The idea of creating a visual recording to promote a musical performance has been around since the beginning of motion pictures. Bessie Smith, the queen of the blues, was recording her blues laments on film in the ‘30s. Crooners Bing Crosby in the ‘30s and Frank Sinatra in the ‘40s sang their ballads in the movies for their fans. Duke Ellington and other big band leaders played their swing sounds in the early ‘40s. Even in the mid-’50s early rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard appeared in movies like “Don’t Knock the Rock” and other rebel-teen favorites. Elvis dominated the movies in the late ‘50s with several films filled with Presley songs. In the mid-’60s the Beatles sing in live and animated feature films. The 70s brought classic movies like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” with their disco and retro-rock sounds to film goers.
With the growth of the independent cable television industry, it was inevitable that someone would create a visual counterpart to radio’s Top 40 format.
On midnight of August 1, 1981, the visual revolution of video rock began. It was a joint business venture between Warner Communication and American Express and modeled after the Top 40 format of radio with a veejay (video jockey) who introduced the videos, which were mostly crudely made promotional videos and tapes of portions of live concerts, and provided some continuity and background about the artists between songs. It was called MTV, for music television, and the first video shown was by The Buggles and was fittingly, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
The uniqueness of this media venture lay in the fact that for the first time, the visual was the servant of the musical, instead of the other way around. Songs in movie musicals and musical theater are designed to push along the story-line, develop the personality of the performer and provide an emotional support to the moment. MTV videos, however, were self-contained units, not dramatically linked to a plot, connected to an emotional moment and served only to give a visual image of the song being performed.
Before too long, MTV was being criticized on two fronts: it was too boring and too white. Although some of the new wave artists like Devo, B-52’s and Blondie were regularly appearing in song rotation, most of their video productions were compilations of 3 or 4 second cuts spliced together from 4 or 5 complete lip-synced takes, different only in costume, location or position to the camera. These 20 or 30 short cuts were then carefully fitted together for a complete, albeit jerky, presentation of the artist’s song. A constant diet of the same songs constructed with the same video structure, the critics said, made MTV visually tiresome.
The other criticism leveled at the fledgling channel was that it gave preferential treatment to white artists and bands. During the first couple of years of MTV, white acts, like Duran Duran, Pet Benatar, Wham and others did dominate the playlist. Whether this was by choice or simply because African-American videos weren’t being played is frequently debated.
The fact is that MTV was losing viewers in its black 12-24 demographic and needed to fix its mono-racist image. The solution came in the maturing of a Motown icon, Michael Jackson.
While in his formative years, Michael had been part of the Motown group the Jackson Five. Together with four brothers, young Michael would learn how to sing and move in front of an audience. Berry Gordy, Jr. and his choreographer, Cholly Atkins, had crafted the young men, and Michael in particular, how to dance a song as well as sing it.
After early 70s appearances on the charts with “Ben” and “Rockin’ Robin”, Jackson disappeared, resurfacing at the end of the decade with hits like “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” both of which were #1 pop hits in 1979.
But it was 1983 that re-launched the superstar’s career. That was the year that producer extraordinaire Quincy Jones guided Jackson during the creation of the album Thriller, which yielded two monster #1 hits, “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.” Although MTV had been going for nearly two years, few rock videos were given any guidance by film professionals. Jackson recruited John Landis, who had directed Animal House, Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London, to create the video to promote his album.
With choreography by Jackson, video directed by Landis and music produced by Quincy Jones, the success of the project seemed guaranteed. Landis’ Thriller video exploded into the MTV play list and dominated for weeks. The production values, the use of costumes, sets, extra dancers and actors, and the campy horror plot superimposed on the music were in stark contrast with the jerky, quick-cut videos of Devo and Blondie. The artistic gamble paid off and the $1.1 million that it cost to produce the Thriller video paid off with a sales jump of 600,000 albums in the first five days of airing on MTV. Jackson had not only successfully broken the racial barrier of MTV, he had proved its value as a marketing tool and had set a new standard for videos that was exponentially greater than before.
Michael Jackson followed the huge success of Thriller four years later when he released Bad. Besides generating five #1 hits (“Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Dirty Diana”) the title track provided the foundation for the 17-minute, special effects-filled classic video directed by film icon Martin Scorsese. The resulting tour was one of the largest, and most successful in rock history, due in part to the success of the album and the extensive exposure given the title track video on MTV.
By the mid-80’s, MTV was a solid part of the marketing plan of every major recording label and rock artist. Jackson’s success during this time was only matched by that of pop-diva Madonna, who followed Jackson’s standard with visually intriguing mini-movies set to her current song release. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (1984), “Like a Prayer” (1989) and “Justify My Love” (1991) were all #1 hits on the pop charts and the resulting videos were controversial in their sexual explicitness and content. Madonna’s videos’ sexuality and controversial scenarios matched the attention that Michael Jackson got with his choreography and mini-movie productions.
By 1984 MTV was toasting its own success by hosting its own Video Awards. A year later, it spun off a parallel channel for more adult contemporary artists called VH1. In the early ‘90s, it began programming cartoons with a mature content, such as Bevis and Butthead and Aeon Flux. MTV pioneered a new type of program in the early 1990s: the reality show. The Real World a docu-reality show about seven strangers living together broke new ground in the television industry. By the early 2000’s, every major television network had at least one reality show in production and a dozen more on the drawing board.
The shift towards non-music video content on MTV had already begun by the mid ’90s. The amount of time allotted for entertainment news, interviews, cartoons, reality shows and comedy shows like The Tom Green Show had exceeded the time given to music videos. With the addition of shows like Punk’d, Undressed, The Osbournes (centered around Black Sabbath front-man Ozzy Osbourne and his dysfunctional family) and The Newlyweds (a reality show following the lives of pop singer Jessica Simpson and singer-husband Nick Lachey (from boy-band 98°), MTV had successfully navigated away from its musical moorings. It was no longer the venue for new and established artists to showcase their visual and musical creative talents, but just another reporter of entertainment gossip and celebrity miscues. In this, it lost its unique status in American culture and has become merely a slightly more risqué version of the four major networks’ entertainment/reality rags.