You could argue that the launch of MTV had as much impact on American culture as the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, watched by some 73 million people. But when MTV went live at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1981, only some 800,000 households, mostly in smaller cities and towns, had the channel as part of their cable service. And likely, most of those subscribers were sleeping.
But as its opening sequence of a rocket ship taking off suggested, MTV viewership would quickly reach the moon. Soon, this version of radio on TV — music videos played 24 hours a day — became a mainstay of American family rooms, and it was revolutionizing the whole concept of pop music.
MTV forced established acts to think visually or risk disappearing; a song was no longer just a song, to be interpreted by a listener's imagination, but the basis of a micro-movie in which performers would be judged by their hair, dancing, clothes and shooting locale. No surprise that MTV helped popularize a new wave of image-conscious artists (remember the hair on the members of the Thompson Twins?) who eagerly embraced this star-making medium.
But the ripple effects went beyond music: MTV influenced prime-time television (Miami Vice, a notable example), movies (Footloose, Flashdance), colorful youth fashions and quick-cut commercials.
Forty years ago it all started with that first hand-picked music video to air on MTV, the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
She may have been a material girl living in a material world, but we were living in Madonna's world. With videos that addressed sex ("Like a Virgin"), pregnancy ("Papa Don't Preach") and religion ("Like a Prayer"), she understood the path to stardom. “Kids today worship the television,” she said in ‘84. “I think it's a great way to reach them."
Boy George brought androgyny into American households, plus a plea for tolerance with the soulful “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me."
Dance crazes have been part of rock ‘n’ roll since “The Twist,” and this California band launched their own, teaching ‘80s youths how to walk like an Egyptian.
A woman enters a comic book in this Norwegian band's trailblazing conceptual video for “Take On Me,” which became a U.S. number 1 hit.
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley put the boom-boom into our hearts with the upbeat pop of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go."
The daughter of a gospel singer, Houston emerged on MTV with “How Will I Know,” “The Greatest Love of All” and other hit songs. Music fans loved her soaring voice (she went on to become one of the best-selling artists of all time), but the camera clearly loved her, too. Success on MTV helped Houston launch a Hollywood career, with starring roles in such films as Waiting to Exhale and The Bodyguard.
MTV embraced rap in the mid-'80s, and this duo became pioneering female hip-hop stars with “Push It."
Among the “classic rockers” of the ‘70s, no one seemed better poised for MTV success than Bowie. There's a reason he once recorded a song called “Sound and Vision” — he always believed music and visuals were meant to work together, and he was famed for performing in outlandish outfits. Interestingly, by 1983, Bowie had reinvented himself as a suave singer dressed in a suit and tie, and achieved some of his greatest success with videos for “Let's Dance” and “Modern Love."
This band of new wavers was a staple of the music underground but made it to the mainstream with the video for “Whip It."
A Flock of Seagulls
There may be no band that characterizes the early MTV aesthetic better than this British quartet. Crazy haircuts? Check. Rotating camera? Check. Synthesizers front and center? Check. Quick-cut editing? Check. It all may seem dated today, but at the time, this was the cutting edge.
Annie Lennox, with her cropped red hair and piercing stare, brought an artfulness to MTV, with pop partner Dave Stewart. Sweet dreams, for sure.
Video Killed The Radio Star
MTV launched new artists and helped others revive their careers. We talked to some musicians who experienced that era.
Even before MTV's launch, Huey Lewis’ band dabbled in music videos. The form was starting to take hold as a promotional tool, and Lewis credits low-budget lip-synching with helping his band secure its first record contract. But despite his preppy looks, which seemed tailor-made for the ‘80s, Lewis didn't fully embrace this new visual medium.
"It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we didn't sign up for this.’ In our day it was an audio experience, and now we had to make videos.” But make them they did. After a bad turn working with a professional director, the band took control, ditched the conceptual stuff and used their surroundings, and sense of humor, to their advantage.
"We pretty much let San Francisco be the production in our videos. I let the seagulls chew the scenery, as it were. I was very conscious and worried as MTV went on, because we didn't necessarily look like rock stars. It was a worry, but I figured we'd just make up for it with humor and ideas. Don't be afraid of funny."
The results were more than 7 million in sales for 1983's Sports album, as America embraced the good-times music and image of the News.
