldn’t be the videos, the star would be the channel.” (Robert Sam Anson, 2000) The idea of MTV was ridiculed at first. Major TV channels and cable companies questioned how this station would make any substantial amount of money by only directing their programming to a bunch of 14-24 year olds. They thought that no big companies were going to want to advertise on a network with such a small audience (Marks & Tannebaum, 2012).

In order to create a new business venture one usually thinks about what need there is for this item, service, or idea. At this time in 1981 there was not a market for music videos, as they were not in existence. In the late 1970’s record sales were at a significant lull. Virgin Records chief Jeff Aygn stated, “we, the record industry, were looking for a savior and it came in the form of MTV” (Meuller 1999, 81)

After the launch of MTV in summer of 1981, record sales skyrocketed. Any music video songs that premiered on MTV were flying off the shelves at music stores. MTV was the revival that the record and the music industry desperately needed.

The idea of a “music video” was not an original idea created by the founders of MTV. In the 1930’s Warner Brother Pictures filmed and aired “spooney melodies” these were short films of musicians performing popular songs at this time. In the 1950’s-60’s musical centered TV programming began to emerge. Shows like American Bandstand and variety shows such as the Ed Sullivan show featured performances from popular musicians. These music shows continued into the 1970s.(Marks and Tannenbaum, 2012).

Since the conception of ‘Rock n roll’ in the 1950’s, TV and ‘Rock n roll’ did not mix well. Not long after the premiere of MTV rock musicians began to show interest in the concept of music videos. Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones said, “but suddenly its like they’ve gotten married and can’t leave each other alone” (Marks & Tannenbaum 2012). This statement was about the new found relationship between ‘Rock n roll’ that resulted from MTV.

Music videos were relatively new idea following the launch of MTV. Early programming of MTV included non-stop music videos that were promoted by Veejays (video jockeys). It took artists several months to catch on to the benefit of making music videos for their songs. For the first few months, MTV replayed the same select videos over and over due to the limited amount of music videos available.

MTV’s purpose was to help promote musicians albums. It helped promote the career of many famous people including: Madonna, Michael Jackson, and the Buggles. Musicians were being made celebrities almost overnight after their videos aired on MTV. This network transformed the lives of a countless amount of budding artists that may have never made it if their videos were not featured.
Early Programming:

Wikipedia (Public Domain)

August 1, 1981 was a day that went down in music history. This was the date that MTV launched to a select few people in rural parts of the U.S. The first image broadcast was the launch of Apollo 11 and then shows the MTV flag on the moon, this is where the coveted moon man statue originated. The first music video to air on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the British band the Buggles.

Early programming on MTV was extremely limited. The first year MTV was not available to larger cities, as better-known cable networks would not carry MTV. MTV was not fully recognized in the public eyes until around 1983 (Garner 2011).

The MTV video jockeys (Veejays) were the ones behind the continuously rolling music videos. The original veejays include: Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, and Mark Weiss. Their early job was to travel around to different cable operators and convince them to sign a contract to carry MTV.
The first several months were a slow start for MTV. There were only around 300 videos to start. Many pop artists had not caught onto the new fad of making music videos and therefore MTV had to replay many videos until new ones were made (Ceron 1991).
Once MTV began to come under the spotlight the veejays faced much criticism. The press and even some musicians stated that the veejays had a bad attitude and knew very little about rock music. This reaction forced the veejays to delve into rock literature and popular culture studies in order to improve their credibility. JJ Jackson, another original veejay, recalls the amount of preparation that went into preparing for the launch of MTV. They had spent all day recording and taping in NYC and had to drive all the way to New Jersey to see the premiere, as it was not carried in NYC. “When Mark first went on, you know, we all teared up and mark said, “This is going to be the beginning of a revolution,” (Ceron 1991, 14) and so it was.

MTV has had an apparent influence on the youth and popular culture of the 1980s and today. We will be focusing on fashion, entertainment (music and movies), and youth behavior.

MTV was loud, risqué, and unpredictable and that’s what everyone liked about it. Almost every teenager in the 1980’s would spend countless amount of hours zooning out to the stream of music videos on MTV. It was considered “one of the most powerful forms of contemporary propaganda” (Meuller 1999, 81).

MTVs content was provocative and left censorship at the door. Early in its existence, critics and parents of teenagers called MTV a musically driven youth rebellion. This programming scared parents of American teenagers. In the article “Parents Vs. Rock” the author states that parents were concerned that rock n roll was too focused on “sex, Satanism, drugs, and violence” which lead to the corruption of young people (Wolmuth 1985).

With the creation of MTV, popular music has changed from solely an auditory experience to a visual experience as well. These videos were influencing the way in which the youth acted. Elliot Marx, a columnist for The Tech, a Massachusetts of Technology Institute newspaper, wrote that MTV promotes lust and violence. As another critic of MTVs’ content and message, he expressed how MTV is comparable to a fantasy world in which teens believe it to be their reality. It shapes teenagers to become a group of follow that are trying to hard to be “cool” and act like the performers they see on TV (Elliot Marx 1985).

MTV’s impact on youth culture was not always negative. Music television was extremely popular and well liked among the young audience and therefore there were many benefits to adolescents. MTV utilized their popularity to project several PSAs to their youth audience. They sponsored the “rock the vote” campaign in which they encouraged viewers to register to vote and exercise this right. They also put out a PSA about safe sex and taking charge of your sexual health. When adolescents see something promoted by MTV they are more likely to listen to this message as it is coming from a source cooler than their parents. (Ashby & Rich, 2005).

