I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum
I never watched MTV as a kid. When I aged into MTV’s demographic at the tender age of twelve, its content sufficiently alarmed my parents enough to lock the channel on our television. This phased me not one whit—I turned to VH1 and started mainlining I Love the 80s and its two sequels, ensuring that I would remain contemporary pop culture proof until late high school. But, as I continue my investigation into modern music, MTV’s impact both fascinated and baffled me, as the zeitgeist MTV of the eighties couldn’t be more different than the MTV I remembered brief flashes of when the lock failed. So when I Want My MTV was mentioned on the A. V. Club, I knew it was time to get a proper handle on the network and its legacy.
I Want My MTV collects the viewpoints of television executives, music executives, video jockeys, and musical artists to tell the story of Music Television—MTV. The idea of a channel showing nothing but music videos was one of those ideas that could either fail spectacularly or succeed spectacularly, and anyone in a position to support thought it would be the former. But succeed it did, ultimately becoming a cultural force so powerful Bill Clinton mentioned it as a factor in his 1992 election. Starting in 1982 (the dawn of the channel) and ending in 1992 (the launch of The Real World), I Want My MTV is a testament to the sheer power MTV had.
I had no idea that I Want My MTV was an oral history when I checked out, so it was a pleasant surprise. I love oral histories—Studs Terkel’s Hard Times turned me onto the format, and it’s the reason I picked up World War Z, despite my hatred of zombies. And for such a contentious subject as the creation of MTV, it’s perfect, since the brief narrative at the beginning of each chapter steadfastly refuses to take a side. We hear executives disagreeing over who really had what idea first, musical artists remembering tawdry back-stage details and brawls very differently, and video jockeys discussing what really happened. The overall effect is, actually, somewhat like my beloved I Love the 80s (as aired on MTV’s ugly stepsister channel, VH1, which was made to fail as a tactic in a business strategy)—talking heads looking fondly back on “the good old days”, even if those good old days were sometimes painful and coked up, and the talking heads have much more snarl in their voices. Some sections can get repetitive—and I’m not sure why Lady Gaga’s voice had to be included to echo, instead of make points of her own—but it makes for a gripping and fast read, despite the book’s five hundred plus pages.
And as an introduction to MTV as zeitgeist, it’s second to none. Early in the book, the narrative tells us that after embracing Michael Jackson (and, later, rap), “MTV became The Singularity, the last media force that represented an encompassing view of pop culture” (6). It’s that that fascinates me about MTV, especially as a digital native who grew up in a world where pop culture, even and perhaps especially pop culture aimed at MTV’s teenage audience, is fragmented. From 1982 to 1992, MTV was it, the national radio station (as Paul Flattery puts it), and that colored the entirety of youth culture for those ten years. Because cable was easier to lay in rural areas than in urban ones, it was the kids in the boonies that got MTV first. In one chapter, Howard Jones states that “Surely that’s one of the functions of pop culture, to show people that there are many options out there and you can choose which one is right for you” (115). And to those kids—and the other kids that participated in the famous “I want my MTV!” telephone campaign to keep the network alive—MTV’s option was a glittering, pouting, British, New Wave wonderland. (British bands, such as Duran Duran, had more videos to give MTV, hence their ascendency. Also? The Brits thought us Yanks were total dorks stuck in the 1970s. My anglophilia keeps making more and more sense…)
But for all of their glorious and specifically eighties impact, even as the network evolved from New Wave to hair metal to rap to alternative rock, the real, beating heart of MTV is laid bare here, especially in the book’s final chapter. As artists and executives wish MTV would go back to its roots and play music videos, Tony DiSanto offers up some realness, to borrow a phrase from RuPaul: “The audience that misses the old MTV? It’s time for them to move on. It’s still a network for and about youth culture, whether you’re talking Jersey Shore or a new Lady Gaga video” (571). While Marks and Tannenbaum don’t go beyond 1992 for extremely good reasons laid out in the introduction, MTV still remains a force in pop culture both because of its own previous work—did I mention Bill Clinton acknowledged MTV’s efforts to get the young ones voting as a factor in his election? Because that is awesome—and because it remains firmly attuned to the sensibility of their demographic, instead of the sensibility of one person. For a less subtle but no less amazing takedown of that annoying chestnut, I highly recommend checking out Brian Firenzi’s “Why Doesn’t MTV Play Music Videos Anymore?”. (There is swearing. But it is totally warranted.) I Want My MTV is both a fascinating look at the MTV that was and a look into how a movement (no matter how manufactured) happen, grow, and, happily, evolve. How utterly heartening.
Bottom line: I Want My MTV is a fantastic introduction to not only MTV as a zeitgeist, but also MTV as a youth movement that, thirty years later, firmly remains a youth movement. It also examines the role of pop culture in people’s lives, albeit briefly, and for that, it has my heart. Heartily recommended.
I rented this book from the public library.