Huey Lewis and the News released their 10th studio album, Weather, in 2020. And, yes, they made a video for the song “Her Love Is Killin’ Me.” Lewis, 70, was recently diagnosed with Ménière's disease, which left him unable to hear music. He hosts '80s Radio on Apple Music and appears in TV acting roles.
Texas trio ZZ Top were FM rock radio staples before MTV, but music videos gave the band a second act. It didn't hurt that their long beards offered them a unique visual identity. Add in some attractive model-actors and a now-trademark red hot rod and you've got an image that's hard to eliminate from your memory.
Billy Gibbons says it worked because the band appear alongside the action in the videos, playing music and occasionally showing up as spirit-like figures who give the characters a little push. “Hats, beards and shades kept us under wraps, allowing us to cheer the hero onward,” he says. “We were sideline action observers, not unlike the viewers.” The band's Eliminator album, released in 1983, became “diamond certified” in the U.S., meaning it sold more than 10 million copies. What's notable there is that it was the band's eighth album.
"Let's put it this way,” Gibbons says. “If you knew us, you got to see your old friends. If you hadn't yet known us, it was making some new friends. We started as a concert and recording attraction for about a dozen years, and when MTV came along, it just added to the résumé."
Gibbons, 71, is planning to resume a ZZ Top 50th anniversary tour when pandemic restrictions are lifted. The band is also working on a new album.
Acclaimed producer of Janet Jackson, the Human League and many others. Then a member of The Time
Jimmy Jam experienced MTV's diversity struggles firsthand. Although his early ‘80s band, The Time, shot videos, they initially failed to get airplay on the network. Still, he harbors no grudge. “Pop radio and rock radio weren't playing a lot of Black artists,” he says, “so to me, it was no different than that.” But by late 1982 and into ‘83, MTV was starting to embrace diversity, showcasing videos by Michael Jackson and Prince. “I remember that everybody was so happy when ‘Little Red Corvette’ made MTV — that was a huge deal around the Prince camp,” Jam says. The Time was touring with Prince then, and Jam noticed the change. “The first time we played Chicago, it was predominantly a Black audience,” he recalls. “When he went back the following year, it was a predominantly white audience. I know MTV had a lot to do with that because it expanded his base."
Later, Jam worked with Janet Jackson, coproducing her chart-topping, multiplatinum album Control with Terry Lewis in 1986. He remembers her highly choreographed videos playing a role in the album's success. “Janet, who was very much a visual person, who grew up loving musicals — for her to be able to show her persona, her talent for dancing, it brought the songs to life."
Jimmy Jam, 62, is prepping an all-star collaboration album for release. Jam & Lewis, Vol. 1 will feature new songs from Toni Braxton, Babyface, Mariah Carey and others. And, yes, the project will be supported with videos.
Although in retrospect, the Go-Go's seem an ideal candidate for music videos, the bubbly image the band offered on MTV belies their SoCal punk attitude. “I was really annoyed that we had to spend a day making a video,” says Kathy Valentine. “It sounded like a commercial. In general, I don't think artists really jumped at the chance to make a video for their music. The whole advertising, marketing, commercial part of the business is not really what artists go into the arts for."
That daylong shoot may have been annoying, but in reality it was a quick job, made possible by some leftover video budget from labelmates The Police. The resulting video for “Our Lips Are Sealed,” mostly the Go-Go's driving around Los Angeles in a convertible and then splashing around in a fountain, wasn't exactly punk rock, either. It was better.
"I was conscious of what our image would be, even though we hadn't made a video before. To me, the inane kind of mindlessness — this was not really representative of our band,” Valentine says. “But it turned out, the driving around seemed to capture some kind of California carefree girl thing that didn't work against us.” In fact, the video led to radio airplay, which led to album sales, vaulting their 1981 debut album, Beauty and the Beat, to number one.
For their second album, the Go-Go's received a larger budget and shot an iconic video for Valentine's song “Vacation,” in which the band portray water-skiers in formation.
To Valentine, even more important than career success is the influence a band of women had on a generation of MTV viewers. “A 13-year-old girl might not be able to go down to the nightclubs and see the hot bands from L.A.,” she says. “There were little girls that saw us on MTV that would not have seen us any other way."
Kathy Valentine, 62, published a memoir, All I Ever Wanted, last year. She plans to tour again with the Go-Go's when possible.