When MTV went live in 1981, you couldn’t watch it in NY. Even later, when the network started its iconic and hugely successful “I Want My MTV” campaign, you could want it in NY, but you couldn’t have it.
Actually, this was part of a pattern. NYC, with all three major networks and three independent stations plus PBS (and the wild, wild west that was UHF), was considered a pretty saturated TV market, and cable was slow to come and slow to spread. But I did indeed want my MTV; while working at my school radio station at the end of the 70s, I had seen a few “promos” (this was back when record companies had people whose sole job was to get college radio kids to play their artists), and some of them were actually pretty interesting.
Sure, many were just shots of a band clearly lip-synching to a recording (there’d always be a dead giveaway, like an unplugged electric guitar), but then you had something altogether more creative, like “Bird Song” by Lene Lovich, which was like a mini-Gothic movie.
The idea of a whole channel devoted to that sort of thing was so appealing that it was worth a road trip. So my introduction to MTV came a short time after the channel debuted, when a few of my friends and I headed down to one friend’s mother’s house, in southern New Jersey. Her mother was not home, and more important, she had cable, and MTV.
As introductions go, this one was pretty eye-opening. I learned that 24/7 videos could be addictive in the truest sense of that word: it wasn’t just that you felt compelled to keep watching, but that you felt compelled to keep watching even when you hated yourself for watching. For every David Bowie video, there were endless, tedious, mind-numbing hours of crap. I appreciated that Flock Of Seagulls didn’t do a standard performance video for “I Ran,” but still, that is one stupid video, even for a form still in its infancy. I’d find myself listening to songs that I hated because there was a chance the next one would be cool.
Seriously, watching MTV in the early days was like being the kid at the party whose parents didn’t allow any sugar products in the home: this would be the kid downing fistfuls of candy washed down with one coke after another, getting wired and fidgety and eventually falling in a heap of exhaustion and self-disgust. I wouldn’t get cable, and MTV, until the very late 80s, by which time MTV had launched its lightweight sibling, VH1, and its darker, cooler cousin across the Atlantic. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want my MTV; I wanted MTV Europe.
What’s your memory of MTV? Leave a comment.