MTV had a reputation for pushing conventional social boundaries. Parents and critics of MTV did not agree with the message that the network was conveying to America’s youth. Angered parents and critics believed that rock music and videos were changing the values of the youth. In 1985, anti-rock music and MTV groups brought this issue to the Senate. They labeled the raunchy lyrics and messages from this music and videos “rock porn”. The Senate Commerce Committee was assigned to review rock music lyrics to see if they were violating free speech/expression guidelines. As evidence of the success of MTV and provocative music today, we can infer their attempts to eliminate the network were unsuccessful.

MTVs influence on music was tremendous. This station played good music! Dwight Garner stated in his article, “When Video Killed the Radio Star”, “ the music you listen to when you first begin steaming up your car windows is the music you want to hear for the rest of your life” (¶3). This is what MTV provided for their audience, an opportunity to get in lost in the music and videos.

MTV had an evident impact on TV shows, movies, and commercials. “Miami Vice”, a crime drama series was based loosely off of MTVs music videos. The show was like an elongated music video. It featured loud rock music, flashy editing, and an interesting plot line.

MTV had a dynamic impact on fashion. Artists were now more visual to their audiences and fans and their fashion was not going by unnoticed. As stated by Judy McGrath, MTVs creative director, “MTV is an ongoing subliminal fashion show”(Michael Gross 1985, ¶4).
The audience watching MTV is primarily teenagers and young adults. These individuals are in the stages of their lives where they are forming their identity. At this point they are easily influenced and persuaded. The clothing artists wore in their music videos and on MTV appearances helped shaped popular fashion of the 1980’s and today. MTV was a place where artists could not only show off their songs but also they could express themselves through their clothing style as well.

Teenagers around the world were exposed to these artists and their sense of fashion. They looked up to the artists and therefore they wanted to be like them. Some of the most influential fashion artists were Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Jackson was perhaps one of the most well known artists to influence style. The
1980’s were a time of style revolution for him. He was undergoing a change from his previous style as a part of the Jackson 5 to a more sophisticated style as a solo singer. His new style debuted on MTV leaves memories of him in bell-bottoms and with an Afro in the distant past. Jackson showed off his eccentric and flashy style in the premiere of his most famous music video, Thriller. In this video he donned his iconic red leather jacket. His fashion style greatly impacted that of teenager boys. “It was hard not to notice some of the boys at school with Jheri-curl envy getting perms, sporting black loafers, white socks and shortened jeans”. (Tina Cassidy 2001)

Perhaps one of his most well recognized fashion accessory was his sole white glove. This glove became his trademark. He would wear gloves to accentuate any of his outfits. Michael Jackson popularized aviator sunglasses and leather/military jackets in popular culture. His theatrical sense of style has led him to be recognized as one of the most influential style icons in history (Jocelyn Vena 2009).

Madonna is another fashion icon made famous by MTV. Her unique fashion style was shown to the world through MTV. In her debut performance on MTV in 1984 she shocked the crowd with her provocative get up. She performed “Like a Virgin” wearing a lace corseted bridal gown with fish net stockings.

After her initial performance she began to appear more frequently on the network. Her outfits were fashion forward and she was considered a trendsetter in the 1980’s. Macy’s a large retail store created “Madonnaland” a Madonna themed section of their store. Her clothing style was seen on countless teenagers throughout the decade. Many of her style choices were risqué for teenagers and that is another reason by parents were extremely wary about MTVs agenda. Madonna’s style continues to influence current fashion trends today (Webber-Hanchett).

In conclusion, MTV has left a lasting effect on popular culture and has gone on to become not only an American sensation but also a global phenomenon. This phenomenon is here to stay.


Work Cited

“August 01, 1981: MTV Launches,” History Channel, last modified 2009, accessed April 22, 2015, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mtv-launches.

Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, I want my MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, (London: Penguin, 2012), 14-26.

Daniel Cerone, “MTV Veejays: They Changed the Way We Looked at Music,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1991.

Dwight Garner, “When Video Killed Radio Stars,” New York Times, October 24, 2011, accessed April 26, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/26/books/i-want-my-mtv-by-craig-marks-and-rob-tannenbaum-review.html?_r=0.

Elliot Marx, “Music videos influence our thoughts and acts,” The Tech, November 8, 1985, accessed April 19, 2015, http://tech.mit.edu/V105/N48/elliot.48o.html.

Jocelyn Vena, “Michael Jackson’s Style Legacy, From Military Jackets to One Glove,” June 26, 2009, accessed April 19, 2015, http://www.mtv.com/news/1614819/michael-jacksons-style-legacy-from-military-jackets-to-one-glove/

Michael Gross, “Rock Videos Shape Fashion for the Young,” New York Times, December 27, 1985, accessed April 24, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/27/style/rock-videos-shape-fashion-for-the-young.html.

Robert Sam Anson, “Birth of an MTV Nation,” Vanity Fair, November 2000, accessed April 22, 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2000/11/mtv200011.

Roger Wolmuth, “Parents Vs. Rock,” People Magazine, September 26, 1985, accessed April 19, 2015,http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20091718,00.html.

Sarah L. Ashby and Michael Rich, “Video Killed the Radio Star: The Effects of Music Videos and Adolescent Health,” Journal of Adolescent Medicine 16 (2005) 371-393.

Tina Cassidy, “MTV has made fashion statements,” Chicago Tribune, July 26, 2011, accessed April 21, 2015, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-07-26/features/0107260004_1_mtv-jeans-duran-duran.

Walt Meuller, Understanding Today’s Youth Culture (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 80-82.

Webber-Hanchett, Tiffany, “Madonna’s Influence on Fashion,” accessed April 26, 2015, http://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/fashion-history-eras/madonnas-influence-fashion.