Book Review: I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

A new oral history shows how the upstart channel held pop culture hostage

I Want My MTV:
The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution
By Craig Marks & Rob Tannenbaum
Dutton; 608 pp; $29.95

 

At a minute past midnight on Aug. 1, 1981, a new cable channel announced its launch by playing a two-year-old clip by a one-hit-wonder. The group was the Buggles. The song was Video Killed the Radio Star. The cable station was MTV. It was not an auspicious start. MTV’s initial hours on air were a disaster. The inexperienced presenters—the first VJs—flubbed their lines, announcing Styx as REO Speedwagon and 38 Special as the Who; the programming was broadcast in stereo, which almost no television sets at the time could properly receive; and there was no advertising, because MTV hadn’t been able to persuade anyone to buy any. None of this mattered, since almost nobody was watching. Even MTV’s staff had to celebrate liftoff in Fort Lee, N.J., because they couldn’t get a Manhattan cable operator to carry them. “Everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” recalls MTV founder Bob Pittman, one of a stellar cast of contributors to I Want My MTV, an oral history of the network. “It was probably one of the worst nights of my life.”

An age in which MTV does not exist, and barely anyone knows what a music video is, seems much longer ago than 30 years. At the time of its launch, according to the introduction of I Want My MTV, by veteran music journalists Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, the channel had only “about a hundred [videos] in inventory, mostly by marginal or unpopular British and Australian bands.” The book is largely an invitation to marvel at what MTV has wrought in its three decades, becoming a broadcast brand as surely recognized as CNN or the BBC. MTV’s incalculable influence over recent popular culture can be glimpsed in the index of those who’ve queued up to part with memories and reflections in I Want My MTV. The list contains names both illustrious and long forgotten, including Cindy Crawford, Tom Petty, Nikki Six, Sebastian Bach, Bob Geldof, Courtney Love, James Hetfield, Rick Rubin, Jon Landau, the Cure, and Sir Mix-A-Lot.

I Want My MTV consists almost entirely of direct quotes from these interviewees. An uncharitable reader might dismiss the approach as laziness on the part of the authors, as if, having done the research, they couldn’t be bothered to write the book. But just as MTV, especially at first, hypnotized viewers with rolling hours of three-minute fragments, so the bitty, jump-cut structure of I Want My MTV swiftly compels. Especially when the anecdotes are of the caliber of, for example, Devo co-founder and renowned video director Jerry Casale reminiscing about the high-rolling hubris of MTV’s mid-’80s peak. He remembers, in one instance, traveling to California to rendezvous with a coke-addled cowboy to retrieve the one steer that singer Jane Siberry would consent to walk on a leash for the shoot. (As it turned out, the cow had fallen out of the trailer on the drive over, leaving its whole left side skinned, bloody, and unfilmable.) Other delicious revelations include the real reason MTV chose an Apollo 11 astronaut for its logo (the NASA footage was public domain, and the station didn’t have any money) and Pittman’s breezily cynical criteria for on-air talent: “We need a black person. We need a girl next door. We need a little sexy siren. We need a boy next door. And we need some hunky Italian-looking guy with curly hair.”

The book can be read as an archetypal American tale of the outsider turned insider. Adam Ant puts it less forgivingly: “In its initial form, video was a revolution. Then MTV became worse than the record companies, and that’s f—ing saying something.” At its inception, MTV styled itself as an insurgent that was set to shake up, or, perhaps more accurately, shake down the music industry. Its audacious business model expected that record companies pay fortunes to create content (i.e., music videos), then hand it over for nothing. The obvious modern-day parallel is Google, which infuriates other outlets by aggregating the stories they toiled to create, but has gotten so powerful doing so that no one can afford to opt out.

MTV became a driving force of pop culture rather than simply a mirror of it. Some artists styled themselves specifically to please MTV’s programmers; indeed, some artists, especially 1980s hair metallers such as Poison and Twisted Sister, appeared to have no other agenda. Other artists made an ostentatious point of rebelling against MTV only to discover that the station was all too happy to accommodate (and thereby absorb and neutralize) them. “Our disdain towards MTV videos,” remembers R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, “culminated in Fall on Me, which I shot at a rock quarry in Indiana. I took a piece of film, turned it backwards, flipped it upside down, and put the words of the song on top of it in red lettering. And MTV played the living s— out of it, which was profoundly shocking.”

I Want My MTV is by no means a corporate hagiography. One chapter, dealing with the widely held perception that, at least in the early days, the channel was reluctant to play videos featuring black artists, contains some brisk criticism and at least one genuinely scandalous revelation, from British director Don Letts: “They [MTV] want to interview me about making videos for the Clash. When I get to the studio, everyone looks at me like I’ve s— myself. After an embarrassing five minutes, a guy sits me down and says, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, we can’t do the interview. We didn’t realize you were black.’ ” The chapter describing MTV’s battles with Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, a sort of Temperance Society for rock video, includes several accusations of hypocrisy. According to Chris Isaak, “[MTV] made exceptions, if you were connected right. They were politically correct with the people they felt they could push around. And the people on top of the heap did whatever they wanted.” Meet the new boss, as someone once sang: same as the old boss.

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