Happy Birthday, MTV

Geek Culture

Who killed the video star? Was it MTV? (Pictured: Video for "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles)

Wait, I’m how old?

Yep, MTV — that’s “Music Television” for those of you who may have forgotten what the acronym “MTV” stands for — just turned 30 years old yesterday. It was on Aug. 1, 1981 that MTV aired “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. Since that time, MTV indeed did sort of kill the radio star. Or, at least, MTV ushered in a new age of image-, not music-based, music consumption.

Once upon a time, MTV more or less controlled the music industry, or at least the popular understanding of music and its increasingly coiffed image. If you recall, MTV played music videos hosted by on-air hosts known as “VJs.” Remember Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn? Wasn’t J.J. really annoying?

Kids like me growing up in a small, rural town didn’t have cable. So to catch MTV, I had to hang out at my friends’ houses in the next bigger town to see the likes of David Bowie, Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Culture Club, The Fixx, The Police, and The Cars strut down the street, play their guitars on rooftops and enact some hokey drama involving street gangs, locker rooms or candles blowing in the wind.

The channel quickly has its imitators: HBO had a program called Video Jukebox, SuperStation WTBS created Night Tracks, NBC launched their MTV-like Friday Night Videos, ABC had its ABC Rocks, and TBS started the Cable Music Channel, then sold it to MTV, who turned it into VH1.

In its day, MTV had a profound impact on the music industry and popular culture. But by the 1990s, the video had lost much of its appeal and novelty, and MTV began programming (and pioneering) reality TV series such as “The Real World,” “Jackass,” and talk shows such as “Loveline” and “The Jon Stewart Show,” and later, celebrity-based reality shows like “The Osbournes.”

The times they have changed. I prefer to think of those days of the 1980s,when like parrots we’d repeat the slogan “I want my MTV” and stay up late watching Van Halen, RATT, and Def Leppard videos (in between watching Heavy Metal for the 7th time and checking to see if the signal from the Playboy Channel was still scrambled. Yep, still scrambled).

Here’s a link to the other 10 “first” videos that ever aired that day: Aug. 1, 1981.

The occasion of MTV’s anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on how we consume music and the Hollywood star system. And what changes the Internet has already wrought. It’s YouTube and Facebook that monopolizes our time. Do people even listen to the radio any more?

Meanwhile, is it fair to say that iTunes killed the video star?

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