When on August 1, 1981, MTV appeared on the scene, its implicit promise was to bring pop music to television. Ten years later, it’s clear that MTV has done the opposite, bringing television to pop music. The channel’s successful formula depends much more upon TV than M. By re-creating the pop-music industry in its own image, MTV has increased televisions domination over many realms of culture – music, film, theatre, literature ― that were previously independent. Through its ubiquity, MTV has helped bring about a fundamental change in the way we experience not just music but all of popular culture.
An old MTV promo
The jury is still out on whether this change is for the better. Many critics say MTV’s relentless privileging of style over substance has had a detrimental influence upon pop culture and even politics; in its role as electronic pacifier, MTV makes its viewers complacent enough to accept mediocrity and the status quo. But though a lot of MTV fare is indeed schlock, I prefer to think of the network as neither malign nor benign. Insatiably hungry, it will consume and process whatever you feed it, good or bad, without distinguishing. Over the years, that hunger has led MTV to try much that is innovative, good, and even radical.
Like the other inescapable musical marketing tool of the ’80s, the compact disc, MTV deserves credit for keeping pop music alive at all. Both provided an incentive that revived a moribund record industry from its massive ’70s slump. MTV threw the promotional weight and visual impact of television behind pop in a manner that was effective, well-suited, and natural; it wasn’t tried sooner only because the opportunity didn’t exist before the proliferation of cable TV. Before MTV, rock and television had been on unfriendly terms ever since Ed Sullivan censored Elvis’s hips. Television being a closed, self-referential system, it had little use for what existed outside its mainstream, which is where rock, with its raw emotions and countercultural politics, ventured during the ’60’s and early ’70s. Rock appeared on primetime TV only in th diluted, larger context of show business and performance, on variety shows like Sullivan’s or one-time specials. (Or else it was shunted away from prime time on shows like American Bandstand and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.) For their part, rockers often shunned TV for more lucrative performance venues, concerts, and records.
By the late ’70s when rock had become just a marketable commodity, the kids, ironically, were buying fewer records. The bloated music, with its boogie-down imperative, was little more than an advertisement for the disco lifestyle and its trappings. Once pop became less about rebellion than about style, image, and consumption – the very elements that fueled television – MTV became all but inevitable.
The irony of MTV’s birth, however, is that the fare it first presented was not disco but the more avant-garde music of American groups like Devo and British new-wavers like the Human League and ABC. MTV also fed upon mainstream popsters like Hall & Oates and guitar-based fringe rockers like Joan Jett. These artists may have made the only videos available at the time, and MTV made them stars as a result.