The (D)Evolution of MTV

By Brooke Adams
Music Journalist

Hearing the name “MTV” for most adults brings fond memories of running to a friend’s house to catch Madonna’s True Blue or Nirvana’s “unplugged” performance. To a younger generation, it could mean staying up all night to watch TRL or The Real World. For the teens of todaym it might bring to mind overlooking homework to watch the season finale of Sixteen and Pregnant or Jersey Shore. MTV has had an undeniable effect on society starting with its humble beginnings in music, giving rock ‘n’ roll a name in mainstream media, saving the record business in a time of need and bringing music styles into the forefront of society that otherwise may have been lost forever. MTV has had a boundless impact on global pop culture, beginning with music.

The Music Television channel, MTV, launched at midnight on Aug. 1, 1981 with the famous words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” The first music video ever played on the now legendary TV channel, Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles, has earned its ironic title as MTV’s fame sky rockets even today. It became evident very early on that MTV was making a controversial name for itself. One of the channel’s unique traits was the fearless way in which they pushed boundaries by discussing sex, violence, drugs and other usually “off limits” topics in mainstream media. Duran Duran’s Girls On Film is widely considered the first inappropriate video that aired on MTV.

While MTV is a well-known station today, it was initially only available to small suburban and rural areas as a result of the expenses related to joining cable in crowded cities. This meant that Midwest teens with very little exposure to its rock ‘n’ roll style were the first viewers of the controversial broadcast. The channel acted almost as a social network to the kids of its day. They could find “outcasts” like themselves and relate to each other through music even more than in the past. As John Sykes, an original MTV founder, said, “We were very much the Facebook of our time. Every kid loved us…” Research revealed that the channel was influencing radio play in the towns it was available. The albums of exposed artists were selling out all over the small towns and listeners were demanding the artists be played on local radio.

Photo by Brooke Adams.
Vinyl sales started to grow after the start of MTV. Photo by Brooke Adams.

MTV dramatically affected record sales, as well. As of 1978, record sales were raking in $3.9 billion a year, but in the decade following MTV’s launch, sales skyrocketed to $7.8 billion. “Rarely has an industry benefited so well from an innovation it [initially] rejected.” By 1985, the music industry had almost recovered from its previous fall, largely due to MTV. People were beginning to comprehend how much of an impact MTV had on music. If the music station wanted a song to be a hit, it was a hit. To this day, the resurgence of vinyl records can be partially traced back to MTV.

In 1986, MTV introduced new styles of music to their broadcast, giving them their own time slot. This is one reason hip-hop became a “legitimate” style of music and is so prevalent today. Yo! MTV Raps was hip-hop’s first ever long-term coverage on an international platform. The music video Parents Just Don’t Understand debuted on MTV and became the first time many of the white suburban teenagers experienced hip-hop. It was also the first time Will Smith ever appeared on TV. Club MTV debuted dance music as a legitimate genre of music. The platform essentially consisted of intense party scenes and attractive women. Headbangers’ Ball then premiered metal music on MTV. Many described the music as getting “dirtier” when bands like Twisted Sister, Def Leppard and Motley Crue entered the music scene. In 1990, MTV premiered Unplugged, a show that still runs today, which was one of the first nationally televised shows to have live artists performing only acoustic sets to such large audiences. This gave viewers a chance to view artists in a calmer environment, giving the feeling of being less overproduced and provides a intimate experience for both the artists and the audience. In response to continuous accusations that MTV was abandoning its music video roots, Total Request Live, or TRL, was introduced in 1998. The show’s basic format allowed for a live studio audience and viewers to call in and request music videos. It was truly the radio of the music video industry. This closes out the first decade of MTV, often referred to as the “Golden Era.”  While many people criticize MTV for leaving the all-video format behind, the innovations of the internet in the past decade would have forced MTV to stray from music, had they not already been heading away from it on their own. As it was in 1984, MTV could not survive in today’s modern culture. With YouTube, Vevo, iTunes and illegal downloading so easily accessible, music is too readily available for people to need a television to experience it.

There is no easy way to describe the changes MTV has caused in society in its 32 years of presence. MTV created an industry for music videos and saved the music business when it was slowly losing momentum. They brought topics into the forefront of society that were typically off limits, and forced people to face the fears embedded in their minds relating to sex, drugs, violence and the rock ‘n’ roll scene. While the reactions to MTV have varied greatly throughout the years, there are many accomplishments, like the Live Aid concert in 1985 to raise money for Ethiopia and the Rock the Vote campaign that MTV launched in 1990 to get young people voting, which then helped Clinton win his 1992 presidential election. These successes are undeniably attributed to the music network. MTV made the careers of so many artists today, and there is no appraisal that can be made for how different music would be today had MTV not been created. MTV continues to impact the viewers today with controversial shows and one of a kind music programming still embedded in its format. The channel has undergone many changes in its lifetime, but by doing so it has kept up with its audiences and become a pillar for pop culture.

Holly Henrichsen

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