Kurt Cobain on "MTV Unplugged"
On Aug. 1, MTV turns 30. The big 3-0. The channel is now much older than anyone in the 12-24 demographic it caters to.
I was music video editor at Billboard in the early ‘90s. Covering MTV fell under my purview and it felt like the largest, most powerful force not just in the music industry, but in pop culture. That’s because it was. This was before the internet. This was before the dominance of video games. MTV wasn’t just king of the mountain, it was the mountain.
To be sure, there were other music video outlets—VH1, BET, TNN (The Nashville Network), CMT, “Friday Night Videos,” and several dozen local and regional video shows (virtually all of which died off when labels began charging for videos), but nothing came close to MTV’s reach and breadth. It’s hard to imagine any one entity now having the power that MTV once had; we’re too diffuse and we get our entertainment delivered through too many different ways.
While I was music video editor, MTV was spreading its manifest destiny across the world and it never ceased to amaze me that certain Eastern Bloc countries may have still been in political and civil turmoil back then, but, by God, they would have their MTV. The company, and many of its employees, had an evangelical zeal that bordered on scary. During my tenure, MTV wanted to pretend it was still run by the cool kids, but it was already owned by Viacom and was very corporate, despite its deep desire to appear otherwise. A publicist sat in on every interview and the spin came fast, furious and, occasionally, with a very heavy hand.
Some fellow journalists are writing a book about MTV’s first 30 years and the significant impact the channel has had on history. I can’t wait to read it. But in the meantime, here is my highly subjective list of MTV’s 12 most influential moments in chronological order.
“Video Killed The Radio Star” (1981): Any story about the history and significance of MTV has to include the first clip ever played on the channel for its 1981 launch. The clip, by British New Wave group The Buggles, proved very prophetic as MTV signaled the cultural shift of image over music. Ugly bands could no longer get signed.
“Billie Jean” (1982): Prior to adding the opening clip from Michael Jackson’s 1982’s “Thriller,” a then 18-month old MTV played very few videos by black artists, as it considered itself an album rock format. CBS Records swears they played hardball with MTV to force them to play “Billie Jean,” MTV execs swear they always planned to play “Billie Jean,” and needed no arm twisting. Regardless of how it happened, adding “Billie Jean” to MTV’s rotation swung open the doors for black artists like Prince at the channel and catapulted Jackson’s career.
“Thriller” (1983): If “Billie Jean” bolstered Jackson’s superstar career, the “Thriller” video rocketed it—and MTV—into the stratosphere. MTV ponied up $1 million for the exclusive rights to the 14-minute clip, marking the first time MTV paid a label to air a video (paving the way for the exclusive label deals to come later that increased MTV’s dominance). MTV played the John Landis-directed mini-movie five times a day, a shrewd move that made MTV destination viewing and spiked ratings tenfold.
“LiveAid” (1985): Though there had been multi-artist benefit concerts before, none had been televised from start to finish as MTV did with LiveAid. Beaming back and forth between London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, MTV changed such concerts into global events with the world watching. ABC broadcast during primetime, but MTV kept the cameras rolling for the entire 16 hours (albeit with commercials).
“120 Minutes” (1986): As MTV’s regular programming became more mainstream, the channel took two hours out of every week for truly alternative music videos that were hard to see anywhere else. Originally hosted by Dave Kendall (and later Matt Pinfield), the first few years of “120 Minutes” were a wonderful place to learn about The Replacements, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Robyn Hitchcock, and all manner of rockers that weren’t finding homes on mainstream radio. If nothing else, “120” earns its place on this list for hosting the world premiere of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video in 1991. ("120 Minutes" was resurrected July 31 on MTV2 with Pinfield)
“The Real World” (1992): Arguably the first reality show, “The Real World” is the network’s longest running program. Though the concept is so commonplace now: throw some strangers into a house and keep cameras rolling 24/7, back then, the sociological experiment was something new. It brought us some memorable characters, such as the repugnant Puck, but also some that touched our hearts, none more so than Pedro Zamora, who was living with AIDS. MTV’s inclusion of Zamora, who died in 1994, was one of TV’s first programs to have a gay male with AIDS, and the network used it to spread tolerance and understanding.
Choose or Lose (1992): Every now and then, MTV uses its powers for great good, perhaps none more so than its Choose Or Lose campaign. While it’s lost some of its potency, the ongoing program, started in 1992, attempts to educate young voters on the issues and often pairs with other organization, such as Rock the Vote, to support voter registration.
William Jefferson Clinton Town Hall (1992): While technically under the umbrella of “Choose or Lose, “ Clinton’s Town Hall meeting is so significant, it deserves its own bullet point. Baby boomer Clinton was the first presidential candidate to actively court the youth vote and harness the power that MTV offered to address voters under 25. Despite someone asking Clinton if he had to do it all over again, if he would inhale, the Town Hall showed the intelligence, inquisitiveness and interest of many young voters, who helped propel Clinton into office.
Kurt Cobain's death (1994): MTV wasn’t the first to break the news of the Nirvana frontman, but it was the most resonant as MTV News anchor Kurt Loder led the coverage. MTV understood better than an other national outlet the significance of what had just happened and why it mattered.
The Madonna and Britney Spears Kiss (2003): The MTV Video Music Awards always took inordinate pride in pushing the envelope (a term MTV execs loved to use), which usually played itself out by trying way too hard to be audacious. After Madonna, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera performed together, Madonna kissed each of the ladies, but for some reason, the Madonna/Britney kiss, perhaps because there was a hint of tongue, turns the world upside down... It wasn’t even much of a kiss and there was never any doubt that it was anything more than a publicity ploy, but it was the kiss seen around the world.
“16 and Pregnant” (2009): In an attempt to show the difficulties of teen pregnancy, MTV created the next generation of tabloid stars. Two years later, the initial cast members are still cover-story fixtures on celebrity magazines. And with MTV creating spin-offs such as “Teen Mom,” many have wondered if MTV is encouraging a proliferation of teen pregnancies by girls who believe having a baby is the quickest way to stardom. Hey, if it worked for Amber Portwood...
“Jersey Shore” (2009): One week prior to its December 2009 debut, none of us knew what a Snooki was, the next, we couldn’t escape her. As MTV no longer had any upper hand as a video outlet (other than the occasional premiere) over YouTube and then Vevo, both of which leveled the playing field, the channel had to find ways to keep its relevance. And it got back at all of us by unleashing “Jersey Shore” upon the world. I’ve never seen an episode and I can name at least six cast members. That’s saying something.
What are your favorite and worst memories of MTV?