I’ll admit it. I approached I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution with more than a little trepidation. Clocking in at close to 600 pages, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read this much about MTV. However, a quick scan of the Table of Contents produced chapter titles — “Girls Sliding on Poles,” “Midgets, Models and Trannies,” and “Girls Belong in Cages” — that proved irresistible. And that was just Part One; later sections, including “Why Don’t I Just Take $50,000 and Set It on Fire,” “Don’t Be A Wanker All Your Life,” “A Whopping Steaming Turd,” and “Gacked To The Tits” all held promise. When I got to the very first page before the introduction, I knew this book offered up the irreverent perspective I wanted on the subject of MTV. It read, simply:
“So the book covers the years 1980-1991.
‘Okay. I don’t remember any of that.’
— Walter Yetnikoff, record executive”
There is no denying MTV’s massive influence, not just on music and the music industry, but also on youth culture, style, fashion, video and photography, and marketing. Their vision was recognizing the dormant potential of an untapped audience; their genius was tapping into that economic power of suburban (and later urban) kids by, literally, convincing them to call their cable companies and demand “I Want My MTV.” It was a company whose brash business model was built on other people, namely record labels, GIVING them their programming (i.e. content) for free, and charging advertisers to get their piece. It was a blueprint for a bored and hungry-for-something suburban generation who would later demand, “Here we are now; entertain us!” As video producer Paul Flattery says, “On one hand, MTV was genius. On the other, it could be seen as the rock ‘n’ roll swindle.” And Paul McGuinness, U2’s longtime manager: “There was widespread resentment of their business model, which was regarded by many people as parasitic.”
Told in the now-prevalent oral history format — and that is both good and bad — the early chapters are fascinating, a preview of the dot.com bubble of bluster and balls, with precious little to offer and, for me, the best part of the book. The format, however, is a blessing and a curse; specific tales fill out the larger narrative. However, at times it moves neck-snappingly fast and in seemingly random fashion, from Arsenio Hall to Billy Idol to REM’s Michael Stipe in the same paragraph. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise; I recall one VJ saying, “We (MTV) are responsible for your kids having ADD. You’re welcome.” And, between the millions of jump cuts in a three and a half minute attention span, that’s about right…so, yeah…thanks for that.
Through it all, however, MTV, or more precisely its audience, presided over many major musical and cultural shifts, whether it be big hair metal, hip hop and rap, and grunge. Reticent to feature “black” music, rap, or grunge at first, the audience (and several insistent staffers/true believers) simply demanded it. And MTV, if nothing else, knew how to feed the monster.
Many of the book’s insiders agree that “The Real World” was the beginning of the end for MTV, which is ironic since “original programming” was a goal from the outset. However, as Nick Rhodes, of the video poster boy band Duran Duran says, the move made it clear that “MTV wanted to get out of the music business.” That’s a pretty dangerous move when the first word of your brand IS “music.” Nick Rhodes again: “ At some point, the “M” in MTV changed from “Music” to “Money.”
I have no idea what MTV stands for today or how they stack up in the ratings wars. I would guess, due to their overwhelming glut of reality shows, any kind of real cultural import or influence is non-existent. In the end, MTV has become exactly what they railed against — just another boring, corporate shill with nothing to say. Totally irrelevant. Fade to black. The book recounting their heyday, however, is full of life.
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