Columbia, Missouri – summer 1982
I got a preview of what was coming earlier that summer. I’d never had HBO before, but the house I was subletting had it. Besides the movies, they also ran a regular feature called “Video Jukebox.” In June and July, the show carried videos like “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow, “Stray Cat Strut” by the Stray Cats, and “Island of Lost Souls” by Blondie.
Then, on August 1, things got really interesting. Columbia’s cable system did some channel-juggling and added a new channel to their lineup – something calling itself MTV. The network started broadcasting exactly one year earlier, on August 1, 1981, on select cable systems. Over time, MTV’s popularity and reach grew as more and more cable systems added the channel to their menu.
When my housemates arrived back in town prior to classes starting, MTV became our constant companion. We loved watching videos for the popular songs we heard on the radio, and soon, MTV’s influence was so great that the videos they aired for new songs actually drove those song to the top of the pop music charts.
During the first week of class, campus newspapers carried articles about the music video phenomenon and how it affected student free time and TV viewing habits. MTV referred to it as the ‘Video Music Revolution,’ and it really was a revolution – but it wasn’t just about the music. For teens and young adults, it changed our lifestyles, our TV watching habits, and how we socialized. On weekends, our TV was tuned almost continuously to MTV from when we got home from class on Friday through Sunday evening. A lot of nights, we would come back home from a party and then watch MTV until they played a song we didn’t like.
The original MTV VJs (video jockeys) became instant superstars. Some of them still make a living hosting 80s satellite radio shows. Crazy things started happening in town. That fall, after a band named Men At Work became popular on MTV, a guy turned up in downtown Columbia claiming to be the group’s drummer; he got free drinks at several bars before he was exposed as a fraud. At local bars, when the DJ played a song that had a popular video, people on the dance floor would imitate dance moves or gestures from the video.
Over the next few years, the luster of MTV started fading. As their platform became more successful, it also became more commercialized. Their song ‘rotation’ system resulted in some songs being overplayed, while others gathered dust. By 1985, instead of staying up at night until they played a song we didn’t like, we were staying up until they played a song we did like. Sometimes it was a long wait.
In researching this post, I came across a few discussion threads debating when MTV ‘died.’ Some say it was with Beavis and Butthead, others say it was when they started airing scripted reality shows like The Real World in 1992. For me, the MTV I knew and loved was gone by 1988. With few exceptions, I’d outgrown the music and therefore the videos as well.
Musically, I still spend a lot of my time in the early 80s – at least half of the songs on my iPod are from that era. I’ve also recently started a series of posts here on my blog that I call The Forgotten 80s, which features musical artists and videos from that era along with movies, television shows, and other obscure bits of pop culture. Look for a new post in that series every week on #ThrowbackThursday.
If you have any memories to share from the “classic” era of MTV, please comment below.