The MTV decade: Two books, one a reissued classic and another a brand-new, sprawling oral history, on how the music video changed pop music (until Nirvana)
8:50 am Nov. 14, 2011
A few weeks ago I went to the Apple Store in Soho—the temporary mid-block one they're operating from while they renovate the big one on the corner of Greene and Prince—and saw the history of the last decade of the music biz writ room-sized.
You used to go into Apple Stores and see table after table of iPods. Now they are all piled onto one lonely table in the far corner, and they’re largely the size of thimbles. There are a few holdouts, most with touch screens; the Classic, which holds 160 gigs (some of us were expecting the numbers to keep leaping, up to 225 or 300, say), is rumored to be on the chopping block. Most everything was a Nano.
Now that I’ve had an iPhone for a little while I can see the allure. Only 8GB of memory for apps and everything, eh? Gee, maybe I’ll just fill it with music I absolutely know I want to hear, instead of stuff I hope to get around to but usually don’t.
There it was: Music’s increasing place as a cultural marker amongst other markers—a player within other systems, where the focus was as much on what you do with your eyes and hands as what you do with your ears. (Probably more so.) Music is more vertically integrated into the larger firmament of pop culture than ever. It’s been going on for a while, but never had I seen it represented so neatly.
The day Michael Jackson died, I was crushed: I hadn’t seen it coming (hadn’t paid much attention to the brouhaha surrounding his comeback shows), but the minute I heard, it was completely obvious. I imagined it was just the way it had been with Elvis Presley, whose success similarly changed the mainstream pop world’s rules and regulations.
Just as Presley was the biggest face of rock’s ascent, Jackson is the key actor in the bigger story of MTV’s initial public impact. So far, not many writers have attempted to tell that story in full, but two excellent books on that time have just been published: One new, the other a reissue. And in doing that, they also have the effect of setting the stage for what music has become in the last decade, the post-MTV decade, more clearly than ever before.
MTV plays an important supporting role in Dave Rimmer’s 1985 cult classic Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop, which was reissued in the U.K. by Faber Finds in July. The new edition’s cover is white with simple black type, nothing like the garish pink-green-light blue splotches emblazoning the 1985 original: A visual representation of the early MTV era’s shift from brash cultural usurper to museum piece, even if under protest.
That fits. Rimmer’s book was originally marketed to teenyboppers but always had a different kind of mission. Like Punk Never Happened looks like a fan bio but it's carried out like a manifesto. It’s the most penetrating book about ’80s pop ever written—and that includes Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV, a feast-like 600-page oral history that goes further than you can imagine while leaving you with the hunch that there’s a whole lot left to tell.
I don’t mean that Rimmer’s book is the best about MTV—that’s clearly Marks and Tannenbaum's. For a subject as culturally monumental as MTV has proven (whatever you or I think of their programming beginning with “The Real World,” but reaching epidemic proportions with “The Osbournes” a decade later), a lot of the writing dedicated to it has been pretty dull. There aren’t many origin stories less romantic or let’s-put-on-a-show in spirit than the decision of a bunch of radio people and nascent cable-TV people to start the visual equivalent of the shitty AOR radio that eventually hardened into “classic rock”—Journey, basically.
That’s how MTV began. What it became was something else entirely. By mid-1982, the network’s most popular clips began to be those by post-Bowie English fops whose popularity at home was middling compared to what it would become in the States. Culture Club, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, and Eurythmics were synth-assisted pop acts possessing wan but catchy tunes, with punk in their larval stages and shiny new currency in their eyes. They were a necessary injection into a U.S. pop landscape fluctuating between Air Supply and REO Speedwagon like the twin beds of a sexless old-television marriage.
But where the first British Invasion, led by the Beatles, invested rock with the weight of myth and an air of artistic renaissance (the British groups wrote their own songs, remember; in the ’50s, only a few had done that, and the biggest, Elvis, never did), the second one began the process of ushering rock and roll back into showbiz.
On Aug. 1, 1981, the F.M.-radio rock stars of America looked almost aggressively normal, in a post-hippie way: Hair of varying length, dressed casually, with few goals other than to rock. Hit the road for months at a time, build your following, you’ll go platinum eventually: That was the recipe for longevity in rock back then.
Then, suddenly, in the words of REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, “You were either on MTV and hip, or you weren’t on MTV and you didn’t even fucking exist.” MTV eradicated his band’s workaholic paradigm within two years.
Culture Club were, by default, the most visually outrageous of the Second British Invasion. A Flock of Seagulls had hair like their namesakes, but Boy George’s look played with gender in ways that made David Bowie look like he’d been drawn by Tom of Finland.
It wasn’t just Middle Americans who were flummoxed. In Like Punk Never Happened, Rimmer recounts Culture Club’s first trip to New York, in which George tells a curious woman: “Well, we’re from England and—” She steps in: “I can tell you’re English. You don’t have to be a mind reader to tell that!”
That basic talent for provocation was what fueled MTV’s golden age. Marks and Tannenbaum quote an unnamed Billboard editor (it was Paul Grein) who wrote, “Madonna will be out of the business in six months [because] her image has completely overshadowed her music.”
The authors sum up: “This quote is the ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ of music video, disproven by Madonna’s seventeen consecutive top ten hits. She did this not by making her image secondary to her music, but by combining them until they were inseparable.”
MTV was the beginning of not just the modern pop-star template, but the media/reality-star one as well. The faster the artists realized this, the better.
“We would tease Stingo that he couldn’t walk past a mirror without primping,” Stewart Copeland, the Police’s drummer, recalls. “And he would say, ‘Fuck off, it’s my job. And yours, too, by the way.’”
I Want My MTV is like popcorn, or potato chips: You read it and read it and read it, almost helplessly, until you’re done, and boy is it salty. Marks and Tannenbaum know no one is quite as quotable as a veteran bizzer remembering the bad-meaning-good old days.
“MTV was playing so much Motley and Bon Jovi, I’d have to tell them, ‘You’re overexposing my artists. If you don’t take them off the air, I’m not going to give you another video,’” Doc McGhee, who managed both Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, says of the late ’80s. “I was fighting to get less airplay, not more.”
The book spreads its purview wide—Marks and Tannenbaum interviewed some 400 people for this thing, and utilized no secondary quotes. This gives the book a unique fabric—the perspectives are all from the same time frame—but there were points when it would have been nice to hear from someone like J.J. Jackson, an original MTV V.J., though we are treated to one staffer’s memorable characterization of Jackson’s self-applied makeup as making him look like “a brick with eyes.”
The format allows the authors to get away with being even crasser than their topic would normally allow. Recalling Nirvana’s crash into the pop firmament’s effect on his bands, Doc McGhee says, “I feel bad as anybody that has mental problems and commits suicide. That’s as sad as you can get. But if Kurt Cobain had done it four years earlier, that would have probably made me another $40 million. And I mean that in the nicest way.”
Although Marks worked at Spin during the alt-rock glory years, the guiding principle of I Want My MTV is far closer to the arch-populist music magazine, Blender, that Marks and Tannenbaum spent much of the ’00s editing, and Popdust, the website Marks now runs. (I have written for Popdust.)